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Women's Progress in Workforce Improving Worldwide, But Occupational Segregation Still Rife


Press release | 11 December 1997


GENEVA (ILO News) ­ Despite rapidly increasing rates of female education and participation in the workforce worldwide, most women continue to suffer from occupational segregation in the workplace and rarely break through the so-called "glass ceiling" separating them from top-level management and professional positions, according to a new ILO report entitled Breaking through the Glass Ceiling: Women in Management. (Endnote 1)

"Glass ceiling" is a term coined in the 1970s in the United States to describe the invisible artificial barriers, created by attitudinal and organizational prejudices, which bar women from top executive jobs.

The report says while women have made substantial progress in closing the gender gap in managerial and professional jobs, most female managers worldwide are still barred from the top levels of organizations, whether in the private or public sector or in political life. They hold a mere 2-3 per cent of top jobs in corporations. And even when they manage to rise to the top, female executives nearly always earn less than men.

In spite of the overall progress of women in middle management, the author of the report, ILO labour expert Ms. Linda Wirth, concludes that "Almost universally, women have failed to reach leading positions in major corporations and private sector organizations, irrespective of their abilities."

The report cites ILO research that has found that approximately half of all the world's workers are in sex-stereotyped occupations wherein males or females predominate to such an extent ­ representing at least 80 per cent of all the workers ­ that the occupations themselves can be considered as "male" or "female". And management is typically viewed as a male occupation.

In the US, for example, where women workers are equally qualified vis-à-vis male workers, they now constitute 46 per cent of the managerial workforce. In Canada, women account for 42 per cent of all managers. However a 1996 survey of Fortune 500 companies showed that women held only 2.4 per cent of the highest management jobs and accounted for a tiny 1.9 per cent of the highest-paid officers and directors. Median weekly earnings of women managers in the US in 1995 was only 68 per cent of their male counterparts.

In Japan, the percentage of women directors of companies (including small- and medium-sized enterprises) increased from 9 to 13 per cent since 1970. A government survey reported that women's share in professional and technological occupations grew from almost 31 per cent in 1950 to 42 per

cent in 1990. However, the percentage of women holding positions as top managers of major corporations increased from only 1 to 2 per cent during that period.

A survey in Brazil in 1991 revealed that only 3 per cent of top executives were women and in the 40 largest state-owned companies the figure was less than 1 per cent. Another survey in Brazil found that female managers often earned only half the salary of male managers.

In Europe, the pattern is much the same. A 1996 survey of 300 enterprises in the UK found that 3 per cent of board members were women. Another survey of the FTSE 100 companies found that women accounted for only 4 per cent of directors and 2 per cent of executive directorships. Women managers earned only 71 per cent of male manager's weekly salaries. However, the earnings of women professionals in the UK reached 83 per cent of those of men, making UK women professionals one of the least disadvantaged groups in terms of the wage gap.

In Germany in 1995, a survey of the 70,000 largest companies showed that women held between 1 and 3 per cent of the top executive and board positions while their share of senior and middle management was 6 and 12 per cent, respectively.

In France, the proportion of women as executives of large companies is comparatively high at 13 per cent in 1990, but that is down from 15 per cent in 1982. Similar reductions occurred in women's share as executives in small- and medium-sized enterprises. There was only a slight improvement in women's share of senior management posts in the financial, administrative and commercial services of large companies, from 4 to 6 per cent.

Some countries have seen progress for high-level professional women in recent years. In the Netherlands, for example, women increased their participation in senior management from 10 per cent in the 1970s to 18 per cent in 1990. In Canada, during roughly the same period, women's presence in senior positions shot up from a lowly 4 per cent to approximately 21 per cent. In Australia and Finland, women's share of senior management jobs is around 11 per cent and increasing.

In Mexico, women's share of public and private sector managerial positions rose from a relatively high 16 per cent in 1980 to 19 per cent by 1990. In Hungary, women increased their share as enterprise or organization managers from 16 to 25 per cent between 1980 and 1990.

Even so, the proportion of professional and managerial women is higher in some developing countries such as Colombia, the Philippines, Uruguay and Venezuela than in many industrialized countries, the report says.

In Thailand, the proportion of women managers in 1990 totalled 19 per cent, compared to 8 per cent in 1974. In Singapore, that proportion increased from 22 per cent in 1992 to 27 per cent in 1996. In Colombia, it grew from 14 per cent in 1980, to 27 per cent in 1990, and 37 per cent in 1996. In Chile, it grew from 20 per cent in 1980 to 27 per cent in 1995 and 8 per cent of directors and high-level executives in Chile are women.

Even though the proportion of women in management has doubled or even tripled in certain developing countries, the numbers remain generally low. In 1970, for example, women accounted for 3 per cent of managers in Tunisia, which increased to 9 per cent by 1990. In Niger, the percentage of women managers and administrators rose from 3 per cent in 1986 to 8 per cent in 1991. Similarly, in Turkey women held 10 per cent of these jobs in 1995, up from 5 per cent in 1988; in Malaysia, women's share rose to 10 per cent in 1995, up from 3 per cent in 1986.

