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Workforce: Women increasing, but still at bottom of the pile

Women are entering the global labor force in record numbers, but many make so little money they can barely survive, the United Nations said Friday.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2004 13:59 IST

Women are entering the global labor force in record numbers, but many make so little money they can barely survive, the United Nations said Friday.

A report released by the International Labor Organization said women now account for 40.5 percent of the world's work force, up from 39.9 percent a decade ago and the highest figure ever recorded by the U.N. agency.

Of the world's total 2.8 billion workers, 1.1 billion are women, said the report, issued ahead of International Women's Day on Monday. But women account for 60 percent of the world's 550 million "working poor," said the study, based on 2003 figures. A separate, updated ILO study of women's efforts to break the "glass ceiling" _ an invisible, symbolic barrier to top jobs _ said progress remains "slow, uneven and sometimes discouraging." "These two reports provide a stark picture of the status of women in the world of work today," said ILO chief Juan Somavia. Although women are slowly closing the worldwide employment gap, there are wide variations between regions.

In Europe's former communist countries, 91 women are economically active for every 100 men, but in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia the figure is only 40.

Global growth in the female work force hasn't brought equal pay for work of equal value. In six occupations studied, women still earned less than their male co-workers, even in traditionally female-dominated occupations such as nursing and teaching, ILO said. "In short, true equality in the world of work is still out of reach," the agency said.

Worldwide, female unemployment in 2003 was slightly higher than the male jobless figure _ at 6.4 percent for women and 6.1 percent for men. Only in East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa did the male unemployment rate exceed that of women.

However, the study said, lower female unemployment rates in poor countries often mask another problem. Most women in poor countries have to take whatever work is available and will likely wind up in the informal sector _ including agriculture _ vulnerable to abuse of their rights by employers.

In its updated study of the "glass ceiling," ILO said women are increasing their share of managerial positions but very slowly. Women's share of professional jobs increased by just 0.7 percent between 2000 and 2002.

North and South America and ex-communist Europe have the highest share of women in management jobs, but even in female-dominated sectors like teaching, a disproportionate number of men rise to the more senior positions.

"Women continue to have more difficulty obtaining top jobs than they do lower down the hierarchy," said Linda Wirth, head of ILO's gender bureau.

"A handful of women are making headlines here and there as they break through, but statistically they represent a mere few percent of top management jobs. The rule of thumb is still: the higher up an organization's hierarchy, the fewer the women."

First Published: Mar 08, 2004 13:59 IST