A century is too long to wait to close the gender wage gap

What a difference a century makes

Returning to the World Economic Forum report that we talked about a few weeks ago, the shocking headline finding was that, based on current trends, it will take more than a century, 118 years to be exact, to close the gender wage gap!

If we think about the great leaps forward that humanity has made in the last 118 years, technologically, politically, economically and socially, it seems to me that ensuring wage equality for men and women should be a cinch by comparison! So, why hasn’t it happened? Well, for each sector of the economy there are barriers to closing the gender wage gap. But before we can understand how these barriers operate, it’s helpful to know how the male and female workforce is divided between the major sectors.

Where are men and women in the global economy?

If we take a look at the graphs and charts below (please use the links to interact with these), we see that in the last 3 decades, there has been a general move away from agriculture and industry towards services for both men and women.

The trend for both men and women working in agriculture has been on average downwards since 1980.



% Males and Females employed in agriculture since 1980

Over the same decades, employment in industry for both men and women has also been, on average, decreasing.



% Males and Females employed in industry since 1980

In this time, employment in services for both men and women has been increasing, but this sector accounts for a higher percentage of female employment than men’s. For women then, Services is the most important sector of employment.


%Males and females employed in services since 1980

What are the barriers to closing the gender wage gap?

Each sector has its own specific barriers to achieving wage equality. We saw that in agriculture for example, this can relate to lack of access to productive assets. Across all sectors however, forces such as segmentation and segregation see women occupying the most poorly remunerated positions within many sub-sectors while simultaneously those sub-sectors that become defined as “women’s work” receive the lowest remuneration due to a general undervaluing of women’s labour. Women are also far more likely than men to work part-time or fall prey to “flexibilisation” whereby employers offer little or no protection or guarantee of work.

Since the global financial crash in 2007/08, a further blow to women’s income may have come from the austerity measures instituted by many governments. Though the WEF report makes clear that it is too early to make a causal link between austerity and the slow progress towards wage equality, austerity has been shown in other studies to disproportionately impact women because it involves cuts to public sector jobs and wages (traditionally a provider of female employment), and a roll back in public services and benefits (which women tend to use and depend on more than men).

And, of course, we cannot discount the effects of good old fashioned pay discrimination. That same WEF report found that for men and women doing the same job, on average for every $1 men earn, women take home just 60 cents.

How we can all play our part in changing the situation

There are so many intertwined structures maintaining the gender pay gap that it can be difficult to know where to start to try to change the situation. I believe that first and foremost there is a need for a fundamental societal shift away from viewing female labour as free, extra or somehow less valuable than men’s to a deep commitment to valuing men and women equally.

If that shift were to happen, then logically what would follow would be a rebalancing of the responsibility for the unpaid societal reproductive work that economies depend upon women to do but conveniently make invisible. A recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) report on Global Wages pointed to a specific motherhood wage gap for example, and suggests measures such as parental leave, affordable childcare and adjustments to the tax and benefits system among other, to address this issue.

At the macroeconomic level, governments would be obliged to address the fact that women are often concentrated in the poorest paid sectors and in the poorest paid roles within sectors. And of course, stronger laws prohibiting pay discrimination would be a no-brainer.

At its core then, the struggle to close the gender wage gap will, like so many other gendered issues, be won not only through legal battles and new tax regimes but also through millions of individual conversations and small actions that that add up to a change in our collective beliefs and relationships. Alongside the court rooms, board rooms, and parliament chambers, in dining rooms, class rooms, around every water cooler, in every factory and on every farm, we can all be a part of change.

We would love to hear your stories of conversations/ actions that led to a more equal valuation of women’s work. Feel free to post them below!

This post is the last in the series examining the gender wage gap. All data used in this post were taken from the World Bank Indicator database.


One thought on “A century is too long to wait to close the gender wage gap

  1. Pingback: Why we have to #BeBoldForChange on reproductive health care – xystats

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