In some countries, little change has occurred in women's share of management. Women made up 5 per cent of administrative and managerial jobs in Bahrain in 1987 and this had increased by only one percentage point by 1994. The proportion of women in such jobs in Pakistan grew only from 3 to 4 per cent between 1989 and 1994. In Argentina, only 5 per cent of managerial jobs in industrial enterprises and 6 per cent in services and construction were held by women in 1995.

Occupational Segregation by Gender

Linda Wirth says that even where progress has been greatest, "women generally fare best in industries employing large numbers of women, such as health and community services and the hotel and catering industry." She argues that "the gender gap at the top is simply the most glaring example of employment segregation by sex that prevails across the entire spectrum of labour market opportunities."

Women in management tend to be clustered in certain activities, to the point where certain company functions are almost feminized. In the US, the increase of women's share of personnel and labour relations managers was higher than in other areas, from 21 per cent in 1970 to 58 per cent in 1991. In France the percentage of women personnel managers increased from 25 per cent in 1982 to 38 per cent in 1990. In Finland, the proportion of personnel managers who were women shot up from 17 per cent in 1970 to 70 per cent in 1990.

In the organizational structures of corporations, career paths in human resource management and administration are less likely to lead directly to the top than other strategic areas such as product development or corporate finance.

The ILO research shows that gender inequality in education and training, reinforced by social attitudes, contributes to this occupational segregation, channelling men and women into different trades, professions and jobs from an early age. It also indicates that for non-agricultural occupations, there are over seven times as many male-dominated occupations as female-dominated ones.

So segregated are certain jobs that, for example, in both Japan and the US in 1991, nearly one-half of women employed in the category of professional and technical jobs worked in only two occupations ­ nursing and teaching. In India and Hong Kong, more than 80 per cent of women professional and technical workers were either nurses or teachers.

In Canada, where the proportion of women working nearly doubled in recent decades to reach 60 per cent in 1991, women remain concentrated in a narrow range of occupations. In the mid-1980s, for example, nearly one-third of all employed women worked in clerical jobs, whereas only 12 per cent of men were concentrated in any single major occupational category.

A study of 27 occupational categories in the Republic of Korea in 1992 showed that women represented 70 per cent of the workforce in four categories: subsistence agriculture, health care, clerical work and food processing. In other categories they represented less than 5 per cent, including legislators and senior officials (none), corporate managers (2 per cent) and mathematicians and engineering professionals (4 per cent).

Even in countries with strong track records of government support for gender equality the pattern of occupational segregation prevails. In Finland, for example, only 20 per cent of women work in occupations that show a balanced male/female employment ratio (i.e. where 40-60 per cent of employees are of the same sex) and these jobs represent only 7 per cent of all occupations.

Companies risk losing women's skills

The report says that gender-sensitive, human-resource strategies developed by enterprises in recent decades provide the best ways through the glass ceiling ­ including networking, career tracking, mentoring and succession planning that pays particular attention to the situation of women. Objective and unbiased recruitment and promotion procedures are vital in attracting and retaining skilled professional women. Ms. Wirth argues that in light of the increasing skill levels of women in the workforce, such strategies are necessary: "Women are increasingly a key resource in the race to create new products and services and they are entrepreneurs as well. Competitive companies cannot afford to lose out on women's talent."

The hurdles facing women aspiring to management jobs can be so formidable that they sometimes abandon efforts to make it to the top of large firms, the report says. Such women often take their energy and know-how to smaller and more flexible companies, or set up their own businesses. In the United States, a third of small and medium-sized companies are now run by women. One-third of Finnish entrepreneurs are women.

While businesses run by women are usually small, employing up to five persons, their importance to the overall economy is growing. Two national studies found that women headed about a quarter of small businesses in Brazil. However, women probably run more than 50 per cent of micro-enterprises and small businesses in that country.

Many women in developing countries seem to be well educated and prepared for professional occupations, and their skills are in demand, says Ms. Wirth. Women in developing countries also have access to more child care and household assistance, thanks to extended family systems and the availability of affordable domestic help.

While more and more women work, their jobs are often assigned a lower value in terms of skill requirements and remuneration. While women's education, training and work experience are increasingly equipping them with the necessary qualifications and skills to aspire to and be selected for top positions, significant gender differences persist in the nature and quality of education and training, says Ms. Wirth. These can represent real obstacles for many women at the recruitment stage, as well as later on in their careers.

Improving the quality of women's education initially depends on support from the family and community in encouraging girls, and providing them with the same educational and training opportunities as boys, particularly in the areas of science and technology, the report says.

The ILO will hold a Tripartite Meeting involving representatives of governments, employers and workers from 20 countries worldwide from 15-19 December in Geneva to discuss the findings of the report and examine the situation of working women in management. The meeting's participants will seek to develop action strategies designed to provide more and better jobs for women, especially in management and top-level positions.

Women's share of administrative and managerial jobs *
and share in total employment, 1994-95

Administrative and
managerial jobs
Australia **



Costa Rica











Sri Lanka



United Kingdom **

United States




* Administrative and managerial workers classified as Major Group 2 in the International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO-68). Includes legislative officials, administrators and managers.

** 1993.

Source: ILO Statistical Yearbook 1996.

Endnote 1:

Breaking through the Glass Ceiling: Women in Management. Report for discussion at the Tripartite Meeting on Breaking through the Glass Ceiling: Women in Management. International labour Office. Geneva, 1997. ISBN 92-2-110642-X.