Men are from Mars; women are poorly paid

OECD Observer


“Employment rates for women have grown faster and are above where they were in 2008, but employment rates for men have not even gotten back to where they were.” This remark was made by the OECD chief economist, Catherine Mann, after delivering an update on the global economic outlook in late September. Speaking to the BBC, Ms Mann added, “Women are paid less than men. You've got more women employed, as compared to men, so the algebra works out to be a downward pressure on wage growth.”

That downward pressure is exerting itself at the uppermost echelon of the jobs pyramid. According to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) 2016 report Women at Work, most jobs created in the last 15 years have been of the high-skilled variety, particularly in high-income countries where women comprise just under half of highly-paid managers, professionals and technicians. Yet, the average full-time female worker still earns almost 15% less than her male counterpart in OECD countries. The wide wage gap remains despite a laundry list of prescriptions that includes wage transparency in firms, equal pay legislation, encouraging girls to pursue the typically more lucrative STEM disciplines, and structural reforms to the workplace, like parental leave, flexible hours, and affordable childcare.

In The Pursuit of Gender Equality: An Uphill Battle, 17 out of 35 OECD countries responding to a questionnaire listed women being paid less than men for the same work as being a priority issue. But another way to look at wage disparity between men and women is not so much as the difference between how much men and women are paid for the same or similar jobs, but the difference between “men’s jobs” and “women’s jobs”. This is called occupational or industrial segregation.

The numbers show that women gravitate towards certain kinds of jobs and men to others. According to The Pursuit of Gender Equality, women are overrepresented in the service industry, for example. Eighty-four percent of employed women work in services as opposed to 60.7% of employed men. More specifically, over 20% of working women work in wholesale and retail trade, accommodation and food, and 17.3% in lower-skilled health jobs and social work. And though the larger share of low-skilled jobs has gone to men in the US, the opposite is true in Japan and Europe. Across the EU, women tend to work as sales clerks, cleaners, secretaries, personal care workers, and pre-primary and primary school teachers. Incidentally, the latter was shown in the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2017 as earning between 78% and 85% of what full-time workers with the same education level make.

When we include more developing countries in the analysis, the picture is roughly the same. According to the ILO’s Women at Work, women’s employment in the service industry has increased from 41.1% to 61.5% since 1995. In their analysis of 142 countries, the ILO shows that women are concentrated in the two lowest paid sectors, that is clerical, service and sales, and “elementary occupations”. This latter category covers everything from selling goods in public places and property watching to collecting garbage and delivering goods. In developed economies, women comprise 60% of the clerical, service and sales sector, and 50% of elementary occupations. All of this supports the finding in The Pursuit of Gender Equality that male-dominated sectors and occupations pay higher wages: 11% of the gender gap in monthly earnings is due to industrial segregation.

The studies and speculations on why women gravitate to low-paying jobs have yielded a gamut of explanations. Gendered stereotypes for example: many people still consider that teaching children is for women and working in construction is for men.

Whatever the reasons and strategies you devise to break down the gendered employment divide, it is important to acknowledge there is such a thing as “women’s jobs”, and that these are often more poorly paid than so-called "men's jobs". The Washington Post cites an analysis done in 2016 by job search engine Glassdoor of a half a million self-reported salaries in the US. It found that occupational segregation accounted for 54% of the overall pay gap between men and women. Indeed, The Pursuit of Gender Equality: An Uphill Battle notes that as greater numbers of women move into certain professions these become lower paid over time. This is borne out by a study carried out on US census data from 1950 to 2000 which controlled for education and skill.

This makes women particularly vulnerable to poverty. And, if a macro-economic argument must be made, wages that are stuck at low levels make any pick-up in the economy fragile at best. Hence the alarm bell Ms Mann sounded in her economic forecast. The laundry list mentioned earlier can work in the long term to, if not erase, at least muddle the boundary between men’s jobs and women’s jobs. And society at large needs to confront gendered assumptions that assign girls and boys–and later, women and men–to certain tasks and not others. In the meantime, however, revalueing underpaid women’s jobs should be part of a spectrum of strategies to close the gap between wages earned by men and those earned by women. This can be done by raising wages, whether through implementing a wage floor, redistributing the tax burden or social contributions, or upping salaries. It would be something not just women, but many men would cheer for too.

References and links

OECD (2017), The Pursuit of Gender Equality: An Uphill Battle. OECD Publishing, Paris.

ILO (2016), Women at Work. Geneva, Switzerland. Visit

Chamberlain, Andrew (2016), “Demystifying the Gender Pay Gap: Evidence from Glassdoor Salary Data”, Mill Valley, CA.

Asaf Levanon, Paula England, Paul Allison (2009), “Occupational Feminization and Pay: Assessing Causal Dynamics Using 1950–2000 U.S. Census Data”, Social Forces, Volume 88, Issue 2, Oxford University Press.

OECD (2017), Education at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators. OECD Publishing, Paris.

©OECD Observer November 2017

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q1 2019 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% May 2019 annual
Trade: +0.4% exp, -1.2% imp, Q1 2019
Unemployment: 5.2% July 2019
Last update: 8 July 2019

OECD Observer Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Subscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To order your own paper editions,email

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • MCM logo
  • The following communiqué and Chair’s statement were issued at the close of the OECD Council Meeting at Ministerial level, this year presided by the Slovak Republic.
  • Food production will suffer some of the most immediate and brutal effects of climate change, with some regions of the world suffering far more than others. Only through unhindered global trade can we ensure that high-quality, nutritious food reaches those who need it most, Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the OECD, and José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, write in their latest Project Syndicate article. Read the article here.
  • Globalisation will continue and get stronger, and how to harness it is the great challenge, says OECD Secretary-General Gurría on Bloomberg TV. Watch the interview here.
  • OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría with UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, in New York City.
  • The new OECD Observer Crossword, with Myles Mellor. Try it online!
  • Listen to the "Robots are coming for our jobs" episode of The Guardian's "Chips with Everything podcast", in which The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, and Jeremy Wyatt, a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Birmingham, and Jordan Erica Webber, freelance journalist, discuss the findings of the new OECD report "Automation, skills use and training". Listen here.
  • Do we really know the difference between right and wrong? Alison Taylor of BSR and Susan Hawley of Corruption Watch tell us why it matters to play by the rules. Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview here.
  • Has public decision-making been hijacked by a privileged few? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Stav Shaffir, MK (Zionist Union) Chair of the Knesset Committee on Transparency here.
  • Can a nudge help us make more ethical decisions? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Saugatto Datta, managing director at ideas42 here.
  • The fight against tax evasion is gaining further momentum as Barbados, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Malaysia, Panama and Tunisia signed the BEPS Multilateral Convention on 24 January, bringing the total number of signatories to 78. The Convention strengthens existing tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at .
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2019