Closing gender gaps

©Guillaume Ribot/MAXPPP ; Grenoble le 10/05/2001 ; Illustration sur la maison de retraite Reynies a Grenoble.

Despite a general trend towards more equality in society and the labour market, progress remains slow and significant gender gaps persist. Economic independence is a prerequisite for enabling both women and men to exercise control over their lives Gender mainstreaming can make a real difference in closing gender gaps by integrating the gender perspective into all policy areas and identifying, addressing and monitoring impacts on inequalities.

The goal of gender mainstreaming is to achieve equality between women and men.

It is a matter of social justice. But gender equality in all aspects of society:

  • Is crucial for lasting growth and democracy;
  • Is a key element in meeting the challenge of an ageing population and shrinking workforce;
  • Contributes to the financial sustainability of social welfare systems;
  • Symbolizes a society’s level of political maturity and is key to future developments of societies.

In the EU, substantial progress has been made towards achieving this goal over the last 50 years. Eight percent more women are in the labour market today than there were in 1998. Young women aged 20 to 24 represent 59 percent of university graduates in the EU.

But the goal of equality between women and men in their diversity is far from being achieved. In the economy, women are still not reaching the decision making positions. Female business owners make up only 33.2 percent of the self-employed, and women are still over-represented in lower paid sectors across the EU. In addition, the pay gap between women and men shows no sign of closing. On average and across the whole economy, women in the EU earn 17.6 percent less per hour than men. Both vertical and horizontal gender segregation are prominent features of the labour market all across Europe.

Women’s relation to the labour market remains largely mediated by men, whether as family members, employers or even suppliers of credit. The labour market still favours men over women and reflects and reinforces men’s and women’s perceived roles in the home, thereby polarizing existing divisions, despite clear evidence that the lifestyles of the majority of women, as well as many men, no longer fit into these tight compartments.

Parenthood affects women’s employment chances more than men’s. Women continue to work more unpaid hours than men in the home.

Rigid gender roles continue to influence crucial personal decisions on such things as education, career paths, working arrangements, family and fertility. These decisions in turn have an impact on the economy and society.

We set out here some of the main gender gaps in the labour market.

Gender differences in employment rates

Women’s employment rates across the EU range from some 40% to 75%, but the EU average is 75.8% for men and 62.5% for women (2009). Employment rates of older women vary considerably between the Member States.

In 2005, they were highest in Northern European countries, with more than 60%, and lowest in Southern European countries, all of which were below 35%. Very young mothers with small children experience particular social discrimination as regards their entry into the labour market; their activity rates are much lower than those of mothers older than 25. They also belong to a group at particular risk of poverty.

Specific measures are needed to assess the employment situation and working conditions of these very young mothers and address some of their specific needs in Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) policy and prevention, and related policies. Their vulnerability and the difficulty for them to access the labour market may make them more prone to accepting poor working conditions.

To reach the Europe 2020 targets of a 75% employment rate for both women and men, particular attention needs to be given to the labour market participation of older women, single parents, women with a disability, migrant women and women from ethnic minorities.

Gender differences in relation to part-time work

Women work part-time more than men (accounting for over 75% of part-time employees), in less valued jobs and sectors. It seems that female part-time workers invest their free time in non-paid domestic work. When taking into account the composite working hour indicators – i.e. the sum of the hours worked in the main job and in secondary jobs, plus the time spent on commuting and on household work – the research finds that women in employment systematically work longer hours than men.

This clearly illustrates the “double role” increasingly played by women in the labour market and in the household. Interestingly, in terms of composite working hours, women in part-time jobs work more hours on average than men in full-time jobs. There is a need for greater recognition of how the links between women’s paid and unpaid work, and their effect on women’s health, including combined risk exposures and less freedom to dispose of their time, are influenced by gender stereotypes.

