Five facts on gender equity in the public sector

Professor Amivi Kafui Tete-Benissan (left) teaches cell biology and biochemistry at the University of Lomé, in the capital of Togo Professor Amivi Kafui Tete-Benissan (left) teaches cell biology and biochemistry at the University of Lomé, in the capital of Togo

Women have entered the paid workforce in increasing numbers over recent decades, and the expansion of public sector employment has transformed the opportunities available to them. Studies have shown that more representative bureaucracies lead to improved social and economic outcomes.

In 2019, the Bureaucracy Lab published a blogpost exploring gender discrimination and the pay gap in the public sector that looked at five key facts from the Worldwide Bureaucracy Indicators, a cross-national dataset on public sector employment and wages. Over the past two years, we have expanded the WWBI’s scope, especially on topics related to gender equality. Here are five more facts.

Fact 1: The public sector remains a larger employer of women than the private sector. Globally, women represent 46 percent of the public sector workforce compared with 33 percent in the private sector (Figure 1). While women are outnumbered by men in the private sector in 130 countries, they are rapidly gaining in the public sector, where they outnumber men in 55 nations, according to new data on high- and upper-middle income countries. 

Chart on public sector employs more women than the private sector


Fact 2: Female representation in the public sector is strongly correlated with country incomes. Female employment in the private sector is generally believed to have a U-shaped relationship, implying that female participation rates in the private sector rises with country incomes to a certain threshold. However, as income continues to rise further, female private sector participation rates begin to fall (Goldin 1986; 1995; Jayachandran 2020.), the WWBI shows a consistently positive and significant relationship between female participation in the public workforce and country incomes.

Chart on public sector gender equity is correlated with country income


Fact 3: While most public sectors have higher participation by women, they are largely confined to a few industries and occupations. More than 64 percent of the public sector education workforce is female and women account for more than 70 percent of workers in the health care sector.  Comparatively, less than 38 percent of the public administration workforce is female (Figure 3). One important reason for this disparity: Bias in task assignments that relegates women to jobs where they are less visible and less likely to get opportunities for advancement. A 2019 WHO report showed that female healthcare workers are concentrated in lower-status occupations such as nurses and midwifes, while men still outnumber women among physicians and medical specialists.

Chart on female representation in the public sector, by industry


Fact 4: Women receive a much larger wage premium for working in the public sector than men. Although public employees in most nations receive a premium compared with their counterparts in the private sector, the higher wages are not uniform across genders. Women in the public sector enjoy a wage premium of almost 30 percent over those employed in the private sector (Figure 4). The previous blog found that women’s average wages are 86% of men’s in the public sector and 76% in the formal private sector. This has large implications for female participation rates in the private sector given the immense opportunity costs.


Chart on public sector wage premium by gender


Fact 5: Female wage penalties persist even in industries with high representation of women. Lower female labor force participation rates are only one source of the gender pay gap. However, even in industries with large female representation (such as the education and healthcare sectors), their participation is mostly confined to lower-paid occupations (women represent over 84 percent of the global supply of nurses while remain a minority of doctors). In 191 of 201 observations for gender wage premiums by industry, women face a wage penalty compared with their male counterparts (Figure 5). The average global gender wage penalty is 14 percent for education, 20 percent for healthcare, and 21 percent for public administration.


Chart on gender wage gap persists for industries with large female representation


Even if gender balance is better in the public sector than in the private sector, we are still far from equality. The COVID-19 pandemic has further underscored the importance of the public sector workforce for the provision of essential public services.  Given the intersectionality of gender, occupation, and economic empowerment,  understanding and improving the representativeness, quality, and equity in the public sector is essential for better service provision. The public sector’s large footprint means that it can be a strategic leader in changing norms and behaviors and promote greater gender equality in employment in the overall labor market.


Editor's note: This blog post is part of a series for the 'Bureaucracy Lab', a World Bank initiative to better understand the world's public officials.


Faisal A. Baig

Public Sector Specialist

Zahid Hasnain

Lead Governance Specialist

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000