It is now more generally accepted that most women work, even when they are not recorded as “workers” by official and other data gatherers. The tasks associated with social reproduction and the care economy are largely (though not solely) borne by women, but in many societies these are not counted among economic or productive activities.

Similarly, many women are engaged in what is recognised otherwise as productive work but as unpaid household helpers who are, therefore, only marginally seen as workers in their own right.

The general invisibility of women’s work is itself a mostly accurate reflection of their status in society: where women’s official work participation is low, this is typically a sign of less freedom and mobility of women, lower status and lower empowerment.

Indeed, where more women are active in the labour market and are employed (especially in formal activities), the share of unpaid work tends to come down and even the unpaid labour performed by women is more likely to be recognised and valued.

This is why looking at the extent, coverage, conditions and remuneration of women’s work is often a useful way of judging the extent to which their broader status in society has improved.

This is important in the context of the Third Millennium Development Goal, which is explicitly about empowering women. The indicators and specific targets that were taken into consideration for this goal were rather limited but to the extent that they also focussed on work it is worth examining whether recent global trends indicate a real improvement in this regard.

Wide Divergence

Chart 1 provides data on employment to population ratios of people of working age by sex, for the world as a whole. (Data for all charts has been taken from the ILO’s Global Employment Trends for Women , December 2012.)

In the last six years, employment rates have fallen slightly for both men and women, but the fall has been somewhat sharper for women, such that the gender gap in employment has actually increased.

Bear in mind that this refers to only paid or recognised employment, and often leaves out a significant chunk of household labour for domestic work or the care economy.

However, this global pattern masks very wide divergence across regions, as is evident from Chart 2.

Gender gaps in employment rates (measured as the difference between male and female work participation rates as percentage of the male rates) are lowest in East Asia, where they have gone up slightly.

They are highest — in fact, exceptionally high, indicating complete lack of recognition of much women’s work and many restrictions on work done outside the household by women — in the Middle East and North Africa, where they have however come down a little bit. But they are also quite high (more than 50 per cent) in South Asia, where they have increased throughout the recent period.

In general, the only region where there has been notable improvement in this regard is Latin America and the Caribbean, which is also the region where many countries have instituted policies to draw more women into formal work by increasing the provision of public social services, formalising certain types of employment, including domestic work and raising minimum wages.

Unfortunately, there has not really been much improvement in the regions where there was already a significant gap, suggesting that much more needs to be done if recognising women’s work, easing the constraints upon women’s involvement in labour markets and improving the conditions of women’s recognised work are genuinely seen as common social goals.

Some ‘hotspots’

Despite the problems associated with recognising women’s work, it is also the case that women are more likely to be openly unemployed — that is, actively looking for paid work but not finding employment.

Chart 3 shows that global youth unemployment rates are significantly higher (nearly double) than those for adults, but in both cases female rates are higher than those for males. This is also notable because studies have found that women are more likely to withdraw from the labour force in case of prolonged unemployment (the “discouraged worker” effect).

There are some regions that are particular “hotspots” with respect to very high rates of open unemployment among the youth.

The MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) is one such region as shown in Chart 4. The association of recent social and political turmoil with these high rates of open unemployment among the youth is too obvious to go unnoticed.

It is worth remarking that open unemployment rates among young females is even higher than for young males, typically more than double, pointing to a huge waste of productive potential in these societies.

Low-grade services

Meanwhile, in the developed world, recent economic processes have generated high rates of open unemployment among young people of both sexes.

Chart 5 highlights the increase in open unemployment among young women in particular, so much so that the rate is now higher than in the central and east European countries, when it was lower just a few years ago.

While there has been some decline in open unemployment in recent years in the latter region, the rate still remains higher for young women.

Even when they are recognised as being employed by official statistics, women workers tend to be disproportionately concentrated in primary activities and in low-grade services. Chart 6 indicates that while the share of agriculture in total employment has come down for both men and women, it is still higher for women. And services are more overwhelmingly dominant for women workers.

The concentration of women into agricultural activities is particularly marked in some regions. This is evident from Chart 7.

In the developed world including all of Europe, as well as in Latin America and even in the MENA region, the share of women workers involved in agriculture is relatively small.

Further, it has come down substantially in the past two decades in East Asia and South-East Asia, although the proportion in South-East Asia is still close to half. But in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture still accounts for around two-thirds of all women workers, and the rate of decline in this share is also quite slow.

This is closely aligned to another indicator of the quality of employment: the proportion of workers who are engaged in “vulnerable work”, that is self-employed or workers or unpaid helpers in household economic activities.

As might be expected, women are much more likely to be engaged in such work in most regions, except for where (as in MENA) their work is not recognised.

Chart 8 suggests that there has been some recent improvement in this indicator. The data suggests a decline in the extent of vulnerable work for the world as a whole for both men and women, and furthermore a decline in the gender gap in this regard as well. (The gender gap is here defined as the proportion of women in vulnerable work minus the proportion of men in such work, divided by the proportion of men in such work.)

While such a trend is to be welcomed, the data should be interpreted with caution.

First, this excludes a lot of other work that is also vulnerable: part-time work, employment in insecure contracts, and so on, and there is other evidence that these types of work have increased in recent years.

Second, as shown in Chart 9, some regions of the world still have very high proportions of women workers involved in such work, particularly South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia.

Overall, even a cursory examination of the trends suggests that if labour market involvement and conditions of work are to be taken as criteria, the world is still very far from achieving any kind of gender parity or true empowerment of women.