Sunday 16 May 2021
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2018 employment trends for women

2018 employment trends for women


Gender gaps in labour force participation remain wide globally, the labour force participation rate for men and women aged 15 and over continues its long term decline; it stands at 61.8 per cent in 2018, down by 1.4 percentage points over the past decade.

The decline in women’s participation rate has been slower than that of men, resulting in a slight narrowing of the gender gap, according to the World Employment Social Outlook compiled by the International Labour Organisation that was released two months ago.

According to the report “these trends reflect different patterns across the life cycle, resulting from changes in both education participation among youth and, at the other end of the scale, older workers’ retirement choices.”

The headline finding, according to the report, is that on average around the world women remain much less likely to participate in the labour market than men.

At 48.5 per cent in 2018, women’s global labour force participation rate is 26.5 percentage points below that of men. Since 1990, this gap has narrowed by 2 percentage points, with the bulk of the reduction occurring in the years up to 2009.

“The rate of improvement, which has been slowing since 2009, is expected to grind to a halt during 2018–21, and possibly even reverse, potentially negating the relatively minor improvements in gender equality in access to the labour market achieved over the past decade. Underlying this global trend, there are considerable differences in women’s access to the labour market across countries at different stages of development,” the report stated.

It further indicated that the gap in participation rates between men and women is narrowing in developing and developed countries but continues to widen in emerging countries, where it stands at 30.5 percentage points in 2018, up by 0.5 percentage points since 2009.

This trend is projected to continue into 2021, as women’s participation rates will decline at a faster pace than men’s.

“While the widening gender gap in participation rates shows that women in emerging countries are still a long way from catching up with men in terms of labour market opportunities, it also reflects the fact that a growing number of young women in these countries are enrolled in formal education, which delays their entry into the labour market,” noted the report.

Global statistics indicate that since the early 1990s, gender gaps in participation rates among youth aged 15 to 24 in emerging countries have been widening, whereas gender gaps in educational attainment have shrunk considerably.

“Gender gaps in labour market participation are especially wide in the Arab States, Northern Africa and Southern Asia, and are expected to remain wide in the near future, mainly due to the extremely low participation rates of women in the labour market in these regions. Underlying this trend, there is concern that owing to restrictive gender and cultural norms women in these countries are more constrained in terms of their options to seek paid employment,” it stated.

Conversely, noted the report, women’s participation rates are gradually approaching those of men in many developed countries.

“At 15.6 percentage points in 2018 (nearly half of the figure observed among emerging countries), the gender gap in participation rates in this group of countries is the lowest recorded since 1990; although it remains wide in a number of countries, especially in Southern Europe, it is projected to narrow further by 2021. Much of the progress achieved over the past couple of decades in developed countries can be attributed to the fact that women and men in these countries have near equal educational achievements and women face less restrictive social norms regarding paid work (ILO, 2017a).”

Public policies are also said to be playing an important in this regard.

“For instance, family support policies, which aim to improve work–life balance, rights to paid leave and return to equivalent work, as well as affordable childcare services for working parents, are known to have made a substantial contribution to lifting the participation rates of women, and especially those of mothers, in these countries.”

Evidence of persistent gender pay gaps in many developed countries highlights ongoing problems of gender gaps in job quality despite women’s increasing labour market presence, the report stated.

Because women have significantly improved levels of human capital (e.g. education and experience), which have even overtaken those of men in several developed countries, new research is pointing to other factors that can explain the enduring wage penalty faced by women, such as employers’ discriminatory hiring and promotion practices.

The report states that developing countries show the smallest gender gap in participation rates (11.8 percentage points in 2018), which is expected to remain stable throughout the period 2018–21.

“Women in this country group have one of the highest rates of participation (69.3 per cent), which often reflects the economic necessity to seek employment, driven by the prevailing poverty and a lack of access to social protection, as discussed below.”


There is a very strong likelihood, especially in emerging and developing economies, that own-account and contributing family workers are defined as members of the informal economy. This connection arises because own-account workers are typically not registered as legal entities, while contributing family workers do not have written employment contracts and therefore typically fall outside the scope of labour legislation, social security regulations and relevant collective agreements.

However, these workers are not the only category of employment to be exposed to systematic labour market risks. The broad category of informal employment includes other groups, such as workers in the informal sector and workers in formal sector enterprises who hold informal jobs.

Women are over-represented in informal employment in developing countries, in part because there is a higher proportion of women who work as contributing family workers – a category which accounts for around one-third of the overall informal employment in developing countries. According to the ILO, the share of women in informal employment in developing countries was 4.6 percentage points higher than that of men, when including agricultural workers, and 7.8 percentage points higher when excluding them, in the latest year with available data (ILO, 2018b).

This gender gap is much higher in some sub-Saharan African countries, where the gap stands at over 20 percentage points (ibid.). In close to one-third of sub-Saharan countries with available data, the share of women in non-agricultural employment who are in informal employment is over 90 per cent, while for men the share hovers at around 82 per cent (figure 1).


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