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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Global Gender Gap Narrows, But Workforce Disparities Remain

By Mary Mazzoni

The global gender gap narrowed slightly in 2018, but the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates it will take more than 100 years to close. Economic parity is even further out of reach, with the wait time for equal pay and workforce participation pegged at a disheartening 202 years, according to the WEF’s annual Gender Equality Index.

Closing the workforce gender gap could add $28 trillion to the global GDP, according to the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. Yet proportionately fewer women than men participate in the global workforce, and women around the world continue to earn less than their male counterparts, data from the WEF Index suggests.

“What we’re seeing globally is that we don’t have any country that’s achieved gender equality, regardless of level of development, region or type of economy,” Anna-Karin Jatfors, regional director for U.N. Women, told Bloomberg. “Gender inequality is the reality around the world, and we’re seeing that in all aspects of women’s lives.”

If we know gender parity will help the global economy, what the heck is taking so long? We took a look inside the Index to find out more.

A marginal improvement

This year’s report benchmarks 149 countries on their progress toward gender parity. Overall, gender disparity decreased by less than 0.1 percent in 2018 based on economic, educational, political and health metrics, Bloomberg reported. It’s a marginal improvement, but it’s a step in the right direction compared to last year, when equality metrics worsened for the first time since the Index launched in 2006.

Still, some disparities are harder to address than others. “Income gaps have been ‘particularly persistent,’ with 63 percent of the global wage gap having closed so far,” Krystal Chia of Bloomberg reported, citing the Index. And although the economic opportunity gap shrunk slightly this year, the proportion of women participating in the global labor force actually declined, according to the WEF.

Fewer women in the workforce: What’s up with that?

"We have been producing this report for 13 years. And in the last couple of years, we started to see this tapering-off of progress that hasn't been happening before," Saadia Zahidi, head of the WEF’s Centre for the New Economy and Society and member of its managing board, told the China News Service.

The WEF cites a few reasons why gaps in workforce participation, career advancement and pay remain so prevalent worldwide. One, which was highlighted in most national media coverage of the Index and confirms prior research, centers around the gender imbalance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.

Indeed, the numbers are hard to ignore. Less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women, according to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and women represent less than 25 percent of the U.S. STEM workforce. Globally, only 22 percent of artificial intelligence (AI) professionals are female, according to research from the WEF and LinkedIn.

Compounding their lack of representation in this increasingly crucial and lucrative segment, the jobs women tend to take are more vulnerable to automation—leaving women at greater risk of being left behind.

Zahidi called on companies to step up to ensure recent gains in gender equality are not reversed as technologies advance. “Industries must proactively hardwire gender parity in the future of work through effective training, reskilling and upskilling interventions and tangible job transition pathways, which will be key to narrowing these emerging gender gaps and reversing the trends we are seeing today,” she said in a statement. “It’s in their long-term interest because diverse businesses perform better.”

That last assertion aligns with a 2018 study from the Boston Consulting Group, which found that companies with gender diverse leadership produced 19 percent more revenue.

But however consequential the STEM gap may be, it doesn’t fully account for observed workforce disparities. In most countries around the world, the infrastructure needed to help women enter or re-enter the workforce—such as childcare and eldercare—is under-developed, according to the WEF, and unpaid work remains primarily the responsibility of women.

“For most economies, we actually haven't found the way for parents to be able to combine work and family,” Zahidi told the China News Service. “And most of the burdens of unpaid care work, whether childcare or eldercare, tends to fall upon women."

Women spend more of their time working for free

Among the 29 countries for which data are available, women spend, on average, twice as much time on housework, childcare and other unpaid activities than men, according to the Index. This finding mirrors prior research, including a 2018 study from the U.N. that estimates women do 2.6 times more unpaid care and domestic work than men.

“Women, even full-time working women, spend fewer hours on average doing paid work than their husbands or partners do,” Kim Parker, the director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center, told MarketWatch earlier this year. “That may be due in part to the fact that there’s this expectation or default arrangement where they are doing more of the child care or housework.”

This calls to mind the prevailing sentiment that the need for schedule flexibility often prevents women from advancing in the workplace. It also illuminates why women need all that flexibility in the first place—because they spend so much time on unpaid tasks that allow the global economy to function but aren’t factored into the global GDP. "If women stopped doing a lot of the work they do unpaid, then the whole economy would collapse," Shahra Razavi, chief of the research and data section at U.N. Women, told CNN Money.

For most, these conclusions are likely not surprising. But they point to potential pathways that companies and governments can pursue—alongside policies that enhance STEM equality—in order to close the workforce gender gap faster. For example, economies that provide public or subsidized childcare have more than twice the percentage of women wage earners, according to a 2017 report from the World Bank.

Image credit: Rawpixel via Unsplash


Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni