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Ten facts about economic gender inequality

Gender is a central concept in modern societies. The promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment is key for policymakers, and it is receiving a growing attention in business agendas. However, gender gaps are still a wide phenomenon. While gender gaps in education and health have been decreasing remarkably over time and their differences across countries have been narrowing, gender gaps in the labour market and in politics are more persistent and still vary largely across countries.

Understanding the determinants of gender gaps is essential for any country who wants to put forward effective ways to realize equality between men and women and promote a balanced pattern of economic growth. However there is no unique determinant of gender gaps, and ‘gender gap’ itself is a multidimensional, complex indicator. Thus, identifying the determinants of gender gaps is a challenging, though fundamental, task.

The following list of ten facts about economic gender inequality may represent a useful guide to identify the determinants of gender gaps.

1. Gender gaps have historical roots. These roots can be traced back to the organization of the family and to the traditional agricultural practices in the pre-industrial period, which influenced the gender division of labour, the role of women and the evolution and persistence of gender norms.

2. Culture matters in determining gender gaps. Gender stereotypes are well-established, both among men and among women. They influence the extent to which men and women share the same responsibilities, in particular in domestic work and childcare and they contribute to explaining gender gaps in the labour market.

3. Men and women have different attitudes and behaviours. On average women are significantly less likely than men to make risky choices and to engage competition. These differences can contribute to explaining gender pay gaps, glass ceilings, and the lower presence of women in high-paying jobs, or in highly competitive environments.

4. Maternity does not explain it all. There is no trade-off between fertility and female employment. Maternity is a penalty in the labour market. However, there is no trade-off between fertility and female employment; countries where women work more also have higher fertility rates. Thus, low female employment is not necessarily due to maternity decisions.

5. Education is the first engine of gender equality. Women and men are currently equally educated, and women often surpass male educational attainments in developed countries. However differences across fields of study, with a limited share of women in STEM disciplines, remain and may explain part of the still-existing gender gaps in access to the labour market and careers.

6. Gender gaps in employment and the glass ceiling are different phenomena, although they often go hand-in-hand. Even in countries where the problem of access to the labour market for women has been substantially solved, women still encounter obstacles in careers and in reaching top positions (ie. the glass ceiling).

7. Labour demand is as important as individuals’ choices. Firms’ decisions, employers’ attitudes and beliefs, i.e. labour demand, are as important as individuals’ incentives and choices to determine the gender composition of the workforce, female careers and the overall outcomes of gender gaps. The selection process itself is typically not gender-neutral.

8. Institutions play a crucial role in supporting female employment. Family policies, parental leave, and formal child care provisions may help supporting female labour supply.

9. Institutions play a crucial role in determining the glass ceiling. How to promote female leadership and the presence of women in top positions is a highly debated issue, which countries are addressing through a variety of policies, from the introduction of gender quotas to voluntary regimes. Gender quotas have recently attracted wide attention; they have been proved to be effective not only in increasing the number of women in top positions, but also in inducing a better selection process and a beneficial renovation of the ruling class.

10. Women’s empowerment and economic development are interrelated. On one side, economic development improves women’s conditions and reduces inequality between men and women, on the other side, the involvement of women in the economy is a key engine for growth.

These ten facts suggest that the determinants of gender gaps range from culture and history, to attitudes and behaviour, educational choices, family choices including maternity, firms’ behaviors, policy interventions, and economic development. These determinants are also strictly interrelated. Understanding these ten facts could be a useful guideline in helping to determine future policy on gender inequality.

Headline image credit: ‘Mind the Gap’, by Sarah Stierch. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. M Berger

    You noted, “Maternity does not explain it all. There is no trade-off between fertility and female employment.” Not for labor force participation, but there is a difference in hours of work, and pay, that is related to having children for women, but not for men.

  2. Reeve Vanneman

    1. Yes historical, but more roots in the industrial than pre-industrial stage.
    2. Yes, culture matters, but social structure, especially power and authority are more important.
    3. Yes a difference in attitude levels, but US data show men’s and women’s trends over time are quite similar.
    4. Maybe little family-career tradeoff in contemporary post-industrial societies, but big tradeoffs between maternity and employment historically and currently in most places.
    5. Education is over-rated. In India for example, girls are reducing the gap in education but increasing the gap in employment. Demand for female labor is more important.
    6. Yes glass ceiling problems and general labour market access are clearly different dimensions of the multidimensionality of gender inequalities. I would say, almost unrelated dimensions.
    7. Yes, labour demand is central (see #5 above), but it is not so much employers’ attitudes as the growth of “women’s jobs” and labor shortages that are crucial.
    8. Yes institutions are critical, but I agree with the minority opinion that many family policies have backfired against women.
    9. Gender quotas help, but it is the larger issue of political mobilization that is most important.
    10. I wish it were always true that development leads to more equality, but a) the opposite is more often true in early stages of development; and b) it doesn’t account for the 2 decade stall in the gender revolution in the U.S.

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  5. Kumudini Sandesha

    Women usually have to undergo various levels of discrimination at work. It may be the 21st century, but women are still under this cloud that labels them as less capable than men.
    With such a background it is surprising that a higher number of women have come to the forefront as high ranking officers in many industries nowadays. However, gender inequality still has a long way to go. Hopefully, our daughters would find a world better welcoming than ours.

  6. Sakshi

    Very nice blog. Gender gap has not only increased but has also increased in the economy drastically.

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