International Women’s Day: Women in a Changing World of Work

  • Laura Monti
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International Women’s Day. Thailand, 2015. Photo: UN Women/Pornvit Visitoran. | Lebanon, 2015. Photo: UN Women/Joe Saad | Kenya, 2016. Photo: CIAT/Georgina Smith

To mark International Women’s Day, the UN is putting a spotlight on women in the changing world of work. The occasion calls on governments around the world to work toward gender equality in their labour forces and make the impact technological change enhance women’s economic empowerment.


International Women’s Day: A Message from UN Women’s Executive Director. Video credit: UN Women


We want to construct a different world of work for women,” said Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the head of the UN gender equality agency, UN Women. “Women and girls must be ready to be part of the digital revolution.”

She pointed out that globally women only hold 18 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees and only account for 25 percent of the workforce of digital industries.

To support this shift, today the UN’s labour agency, the International Labour Organization (ILO) launched the second volume of Women, Gender and Work: Social Choices and Inequalities.  The report provides analysis on where women stand today in the world of work and their progress over the past 20 years.

Worldwide only 50 percent of working age women participate in the labour force, compared to 76 percent of men, according to the ILO. Women’s global labour force participation saw a gradual decline over the last decade from 52 percent in 1995 to 50 percent in 2015. What’s more, an overwhelming majority of women are in informal or non-standard forms of work, such as domestic labour or small scale agriculture, which often has poor work conditions.


Women Dominate the Lowest Valued Jobs in the Digital Sector

Technological and digital industries provide new employment opportunities for women. However, while the digital fluency gap between men and women is narrowing, women still have relatively low participation in the digital sector, where a large portion of future jobs will be created. Women face more barriers in entering jobs in technological and digital industries, such as lack of financial means, mobility, and access to technology.  Furthermore, women are overrepresented in lower-paid and informal jobs and underrepresented in leadership positions and science and technology.

 In developing countries, women tend to mainly hold low-skilled jobs in the digital sector where women have become the major recipients of the world’s redistributed e-work. Large number of young women are recruited into low-skilled work in the digital economy, such as at call centres and data-entry firms. These jobs offer women economic inclusion but are rarely stable, permanent or unionized.

The late Swasti Mitter, who held senior positions at the UNU Institute of New Technologies and was a professor of Technology and Gender at the University of Maastricht, likened these firms to “electronic sweatshops”.

Ironically, despite being largely excluded from the digital sector, women represent the majority of the low level positions, often assembling the very electronics that drive the digital revolution. In China and Sri Lanka, women represent 70 to 80 percent of the labour force in Export Processing Zones (EPZs), which consist of mostly labour-intensive, low-skilled jobs, in industries such as electronics manufacturing.

In these “electronic sweatshops,” women are more likely to work under abusive and exploitative conditions that violate their human rights. It is also important to note that women who are illegal migrant workers, domestic workers, sex workers, or work in hazardous industries often face more risks than their male counterparts.


Mechanization of Jobs has a Negative Impact on Work Dominated by Women

The Bricked in Lives of Brick Kiln Workers. Photo credit: WSF News / Sarada Lahangir

Mechanization had a greater impact on women than men because female-dominated labour and sectors were more susceptible to mechanization. The mechanization trend experienced in the 1980s and 1990s is a likely prelude to the coming wave of automation. It reduced the number of strenuous or hazardous forms of work. However, in developing countries women were often excluded from the benefits of mechanization and technological imports because jobs created in operating new technologies mostly go to men.

In a 2002 study, Cornell University’s Renana Jhabvala and Ravi Kanbur found that increased mechanization tends to displace more jobs where women have traditionally been employed. At the time, women represented 92 percent of construction diggers and brick carriers in Ahmedabad, India. In an interview, Madhuben, a female brick carrier, was wary of impact of technological change on her work prospects. “I have seen that all digging is done by machines, and even carrying bricks that we used to do, is now done by machines,” she said.

Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work is the priority theme at the 61st annual session of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women taking place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from 13 to 24 March 2017. The intersection of women, gender, technology and work deserves more attention if we are to achieve the ambitious 2030 Agenda and particularly the SDG 5 on gender equality and SDG 8 on decent work for all.

You can access the ILO’s second volume of Women, Gender and Work: Social Choices and Inequalities by clicking on the below icon:




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