For the first time, the number of women participating in labor markets is at its peak, with an estimated 1.2 billion of the 2.9 billion workers across the globe being women. But the good news ends just there. For the rest, the scenario is predictably a dismal one. More women than ever before are unemployed, with the astounding figure being 81.8 million. Meanwhile, a majority of those in the workforce are stuck in low productivity jobs - in agriculture and services sectors and/or receiving less money than their male counterparts for the same task.
This is the pronouncement of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in its latest report, entitled Global Employment Trends for Women Brief - 2007, that was released recently on the occasion of International Women's Day. According to ILO Director-General Juan Somavia, despite some progress, far too many women are still stuck in the lowest paying jobs, often in the informal economy, with insufficient legal protection, little or no social protection, and a high degree of insecurity. "Promoting equality will go a long way in raising incomes and opportunities for women and lifting families out of poverty," he asserts.
As the report points out, though more women than ever are participating in labor markets worldwide, the overall figure is misleading. The truth is that during the last 10 years, the labor force participation rate - the share of working-age women who work or are seeking work - stopped growing, with many regions registering declines. This reversal, the ILO report underlines, is notable even though it partially reflects greater participation of young women in education.
Ten years ago, there were 66 active women per 100 active men. In 2006, the numbers were almost the same: 67 women per 100 men. At the same time, the female labor force participation rate decreased slightly to 52.4 per cent from 53.0 per cent in 1996. However, rather than being a sign of stagnation, it is the result of two positive counterbalancing trends. As education among young women spreads more widely, their labor force participation decreases.
But trends at the regional level vary noticeably. Increases in women's economic activity were particularly high in Latin America, Middle East and North Africa, the European Union and developed economies. In all these regions, this led to a smaller gap between male and female labor force participation rates. On the other hand, there are also regions where the gap has widened, such as Sub-Saharan Africa where the gap was 0.3 percentage points larger in 2006 than 10 years earlier. In East Asia, it increased by almost one percentage point. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the ratio is 75 women per 100 men, in South East Asia and the Pacific it is 73 to 100 and in Latin America and the Caribbean, 69 to 100. The biggest gaps are found in South Asia, with 42 to 100, and the Middle East and North Africa, with 37 to 100.
In 2006, women globally still had a higher likelihood of being unemployed compared with men. The female unemployment rate stood at 6.6 per cent, compared to the male rate of 6.1 per cent. In addition, women's unemployment rate rose over the 10-year period from 6.3 per cent in 1996. In total, 81.8 million women who were willing to work and actively looking for work were without a job, up 22.7 per cent from 10 years earlier.
The difficulty of finding work is more pronounced for young women (aged 15-24), with 35.6 million young women seeking employment in 2006. The report cautions that the unemployment estimates exclude people who want to work but may not actively seek work because they feel there is none available, have restricted labor mobility or face discrimination or structural, social or cultural barriers. These, it says, are known as 'discouraged workers'.
Although there is a dearth of data on discouraged workers, a review of numbers available for industrialized economies revealed that women made up for approximately two-thirds of the discouraged workers in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal. The female share of total discouraged workers is near 90 percent in Italy and Switzerland.
Given that women face higher unemployment rates, have far fewer opportunities, and often face social barriers, it is very likely that discouragement among women is higher than among men in most countries in the developing world.
In 2005, for the first time, agriculture was no longer the main sector of employment for women and this trend continued in 2006. The service sector now provides most jobs for women. Of the total number of employed women in 2006, 40.4 per cent work in agriculture and 42.4 per cent in services.
Latin America saw the highest increase in economic activity for women, as the labor force participation rate increased by 6.4 percentage points from 46.1 to 52.4 per cent.
In the only promising mention of India, it is noted that over the last years there has been a rise in female enrolment in technical institutions from five to 45 per cent. The report also underlines the need for women to be given the chance to work themselves and their families out of poverty through the creation of decent employment opportunities that help them secure productive and remunerative work in conditions of freedom.
Policymakers not only need to place employment at the centre of social and economic policies, they also have to recognize that the challenges faced by women in the world of work require interventions tailored to specific needs. "Otherwise the process of feminization of poverty will continue and be passed on to the next generation," the report warns.