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Feminism Around the World: Economist Analyzes Global Gender Gap in the Workplace Despite Feminist Gains


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Welcome to Feminism Around the World, a weekly feature here at TMS where we focus on women’s lives and feminist concerns around the world by applauding successes, reporting injustices, and amplifying the conversation around solutions to gender-based inequality. Because “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” – Teresa

INTERNATIONAL: Economist Analyzes Global Gender Gap In the Workplace Despite Feminist Gains

There’s no question that, in many areas, the lives of women have improved worldwide as more and more women in more and more countries force gender equality to the forefront of the national discussion. However, there’s also no question that “improvement” depends on the sector at which you’re looking, and what you consider positive, feminist change.

Charles Kenny, an economist and Senior Fellow at The Center for Global Development, wrote a piece over at Quartz about how inequality in the workplace isn’t changing as fast as it needs to, or as fast as gender equality is being approached in other areas, which means that the next generation of women and girls will find themselves even more frustrated than we are.

First, the good news! According to Kenny, there’s a substantial worldwide increase in women and girls having access to an education. He says that “The proportion of pupils in high school that are girls has climbed from 42% in 1970 to 48% in 2014,” and that at the college level, “there are now more women enrolled than men. There were three million women college graduates in China in 1990; by 2010, there were 13 million. The proportion of college graduates in the country who are women has climbed from 35% to 46% over that time.” India, too, has seen similar, rapid improvement, and in the U.S, more than half of all college graduates are female.

Sounds great, right? I mean, in spite of the fact that there are many other areas of the world where cultural attitudes keep women and girls from education even if they have legal equality, or else economic inequality does the same. Still, it’s heartening to know that more nations and governments are prioritizing education for everyone, regardless of gender.

Less heartening is what happens to those women once they leave school. That’s where the seeds of inequality they’ve experienced all their lives really begin to grow fruit. The labor force worldwide is only 40% female, and that’s only a 1% improvement since 1990. Depending on what industries you’re looking at, the disparity is even more grim.

According to Kenny, “[T]he gap is bigger in the formal sector where firms are more likely to meet labor standards and minimum wage laws. Looking at the World Bank’s survey of registered businesses, only one third of the full time workers they employ worldwide are women.”

Much of this is tied to those same cultural attitudes that keep many girls from going to school in the first place. Even if girls do go to school, society says that’s the end of their progress when they become women, and they’re expected to return to the “feminine sphere,” which of course includes domestic work and child rearing.

For example, there’s a World Values Survey done every year on which one of the questions is “When jobs are scarce, should men have more right to a job than a woman?” Fewer people globally have agreed with that statement outright over time, but what has increased is the number of people who answer “neither agree nor disagree.” That means that, despite people not wanting to commit to outright sexism, they don’t feel comfortable committing to gender equality, either.

As Kenny points out, the percentage of people who answered “no” to this question “[W]as 40% in China a decade ago and is 37% now. In India, the number dropped from 28% to 23%, in the US, from 81%to 69%. And men remain particularly tepid in this regard: they are 16 percentage points less likely than women to oppose sexist hiring practices in the US, 12 less points in China, and 10 points less likely in India.”

[**Taking a moment to point out that the U.S. had the biggest drop in people willing to oppose sexism outright, as opposed to supposedly “less enlightened” countries like China and India. But please do go on about how women in the United States are totally free and don’t need feminism.**]

In any case, it’s attitudes like that that prevent women from both ascending to management positions. “Women make up only 21% of boards of directors in Sweden,” Kenny writes. “14% in France and less than 2% in a number of Arab states. And the very top of the global economy is still a men’s club. Forbes’ ranking of the world’s billionaires suggests that only 191 out of the World’s list of 1810 billionaires are women.”

He’s quick to point out that this has nothing to do with women’s talent, and that female-run companies are proven to be just as profitable as those run by men. However, women tend to go into less profitable industries that provide more flexible schedules because cultural norms dictate that they’re the ones that have to worry exclusively about child care and domestic work. Those that go into more profitable industries often don’t ascend the corporate ladder for the same reasons. It’s not a choice, it’s a necessity.

So, it seems one of the biggest stumbling blocks to gender equality worldwide continues to be the notion that women shouldn’t work, and if they do, it’s a luxury, or allowing them to do so is a “favor.” Countries are educating girls, then wasting their potential as women.


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