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The invisible door: Three barriers limiting women’s access to work

Namita Datta's picture
Women’s labor force participation worldwide over the last two decades has stagnated, and women generally earn less than men. (Photo: Tom Perry / World Bank)
How can we Press For Progress —the theme of International Women's Day 2018— to improve women's opportunities at work? Despite progress on women’s health and education in the past few decades, the gender gap on access to jobs has remained a stubborn challenge.

Women’s labor force participation worldwide over the last two decades has stagnated, and women generally earn less than men. Gaps are particularly acute in the Middle East and North Africa, but also persist in high income OECD/developed countries. Gender sorting into different jobs, industries and firm types explains much of the pay gap. Women tend to be concentrated in less productive jobs, run enterprises in less productive sectors, and are more likely to do part-time and temporary jobs with fewer avenues for advancement, than men.

There are multiple deprivations and constraints that underlie gender inequality in the world of work. On International Women's Day, I wanted to especially focus on the "invisible door" that still keeps women at home and limits their access to good jobs. This invisible door is strengthened by three “bolts” that are usually used to pull women back from accessing more economic opportunities.

Someone must take care of the family

This is the first argument keeping women at home because this "someone" who should take care of the family is typically the woman.

Married men spend 1 to 20% of their non-leisure time on childcare while for married women this percentage is as high as to 14 to 42% . And in aging societies, it's not just about childcare, but also about also taking care of the elderly. The burden of family care falls disproportionately on women, and according to the UN, women undertake three times more unpaid work than men and spend about half as much time in paid work.

As we presented in this post, the care economy can become a powerful entry point for increasing female employment, but policy changes, such as the expansion of childcare centers and parental leaves, are needed for this to happen.

Transportation is not safe for women

The second argument is not a myth but a sad fact.

According to a survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, around 60% of the women in three Latin American capitals —Bogota, Mexico City and Lima— reported physical harassment while traveling. The figure is not an exception among developing countries, and even in London, the fourth-safest city in the poll, one out of every five women said they were harassed in their commute. 

The UN reminds us that sexual violence in public spaces reduces women's ability to participate in school, work and public life. Some cities have invested in CCTVs - and women-only trains and buses, or painted in pink designated areas for women, but more must be done to guarantee equal opportunities and protection for women.

Your place is at home

This is, probably, the most subtle and invisible barrier of all three.

In many countries, social norms and traditions are not just confining women at home, but specifically excluding the workplace as an option for women. In developing countries, the stigma against working women started to shift during the last century and has still a long way to go.

But in many developing countries, this cultural change has barely started. Many countries still consider a woman who is willing to enter the labor market as someone who is defying social norms. This explains why female labor participation is below 15% in countries like Yemen, Syria, Jordan or Algeria. But this is not just a cultural issue: a recent survey found that 1 in 7 employers in the UK would not hire a woman who might have children.
 
This invisible door will not disappear overnight. Public policies can help in reducing these three barriers, working together with private sector and civil society. In the meantime, we must seek new solutions and take advantage of rapid developments in the digital economy, which could offer a unique and potentially transformational opportunities for women to break through this invisible door.
The Solutions for Youth Employment (S4YE) is developing a report on lessons from programs that focus on digital jobs that help connect young women to the digital economy.
 
Follow the World Bank Jobs Group on Twitter @wbg_jobs and Solutions for Youth Employment @S4YE_coalition.

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