When asked eight years ago why gender parity was important in the cabinet he had formed, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded, ‘Because it’s 2015’. We are in 2023, but gender equality remains elusive across the globe. In the last year for which data are available, the proportion of women in senior and middle management positions (SDG Indicator 5.5.2) was lower than 35 per cent in half of the world’s countries. Men still earned more than women in most countries, in nearly all industries, due to various factors including persisting gender segregation in employment by occupation, disruptions to the working lives of women due to motherhood, uneven sharing of family and care responsibilities, and unfair pay practices, This blog dives into the ILO’s Harmonized Microdata Collection to provide insights regarding this major social injustice of our time: the gender pay gap.
Gender pay gaps persist across industries and occupations
Gender segregation, particularly visible in some economic activities, is reflected in pay differentials. For instance, the air transport industry is one where there are wide gender gaps in hourly earnings, as a much larger share of the industry’s women are employed in sales and service occupations in comparison to men who are more likely to be in managerial, professional, and specialized occupations such as pilots. On the opposite end, in the construction sector, earning differentials are less significant in the ‘specialized construction activities’ industry, and women even earn more than men on average in the ‘construction of buildings’ industry in many countries. This is because women constitute a very small share of the construction sector’s workforce, and women who are employed in the sector are more likely to be professionals, while the men are far more likely to be in semi-skilled and low-skilled occupations.
To control for the impact of occupational segregation and for potential differences in working time between men and women we define in this analysis the gender wage gap – or gender pay gap – as the difference between the hourly wage of men and women, as a percentage of the hourly wage of men, within a specific occupation or occupational group. It is important to note that factors relating to broader segregation in the labour market and to job and workplace characteristics (e.g., larger shares of women in informal employment, or employed in micro and small enterprises, or on temporary contracts, or in part-time positions) also have a bearing on the gender wage gap, even within the same occupation. Additionally, while this analysis focuses on the gender pay gap, we want to underline the fact that intersecting characteristics – including race, ethnicity, migration status, disability status, sexual orientation, and other characteristics – can have significant implications for the labour market outcomes of individuals.
Occupations that stand out as having important gender wage gaps in most countries include high skilled professionals and STEM occupations, where women are still underrepresented. For instance, in the last year for which data are available, over 80 per cent of countries had a gender pay gap of at least 5 per cent for science and engineering professionals and health professionals. There is a very high gender pay gap (of over 25 per cent) in one out of four countries for science and engineering professionals, and in one out of three countries for health professionals. Large gender pay gaps among health professionals are consistent with recent findings that gender pay gaps in the health and care sector tend to be wider than other sectors, and particularly between professional categories, and that the work of women, particularly in highly feminized occupations is often undervalued. Similarly, there is a gender pay gap of at least 5 per cent among information and communication technology (ICT) professionals in nearly three out of four countries with available data, and a very high gender pay gap of over 25 per cent in 17 per cent of the countries. Moreover, among science and engineering associate professionals, there is a pay gap in nearly three out of four countries, and this gap is very high in approximately 40 per cent of countries.
Other occupations with gender pay gaps in most countries (i.e., in more than 70 per cent of countries) include personal care workers (within the ‘service and sales workers’ occupational group), but also building and related trades workers; metal, machinery and related trades workers; handicraft and printing workers (among ‘crafts and related trades workers’) and stationary plant and machine operators, and even low-skilled occupations such as street and related sales and service workers.
Although gender pay gaps in these occupations can be found across most countries, there are regional variations in the magnitude of these gaps. Specifically, although there are certainly differences across countries within regions, in general, in Europe and Central Asia and in Asia and the Pacific, the difference between hourly earnings of men and women within most occupations tends to be less significant than in the other regions (Africa, Americas, and Arab States).
Looking at changes over time, depending on the occupation, gender pay gaps have increased or persisted in many countries with available data for at least two years during the period 2001-2022. For instance, among the above-mentioned STEM occupations, the pay gap increased or persisted (i.e. declined by less than two percentage points) in over 60 per cent of countries with available data for ICT professionals and technicians, in 58 per cent of countries for science and engineering professionals, and in 47 per cent of countries for health professionals.
