The continuing saga of labour market segregation

OECD Observer

In OECD countries, women’s employment is not necessarily synonymous with high wages and career opportunities. The labour market remains difficult for women and in all fields of activity, it will be a long time before women have equal access to the same occupations as men.

In modern societies, one might easily get the impression that the problem of gender inequality in the labour market is a thing of the past. But this is far from true, as an examination of employment indicators in OECD countries shows. The fact is that women do not have the same opportunities as men on the labour market, either in terms of wages or career prospects. Female employment still remains highly concentrated in a narrow range of occupations. The situation has not evolved much since the 1970s and there is no firm reason to believe that it will change in the coming years, unless the effort to upgrade these occupations, in particular by taking into account the specific characteristics of women’s jobs, is made a central policy concern.

Labour force participation rates and employment rates are commonly used to assess the labour market. However, participation rates have the inconvenience of excluding people who are not in a position to seek employment, and it so happens that many of those people are women.

The employment rate, which is the percentage of people with a job in a given labour force, is a more revealing measure of women’s performance in the labour force. It is a particularly relevant indicator for the 25–54 age group, since it is in this age group that women’s responsibilities vis-à-vis their children and indeed their elderly relatives are at their greatest. In 1997, the differential between male and female employment rates in this age group varied considerably across the 29 OECD member countries. This gender differential has been reduced to less than 15 percentage points in the Nordic, North American and central European countries. In Finland and Sweden, it is under 5 percentage points, in sharp contrast with the situation in Mexico and Turkey, where the differential is over 50 points. The differential generally remains relatively high in Spain, Ireland, Japan and Korea, at between 25 and 40 percentage points.

In none of the countries is there any obvious relation between the male employment rate and the difference in rate between the genders. Both Iceland and Japan, for example, have the highest male employment rates, at 95%. But in the case of Iceland, the gender differential is small, at just 13 percentage points, whereas in Japan the differential is quite wide, at 30 points. Similarly, a low male employment rate does not necessarily point to a small gender differential. Spain and Finland have relatively low employment rates for men, 80%, but are at opposite ends of the scale as regards the gender differential. And there is no shortage of other examples.

The fact that there is no relationship in principle rules out the idea of any redistribution of jobs from men to women. At present, women and men are in effect working in two quite separate markets. Moreover, although differences in educational attainment have narrowed considerably and anti-discrimination legislation has been adopted in most countries, the persistent wage differential between the sexes – which is often of the order of 30% or more – proves that women do not have access to the same occupations as men. Segregation remains one of the major sources of gender inequality in the labour market.

In OECD countries, both men and women work in an occupation where their own gender is in a strong majority. Over half of the occupations surveyed are more than 80% ‘dominated’ by the same gender. The scale and permanence of the phenomenon are such that it is customary to talk about ‘traditionally male’ and ‘traditionally female’ jobs.

But there are five times as many male-dominated occupations in the OECD countries as there are female-dominated ones. Women’s employment is therefore narrowly concentrated in a small number of highly female-dominated occupations. Yet on average women account for over 40% of total employment in the OECD area.

On the whole, female-dominated occupations are very labour intensive. And three occupations are particularly representative of female-dominated occupations: secretaries, teachers and nurses. Other occupations which also employ a great many women are ‘feminised’ to a varying degree, such as jobs in retailing, and hotel and catering. Lastly, there are a few other occupations which are seen as being very similar to the role of the housewife, such as domestic workers and home helps, which are almost entirely taken up by women.

In today’s society, occupation very largely determines an individual’s social and economic status. In this regard, the gender segregation of occupations brings out some marked differences that are detrimental to female-dominated occupations because they further inhibit female access to the occupations which attract the most prestige, the most power and the highest incomes. These occupations are still by and large a male ‘preserve’. Female-dominated occupations have lower standing in terms of income, career prospects and social re-cognition.

A deepening divide

Rather than improving, as one might expect at the end of the dawn of the next century, this segregation and undervaluing of women’s employment may be deepening. Some upgrading of female employment may therefore be needed. Proactive measures taken in a number of countries to get women into non-traditional jobs have had a major symbolic effect, but little real impact so far in altering the basic pattern. Women are continuing to drift towards the predominantly female occupations in the future. This is not without its advantages. In many countries there are massive job losses in male-dom-inated occupations, while the bulk of new jobs nowadays being created are in the tertiary sector, where female occupations are highly concentrated.

Governments and social partners have not so far shown themselves to be sensitive enough to the question of upgrading of female-dominated occupations, though they do recognise that occupational segregation is a major factor behind women’s disadvantaged position in employment. The measures taken thus far have been designed more to reduce segregation than to tackle its root causes. Some equal opportunity programmes of the 1980s have worked quite well, particularly those that sought to make working and family life more compatible and allowing women to participate fully in the work force. But more has to be done in specific areas. Upgrading of female occupations, opening up new career prospects, updating skills, work reorganisation and wage equality: action on all these fronts would improve women’s prospects in employment, as well as improving equality between the sexes.

©OECD Observer No 216, March 1999 




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