Forging a gender-balanced economy

Getting more women into work is a priority goal of G20 policy, but gender inequality is a barrier. To overcome this, the OECD, ILO and others have identified ways forward.
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Only a fine performance: Actress Judy Davis in the 1979 film adaptation of My Brilliant Career © AFP/Kobal/The Picture Desk

“I am only a woman!” declares Sybylla Melvyn with deliberate irony, in the Australian classic novel, My Brilliant Career. When Miles Franklin wrote the novel in 1901, aged just 19, she was embarking on her own career path, and though successful, like Sybylla, she encountered many social, economic and cultural hurdles along the way.

Today, though far more women go out to work than a century ago, female participation in the workforce remains below that of male in all G20 and OECD countries. Yet millions more women could and would work if hurdles were removed and the conditions were made right for them to do so.

Policymakers are taking notice. In its G20 programme Australia believes that by reducing the gender gap in employment by 25% by 2025, over 100 million women would join the workforce in G20 countries, boosting GDP growth by up to 1.6%.

The G20 now wants national growth strategies to incorporate measures to promote much greater gender equality, from access to quality education, to finance and productive, rewarding jobs. Fostering female labour market participation features at the heart of many G20 priorities, for instance, as part of the structural reforms initiatives and the G20 Task Force on Employment on the integration of under-represented populations.

Both the OECD Recommendation on Gender Equality in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship and International Labour Organization (ILO) maternity conventions and recommendations support these goals (see references).

But, merely increasing labour force participation among women is not enough: women should never be subjected to discriminatory low pay, or be involuntarily confined to part-time employment or menial, vulnerable jobs. To ensure women are fully integrated in society and the workforce, policymakers must overhaul their rules and overturn social and cultural attitudes as well.

The gender gap in labour force participation is wide. For the working-age population it narrowed from an average of 23 percentage points across the OECD area in 1990 to 13 percentage points in 2012; among the G20 countries the range is quite wide, with a low of 7 percentage points in Canada, more than 20 percentage points in the likes of Italy, Japan and Korea, and well over 50 percentage points in India and Saudi Arabia. Since 2000, female employment rates have increased in most countries and, by 2012, reached 60% or more in half of the G20 countries. Nevertheless, gender employment gaps were wider than 10 percentage points in 15 G20 countries.

Data show that women are less likely to work full-time than men in all countries, or progress in their careers. They show that young women are more likely to be categorised as neither in employment, education or training (NEETs) than their male counterparts, particularly in India, Mexico and Turkey.

The wage gap between men and women is substantial too, in part because many women work in welfare, education, health care and administrative jobs, and are over-represented in informal employment, particularly in emerging economies. However, even when there is no obvious reason wage gaps for men and women in the same job can exist.

Women are widely regarded as excellent entrepreneurs–some women have remarked with humour that a Lehman Sisters would never have collapsed–yet make up only 25% of business-owners with employees in G20 countries. Women rarely own large businesses and their average earnings from self-employment are up to 60% lower than for men.

Looking at the educational performance of boys and girls, and younger men and women, it is hard to believe that these gender gaps exist at all. Girls aged 15 outperform boys in reading competency and lag behind in mathematics, but to a much lesser extent than boys lag behind in reading. And women between the ages of 25 and 34 are more likely to have a tertiary degree than men in the same age group. However, gender differences persist in choice of study, with too few women in sciences, for instance.

A way forward

Gender gaps are conditioned by a mixture of economic and socio-cultural factors, and narrowing these gaps demands a range of bold measures. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of good practice which the OECD has documented for countries to emulate, and these can be found in the references below. A report by the OECD, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), ILO and World Bank, identifies four broad areas for policy action.

First, policymakers should introduce legal measures to eliminate unequal treatment in the labour market. Discrimination against women is all too commonplace in OECD and G20 countries, even though discrimination based on gender, maternity, paternity and family responsibilities is against the law in most OECD and G20 countries. Where it is not, policymaker should establish clear legislative frameworks. All countries should ensure the law is applied evenly, and that women and men are treated equally, with restrictions removed on hiring women for some occupations, even manual jobs, for instance. The principle of equal pay for equal work or for work of equal value should also be upheld by law, and insisted upon in collective bargaining. Governments can help by setting voluntary targets, and encourage private initiatives to promote more women in decision-making positions, for instance. Pressure for change can be maintained via monitoring, labour inspection, equality commissions and the courts. Publishing data on discrimination helps to keep track of changes and to hold feet to the fire.

Second, governments should build an enabling environment for gender equality in labour markets to take hold. Measures to ensure a female-friendly labour market include maternal health services, covering prenatal, childbirth, postnatal and reproductive health. Girls must have equal access to the same good-quality education as boys, equal rights and opportunities to complete schooling and to enter all higher education courses, and afforded proper guidance as to their field of study and career path.

Measures that help both women and men to reconcile work and family life are also essential. There are examples of good practices in some OECD countries, such as employment-protected paid maternity and paternity leave for everyone, including informal workers. Policymakers should also ensure good-quality early childhood education and care services.

Family-friendly workplace support, including for nursing mothers, quality part-time employment options and flexibility with regard to working time, would also help.

Third come measures to make work pay, improve the quality of jobs and reduce the informal labour market. A country’s tax/benefit system can dissuade women from going out to work, but should be designed so that men and women have broadly the same financial incentives to go out to work and have the same level of coverage. Minimum wages and social security coverage for low-paid part-time workers should be enhanced, while cash transfers, such as earned income tax credits, can encourage more women to join the labour force.

Policies are needed to improve employment conditions, and increase access to training, including for informal self-employed workers and domestic workers.

Fourth, policymakers should introduce measures to promote entrepreneurship.

A range of actions is required, from ensuring equal access to finance, markets and advice, to establishing gender-neutral legal frameworks for business. Governments should improve conditions for small and medium-sized firms for men and women, and encourage microfinance for informal businesses. They should also conduct awareness-raising campaigns and support training programmes.

The factors underlying the persistency of the female labour market disadvantage must and can be challenged, and while women and men can work together to effect change on the ground, government leadership can make the difference.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Miles Franklin’s death. What more fitting tribute than for G20 countries under the presidency of Australia, a pioneer in giving women the right to vote and be elected, to underline their commitment to reducing gender inequality so that women everywhere might have a shot at their own brilliant careers?

Rory J. Clarke

For more information on gender issues, contact


Adema, Willem (2014), “Closing the gender gap can boost the economy”, in OECD Observer No 298, Q1, see, key word: Japan.

Franklin, Miles (1901), My Brilliant Career, Penguin Classics.

OECD et al (2014), Achieving stronger growth by promoting a more gender-balanced economy, available at includes many concrete examples of good practice in gender equality policy from a wide range of G20 countries.

OECD (2014), Enhancing Women’s Economic Empowerment through Entrepreneurship and Business Leadership in OECD Countries, available at

OECD (2013), Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship, Paris, available at



© OECD Observer No 300, Q3 2014

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