Gender (in)equality


Men earn more than women, work less, and occupy more of the top jobs – but women live longer, are better educated and get to retire younger. How best to harness the talents of both sexes for better lives all round?


The financial and economic crisis has underlined the importance of making the best use of all our resources if we are to achieve sustainable growth that benefits everyone in the years to come – and that includes people. Making the most of the talent pool means ensuring that men and women, boys and girls, have a fair chance to contribute both at home and in the workplace. The OECD’s gender initiative is a measure of the importance of the human element in creating better policies for better lives.


But how can you compare the experience of OECD countries such as Norway, where leveling the gender playing field has reached the point of setting quotas for women in the boardroom, and partner countries where women entrepreneurs often cannot access bank loans and the networking that is fundamental to business growth takes place in social settings that are traditionally closed to women?


Where is the common ground between OECD countries where more women complete higher education than men and those partner countries which are still struggling to achieve universal primary education for girls?

In fact these extremes are not as far apart as we might think, certainly in terms of time. It is not so long ago – and certainly within the last half-century – that women factory workers in many European countries were obliged to quit when they married. Today’s older professional women may have seen their mothers refused bank loans without a male guarantor. For many OECD countries, votes for women are a mere 50 years old.


Change does not always come as quickly as some would want, and for governments getting the policy mix right to achieve desired ends is not always easy. But they can learn from the experience of others how to get results, and to ensure that well-intentioned efforts do not create unexpected and unintended new forms of inequality.


US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at an OECD-US event on Growing Economies through Women’s Entrepreneurship, November 2011.

Education: What about the boys?


Years of effort by OECD countries to end disadvantage against girls in the education system has resulted in a situation where girls are more likely to complete secondary education than boys and more women than men graduate from college -- and there are now concerns that something needs to be done to help the boys. Since the beginning of the OECD’s PISA tests of school leavers’ abilities, in 2000, girls have always scored higher in reading than boys–and by a substantial margin: the equivalent of one full year of formal schooling.


Perhaps more worryingly, the gender gap in reading between boys and girls at the end of their compulsory education has not improved in any country since 2000, and has actually widened in some. This is mirrored in a decline of boy’s enjoyment of reading and the amount of leisure time they spend on it. Why are boys less inclined to read for pleasure than girls? Could it have something to do with the fact that in their formative primary school years their teachers are predominantly women and they see reading as a female activity, or are they being given the wrong books? And how to remedy the gap? If policy has been successful in improving female education, is a new focus now needed for the boys?


But that is not to say that there are no more issues concerning girls. Even though more women are graduating, persuading them to study sciences and to take jobs in scientific fields has proved rather more difficult to achieve, of particular concern given a shortage of science graduates in many countries to fill jobs available.


What can be done? More female role models in science, less gender stereotyping at all points, both for boys and girls would help in the developed world. In the developing world, it is first a question of making it possible financially for girls to continue in secondary education as well as boys by dropping fees, providing uniforms, but also making it safe for girls to travel to school. And also, for those not yet in the situation of the OECD countries, learning from their experience and taking care that pro-girl policies do not end up discouraging the boys.


Sex and the workplace


And what about working life and retirement? Well, women come out ahead in the age stakes, living longer than men in all OECD countries, with an average life expectancy of 82.2 years, compared with 76.7 for men. This is obviously a fact that governments can do little to change, but they might want to look more closely at their age-related policies in light of this fact.


Despite their longevity, in many countries women retire earlier than men – the average official retirement age is 61.8 for women and 62.9 for men. This gap is narrowing with pension reforms under way in many countries, but even in 2050 men will be retiring at a couple of months older, at 64.6 years compared with 64.4 for women. And because of the longevity gap, women will still be enjoying four years’ more retirement than men at 24.5 years to 20.3.


So are men getting a raw deal? Well, you do have to take into account that since women earn less than men (16% less at the last count), they earn less over their working lives, end up with smaller pensions and are more likely to end up living in poverty. And the higher up the pay scale you go, the wider the gap. In Europe, women hold just 12% of board seats in quoted companies, even though according to some studies corporations with women on their boards and in leadership positions have a higher return on equity – which may help explain Norway’s move to legislate greater equality in the boardroom.


And it should also perhaps be noted that women in general are doing a great deal more of the world’s unpaid work than men. On average, women devote some two hours a day more than men to extra unpaid work such as housework, childcare, parent care. And this is an issue not just for OECD countries – in the developing world, rural women spend far more time than men obtaining water and fuel, caring for children and the sick, and processing food. The same is true for girls, making it more difficult for them to attend school and acquire the skills needed for jobs as adults.


Much ink was shed over the fact that at least in the early part of the crisis, more men lost their jobs than women in OECD countries. There are many possible reasons for this – men were more likely to be in sectors such as construction that suffered most at the start, but also perhaps that men were more costly than women to employ. It is certainly true that male unemployment rate average in OECD in 2010 was 9% for men, compared with 8.4% for women. But it is perhaps worth remembering that during the pre-crisis growth years from 1997-2008, women’s unemployment was consistently higher than men’s on average in OECD countries.


Tax systems have a lot to answer for too – in some countries systems are weighted to encourage women to stay at home while their children are below school age, or organized so that the second earner’s income bears a higher tax rate when the combined earnings go above a tax threshold. Tax breaks for stay at home mothers may not be available for a stay at home father.


“Gender equality must become a lived reality….Equal rights and opportunity underpin healthy economies and societies,” as Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women puts it. If men and women want to work and enjoy their private lives, the system has to make it easier for both of them. Affordable childcare is important, but so is ensuring that fathers, not just mothers, have time off to get used to being a parent and be part of a family – and that they are encouraged to use it without being thought less of by their employers. In less developed countries, it may be about first ensuring that infrastructure such as roads and water are in place so girls have time to go to school and a way to get there, so they have the skills needed for working life as women.

One thing is clear. Gender issues are not going to go away any time soon, for men or women, in the search for better policies and better lives.


““The growth potential of women’s entrepreneurship is becoming more and more evident throughout the world. In many OECD economies, women are starting businesses at a faster rate than men…..However, women entrepreneurs are still facing many obstacles. Women are less likely than men to have access to credit, resources, and education…. Women are also more likely than men to be in vulnerable jobs in the informal sector, to be underemployed or without a job; in addition to carrying out unpaid work in households."

Angel Gurría
OECD Secretary-General
OECD-US event on Growing Economies through Women’s Entrepreneurship
November 2011

“Economic studies show that corporations with women on their boards and in leadership positions have a higher return on equity.”

Charles P. Heeter
Chairman, Business and Industry Advisory Committee (BIAC) to the OECD,
Workshop on The Business Case for Women’s Economic Empowerment, OECD/BIAC/AmCham France,
February 2012.


Further reading on gender:

Previous articles:

Fighting corruption, boosting integrity

Beating the crisis: the role of the OECD and G20

A question of trust

Good job?

Back to school

Cool, clean water

Greening growth

Food prices



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