Global share of women in labour force stagnating for over 15 years

Women’s participation in the labour force globally was only 48 per cent in 2018. For men, this was 75 per cent. 

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Friday 15 February 2019
Photo: Vikas Choudhary

Sex ratios have always been debated, cutting across aspects. Women have mostly been identified as lagging behind in development aspects. As the world gets younger and more and more people seek employment, the division between the sexes in employment share is of immense concern — not only to ensure equality but also to speed up overall development. This is where the world is up for a shock.

Two out of five in the global labour force are women. This ratio has been stagnating for the last 15 years, according to the latest Global Employment and Social Trends, a flagship annual survey published by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Women’s participation in the labour force globally was only 48 per cent in 2018. For men, this was 75 per cent.  The global labour force is 3.5 billion-strong.

“After a period of rapid improvement that lasted until 2003, subsequent progress on closing the gender gap in participation rates has stalled,” according to the report. There is a gap of 27 percentage points between the labour force participation of men and women.

In general, labour participation rates have been declining for the past two and half decades due to various reasons like increased educational enrolment. The decline is more visible among people of 15-24 age groups.  

In the last 25 years, the gap between men and women labour force participation has been shrinking mostly because of the low base of employment among women. Among low-income countries, women are observed to be having highest labour participation rate. The ILO survey attributes it to the sheer economic necessity for survival that is forcing women to work anyway.

The ILO survey has indicated a new category called “potential labour force” that constitutes people “who are looking for a job but are not available to take up employment, or who are available but are not looking for a job”. This group has 140 million people.  Worryingly, 61 per cent of this group are also women. ILO categorises these as “underutilized labour”.

Among all countries irrespective of economic levels, men participation rate remains similar. For women, it is 64 per cent in low income countries. “On the other hand, the gender gap in labour force participation is closing rapidly in high-income countries. Thus, the participation rate for women in this country group rose by 3.5 percentage points from 1993 to 2018, while the participation rate for men fell by an equal amount over the same time span,” according to the report.

The gap between men and women in employment and the disproportionate share in “underutilised labour” emerge as a concern for ensuring economic equality, and also availing the appropriate quality of works for women. “Being in employment does not always guarantee a decent living,” says Damian Grimshaw, ILO Director of Research. “For instance, a full 700 million people are living in extreme or moderate poverty despite having employment.” Most of these would be women.

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