Inequality in employment

While there has been progress in recent decades in engaging women in the global workforce, there has been considerably less advance on improving the conditions under which they work, recognizing their unpaid work, eliminating discriminatory practices and laws related to property and inheritance rights, and providing childcare support.

Ensuring that men and women have equal opportunities to generate and manage income is an important step towards realizing women’s rights and enhancing their development, self-esteem and influence both within the household and in society. Moreover, children’s rights are more likely to be fulfilled when women fully enjoy their social and economic rights.

Women are working more...

Whether they live in industrialized or developing countries, in rural or urban settings, in general, women work longer hours than men. While data on the way men and women use their time are sparse, surveys conducted in recent years confirm the validity of this assertion across developing countries. Oxfam estimates that women work around 60 to 90 hours per week, and time-use surveys reveal that across a selection of developing countries in Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, women’s working hours exceed those of men, often by a wide margin.

For many women, unpaid work in and for the household takes up the majority of their working hours, with much less time spent in remunerative employment. Data from urban areas in 15 Latin American countries reveal that unpaid household work is the principal activity for 1 in every 4 women; the corresponding ratio for men is 1 in every 200.

But even when they participate in the labour market for paid employment, women still undertake the majority of the housework. Time-use surveys in six states in India reveal that women spend 35 hours on average on household tasks and caring for children, the sick and elderly, against 4 hours for men.

The division of household labour is not dissimilar in industrialized countries. Although gender disparities in the overall work burden are less marked than in developing countries, women in the more affluent nations still spend a far greater proportion of working hours than men in unpaid work.

...but earning less than men

When women work outside the household, they earn, on average, far less than men. Although disaggregated data on nominal wages are scarce, the available evidence shows that, across regions, women’s nominal wages are roughly 20 per cent lower than men’s. While the data show that gender wage gaps exist across countries, these can vary significantly and can even be inverted. In Brazil, for example, women under the age of 25 earn a higher average hourly wage than their male counterparts.

Because much of the work women do is underpaid and because they often perform low-status jobs and earn less than men, women’s per capita average earned income is far lower than men’s. Estimates based on wage differentials and participation in the labour force suggest that women’s estimated earned income is around 30 per cent of men’s in the countries surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa, around 40 per cent in Latin America and South Asia, 50 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and around 60 per cent in CEE/CIS, East Asia and industrialized countries.

Where women work matters for children

Women’s participation in the workforce can be beneficial to children, because it often results in women gaining greater access to, and control of, economic resources. But paid employment for women does not automatically lead to better outcomes for children. Factors such as the amount of time women spend working outside the household, the conditions under which they are employed, who controls the income they generate and the cost and availability of quality childcare determine how their employment affects their own well-being and that of their children.

Women are more likely than men to work in more precarious forms of employment with low earnings, little financial security and few or no social benefits. As growing numbers of women join the labour force, there has been a parallel increase in informal and non-standard forms of employment.

Women’s informal employment and its impact on children

In nearly all developing regions, 60 per cent or more of women engaged in non-agricultural work activities are in informal employment. The exception is North Africa, where women’s participation in the informal sector is 43 per cent. Of the developing regions, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of informally employed women (84 per cent). Women are more likely than men to be own-account workers, domestic workers, factory workers or unpaid workers in family enterprises.

Women working in the informal sector often face difficult working conditions, long hours and unscheduled overtime. The lack of job security and benefits such as paid sick leave and childcare provisions can leave women and their children at a higher risk of poverty. When mothers are poor, engaged in time-intensive, underpaid and inflexible informal work, and have little control over their earnings and few alternative caregivers, children are significantly more at risk of poor health and growth. Such conditions are prevalent in many areas of both informal employment and low-income work in the formal sector.

One particular area that has received increasing scrutiny in recent years is domestic service. Women make up the majority of domestic workers, most of them informally employed. When mothers who work in domestic service take on childcare responsibilities for the employer’s family, this often results in a conundrum: The day-to-day security of the employer’s children is dependent on an employee who has to be away from her own children in order to work.

A childcare crisis in the formal sector

The increasing participation of women in the labour force is challenging the traditional breadwinner-homemaker model of paid work by men and unpaid work by women. In its place, a new model is prevalent in many countries, such as the high-income countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, transition economies and the rapidly growing nations of East Asia, where both men and women engage in paid employment. In the United Kingdom and the United States, for example, two out of every three families are currently double-income families. In the Russian Federation, in 52 per cent of households in which there are young children, all adults between the ages of 25 and 55 are working. The corresponding figure for Viet Nam is 88 per cent.

But even as this new model of household income generation steadily takes root, in general women are still expected to take on the majority of the housework and childcare. As a result, and in the absence of greater participation by men in both domestic chores and childcare, it is becoming increasingly difficult for working mothers to reconcile work and family responsibilities.

For many women living in poverty, working in the informal sector is the only way to eke a living. Read how Ena, from Indonesia, managed to support her family and rebuild her life after the tsunami by opening her own kiosk.