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Glassed In: Why Women Are Unhappy in the Workplace


Orange the World, 2016, in Cairo UN Women in Egypt, part of the UNiTe campaign, highlighting the rights of women and girls for freedom of movement. MUHAMMAD GHOUNEIM/UN WOMEN
On Nov. 25, 2016, UN Women kicked off its annual “Orange the World” campaign to end violence against women. To participate, a motorcycle entourage of women in Cairo, Egypt, highlighted their right to move freely around the capital. MUHAMMAD GHOUNEIM/UN WOMEN

It is not only “glass ceilings” limiting women’s career progress but also “glass floors” and “glass walls” blocking gender equality in the workplace.

These hurdles actually limit the entry and mobility of both women and men in predominately gender-defined jobs. If women are to achieve gender equality with men at high levels in the workplace, it makes logical and mathematical sense to strive for equality across the job spectrum.

When paid employment and unpaid work are combined, men and women work approximately the same amount of time. Typically, men spend more time in paid employment while women spend more time in unpaid work.

Time-use studies find that on average women work about a half hour more per day than men in developed countries and nearly an hour more each day in developing countries. That gender difference is primarily due to women spending more time on family matters and household chores, with men on average doing about one-third of the unpaid work that women do.

As to the formal labor force, women’s participation has increased in the recent past but remains typically less than men’s across countries, largely through women’s main responsibilities for family and home matters. While it is still more acceptable for women to stay at home and focus on child care and housework, such roles for men, although changing, remain limited.

Worldwide, about half of women participate in the formal labor force, compared with three-quarters of men. Gender differences in labor-force participation are particularly high in North Africa, Western Asia and Southern Asia and lowest in Northern Europe.

The occupational segregation of women and men occurs everywhere. While some of the segregation may be a result of self-selection, individual choice and work preferences, in many instances it is based on traditionally defined sex roles and gender-based discrimination. Men are mostly concentrated in what are considered male occupations and women in female ones.

Although women’s educational attainment exceeds that of men in most countries, women remain behind men in such realms as income, business ownership, research and politics. Some disparities may be explained by different fields of study and vocational training chosen by men and women. For example, while men are still concentrated in engineering, manufacturing and computer sciences, women are still heavily represented in education, humanities, health and welfare.

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In addressing gender equality in the workplace, efforts have focused mostly on the imbalances in professions and glass ceilings encountered by women in highly professional sectors, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, business executives, board members and elected government representatives.

A cursory look at the proportion of women in parliaments and congresses, for example, clearly illustrates gender inequality across Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, with women universally underrepresented in these policy-making bodies. The lowest levels of women in parliaments, at 10 percent, are Japan, Brazil and Hungary, followed by India at 12 percent and Russia at 14 percent.

At the other extreme, but still below parity in parliament, is Sweden at 44 percent, closely followed by Mexico, South Africa and Finland at 42 percent (Figure 1). (In October 2016, Iceland achieved 48 percent parity in parliament, surpassing Sweden.)

Chart: Percentage of Women in Parliaments and Congresses: 2015
Source: OECD

Comparatively few efforts have been made to achieving gender equality at lower levels of the occupational scale, which are often dominated by one sex, resulting in glass walls that hinder lateral mobility. Again, those jobs generally reflect traditional roles ascribed to men and women. While male jobs stress physical strength and technical matters, such as mechanics, pipefitters, bricklayers and carpenters, female jobs focus on retail activities, clerical assistance and personal services, including domestic work.

Glass walls box women into certain roles within a large field of employment. In national defense, for example, women can join the military but are generally excluded from participating directly in combat, except in about a dozen countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, New Zealand and the United States.

Similarly, glass floors present invisible barriers limiting the entry of men into traditional occupations of women, such as secretaries, receptionists, teaching associates, administrative assistants, nursery-school teachers, home-health aides, eldercare providers and hotel/motel room cleaners. Worldwide, women account for 83 percent of domestic workers, with a high 93 percent in South America. Similarly, women account for approximately 95 percent of all pre-primary schoolteachers, ranging from a low of nearly 80 percent in Africa to 96 percent in Europe (Figure 2).

Chart: Percent of Pre-Primary School Teachers Female: 2014
Source: Unesco

Removing glass floors would enable men to more freely enter female-dominated work, which typically consists of low-paid, poor-quality jobs. Men would better understand the difficult circumstances and challenges that women face at the lower rungs of the workforce. Increasing the numbers of men in female-dominated jobs is also likely to create more political pressures and public support for higher wages and improved working conditions for those occupations.

In addition, in many countries the numbers of traditional jobs for men, particularly in manufacturing, are declining, while traditional jobs of women, often found in the service sector, are growing. Admittedly, there are inherent differences between men and women that affect employment and career development. Perhaps the chief difference is women’s responsibility for childbearing and related care, which often interrupts careers. This responsibility needs to be acknowledged and supported, without stigma and penalty. Moreover, fathers should be encouraged and incentivized to participate more in child rearing and family duties, also without stigma and penalty.

To accelerate gender balance in business, politics and elsewhere, more countries have adopted the use of quotas and affirmative action. Many countries have also implemented electoral gender quotas in their constitution, regulations and laws requiring increased female representation.

In some instances, political parties are required to fill a fixed proportion of their electoral lists with female candidates, which have resulted in more participation of women in politics and significant rises in the proportion of women in elected and appointed offices, including parliaments.

Despite historical tradition and resistance from special-interest groups, considerable progress has been achieved in the last several decades in achieving gender equality in employment. But to attain full equality in the workplace, current efforts need to be sustained and strengthened, paying particular attention to not only eliminating glass ceilings, but also glass walls and glass floors.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Joseph Chamie recently retired as research director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York and as editor of the International Migration Review. He was formerly the director of the United Nations Population Division, having worked at the UN on population and development for more than a quarter century.

Chamie has written numerous population studies for the UN and, under his own name, written studies about population growth, fertility, estimates and projections, international migration and population and development policy. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a trustee of the Migration Policy Institute. He lives in the New York metro area.

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