Gender pay gaps are not due to differences in educational attainment
Based on the assumption that some level of skills mismatch exists within occupations, and that women face greater barriers to education than men in many parts of the world, could the gender pay gap be attributable to differences in educational attainment between women and men? At least at firsthand, the data do not support this hypothesis. For instance, gender pay gaps – here exceptionally measured using monthly earnings, and at the broad occupational group level, to expand the number of countries with available data – are significant for professionals in most countries even within the same educational attainment groups. As illustrated here, women professionals with an intermediate or advanced level of educational attainment will tend to earn on average less than men with the same educational qualifications. However, this finding (i.e., the existence of pay gaps between women and men with the same educational attainment in most countries) extends beyond professional occupations to all other occupational groups. While data availability limits us to the broad occupational categories, meaning that part of the gender pay gap could be explained for instance by the clustering of women in certain occupations within these groups, other analyses that have controlled for such composition effects confirm that education is not the main issue that lies behind gender pay gaps in most countries. A recent ILO report found that in many countries, women may be more highly educated than men within the same occupational categories, but nonetheless earn lower wages, pointing to lower returns to education for women than men.
Gender pay gaps and the working lives of women
Another interesting finding is that gender pay gaps in general do not narrow over the working lives of women, but often tend to increase over time. Indeed, for many professional occupations including the above-mentioned STEM occupations, we find in many countries lower or even negative wage gaps among youth – defined as workers aged 20-24 years (as there are few workers below 20 years of age in professional occupations) – indicating that young women in these occupations earn only slightly lower, or even higher wages than young men. This situation quickly reverses, however, as we move to higher age-groups. For instance, young women who are science and engineering professionals earn more than young men in the same occupations in several countries including Chile, France, Lebanon, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. In all these countries, however, the gender wage gap reverses for workers aged 25 and over (30 and over in the case of Thailand). This reversal of the wage gap can also be observed for health professionals in Colombia, Lebanon, Mexico, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and the United States. In other countries with available data, young men who are health professionals earn more on average than women in the same occupations, but the wage gap also increases over time (with older age groups).
Many factors can explain such findings. For instance, it is possible that the reservation wage of young women (i.e. the wage below which young women are not likely to participate in the labour market) is higher than that of young men in many contexts, particularly where labour force participation among young women is very low. For instance, it may be that social and cultural factors, including care responsibilities, discourage or prevent young women from taking up jobs that do not meet certain standards with respect to wages and working conditions.
But the interesting question becomes: ‘why do pay gaps increase with age?’ or, put differently ‘what is holding back the wage – and career – progression of women, compared to men in the same age groups?’ Recalling that we are comparing hourly wages, working time differentials (owing for instance to family responsibilities) between adult women and men should not be an explanatory factor for these gaps. Exceptions to this could occur in situations, where owing to an uneven distribution of family responsibilities, women are overrepresented in part-time work where hourly wages may be lower, while men are more available to work overtime, where such additional hours may be more highly remunerated. However, a related reason is that interruptions in the working lives of women – often linked to childbearing and care duties – can lead to less accumulated experience and slower career progression, compared to men in the same age group. Studies have demonstrated that the “motherhood pay gap” (defined as the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers) can be quite high in some countries, and that motherhood can bring about “a wage penalty that can persist across a woman’s working life while the status of fatherhood is persistently associated with a wage premium”. Another explanation of course, is the existence of ‘glass ceilings’ whereby women face greater obstacles to career progression than men. As a result of these challenges, despite having the same occupational titles (being categorized in the same occupational group or occupation), women are less likely to hold senior level positions than men of the same age group.
What can be done?
These findings suggest that despite some limited progress, much work remains to be done to reach SDG 5 (achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls) and to meet SDG target 8.5 (full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value). Policies and concerted actions of governments and employers are needed to promote women’s labour force participation, address gender segregation and increase women’s participation in leadership and STEM positions, and to address discriminatory employment and pay practices, including with regard to career progression (e.g. through pay transparency measures and pay equity principles and acts). Other helpful policies and practices involve protecting women’s safety and health and preventing any form of discrimination, violence, sexual or moral harassment; investing in care policies and promoting shared care responsibilities; and ensuring that women have access to adequate social protection across all stages of their lives, which is fundamental to mitigate disruptions to their careers.
There are various resources that can be drawn upon. These include international instruments, such as the ILO’s Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (C111), Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (C100), Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention, 1981 (C156), Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (C183), and Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (C190). There are also many examples of helpful policy measures and important initiatives, such as the ILO Global Care Policy Portal, the ILO webpage on the gender wage gap, which provides tools to support Member States in reducing and eliminating gender pay gaps, and the Equal Pay International Coalition (EPIC). And there are no excuses. We demand Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value! Because it’s 2023.