Part-time work may also conceal multiple employment. A 2005 study in France showed that over a million workers, almost 5% of the working population, were in multiple employment. For women, these jobs mostly involved child and elderly care and domestic work, where women’s OSH is difficult to monitor and protection difficult to implement. A German study demonstrated that 640,000 fewer women worked full-time in 2009 than ten years previously, with those previous positions having been replaced by over a million temporary engagements and 900,000 mini-jobs. This was highlighted as an issue of concern by the OSH authorities (Find the report OSHA 2010 here).

Gender differences in relation to education and vocational training

Nearly 60% of EU university graduates are women, but they account for less than 33% of scientists and engineers across Europe and represent nearly 80% of the total workforce in the health, education and welfare sectors. Gender gaps remain significant both in performance and in choice of subjects. For instance, girls outperform boys in reading, and boys account for most early school leavers. Men outnumber women among graduates in maths, science and technology subjects, as was found in a recent report by the European Commission.

Gender differences in relation to family responsibilities

The impact of parenthood on labour market participation is still very different for women and men, with only 65.6% of women with children under 12 in work, as opposed to 90.3% of men. This reflects the unequal sharing of family responsibilities, but also often signals a lack of childcare and work-life balance opportunities. Research has shown that women and men exhibit very different behaviours when they become parents, with men generally more able to choose their level of engagement than women. Family policies are often built on the conception of women as the main caregiver. This has led to the expression “women become parents and men fathers”.

Gender differences in professions and positions

The gender-segregated labour market, the difficulty of balancing work and family life, and the undervaluation of female skills and work are some of the complex causes of the persistent gender pay gap. There are very distinct patterns of employment according to the different age groups; younger women work more in retail and HORECA (hotels, restaurants and catering), while older women work more in education and health care.

Gender differences in relation to working conditions

Women in the EU earn on average 17.1% less than men for each hour worked. The issue of occupational safety and health (OSH) for women working in the European Union (EU) is central to an understanding of the working environment. Previous research has shown that women’s OSH must be improved. Furthermore, “women’s jobs”, such as within the health and social services, retail and hospitality sectors, display an increase in accident rates, including fatal accidents; while women are also more likely to be bullied and harassed, including sexual harassment.

Gender differences in relation to possibilities for economic independence

In 2011, the EU launched the first European Semester and adopted its first Annual Growth Survey, anchored in the Europe 2020 Strategy. It highlighted the worryingly low labour market participation rate of women.

Indeed, in many Member States, financial disincentives such as tax and benefit systems combined with excessive childcare costs make it more attractive for the spouses with relatively lower earnings (who tend in general to be women) to choose between either inactivity or limited activity. The labour supply of spouses is interconnected, and married women’s decision to enter the labour market is often influenced by the total income of the household.

As a result, women may enter or leave the workforce depending on family income needs. They are consequently more sensitive to policies affecting their participation in the labour market than policies addressing hours of work. When pension systems were initially developed, men spent a lifetime in the labour market and women mostly stayed at home. The resulting income inequality in pensions was addressed by allowing wives to draw on their husbands’ contributions. In recent decades, women have entered the labour market in great numbers.

However, inequalities remain and these have an impact on the adequacy of their pensions. Women are more likely than men to be outside the labour market at any age, or to work part-time or under atypical contracts. Career breaks often lead to a reduction in lifetime earnings and on average women earn less than men. For all these reasons, women pensioners typically have lower pension benefits than male pensioners.

Demographic changes in Europe such as an ageing population and a shrinking working population and the financial and economic crises have created a major challenge for the future of pension systems. An important trend in recent pension reforms in Member States is to try and improve the financial sustainability of pension systems by tightening the link between contributions and benefits in earnings-related pension schemes. This is done mainly by lengthening the contribution periods required to qualify for a full pension and by changing the reference for the calculation of benefits from “best years” to lifetime earnings.

As a consequence, pension benefits will increasingly depend upon the worker’s entire career. In parallel, the gender pay gap leads to negative consequences for the reference salary generally used when the statutory pension is calculated.

Print this
Created: 2013/01/08   Changed: 2014/12/04