Making labour statistics work for women: Recent developments and the way ahead

In this blog, we highlight key developments which have greatly enhanced the visibility of women’s work within labour statistics, and the relevance of labour statistics to women’s work, making for a much more complete view of the world of work.
© Esteban Benites / Unsplash

This year’s International Women’s Day takes up the theme “Inspiring Inclusion”. In this blog, we highlight an area where huge strides have been made in recent years to promote inclusiveness, reversing many decades of marginalisation and exclusion.

The terms “statistics” and “inspiration” are seldom juxtaposed, but statistics have always been inspired by, and have inspired, priorities for social change. Historically, statistics occupied a key site of efforts to advance gender equity. In the last decade, these efforts have inspired real and meaningful change in how work is measured, what work is measured, and whose work is measured.

Promoting inclusiveness in how work is measured

In most countries of the world, nationally representative labour force surveys (LFS) are the main source of official labour statistics.

Historically, LFS excelled at capturing “standard” employment / working situations, with “non-standard” situations acknowledged to be more susceptible to mischaracterisation and/or omission1The ILO has undertaken extensive research in this area in recent years. Key reports include Benes and Walsh (2018) and Discenza, Gaddis, Palacios-Lopez, Walsh (2021). Casual, intermittent, and low-hours employment posed particular challenges, as did informal employment, own-account work, and work by family members in household or family businesses and farms. Market substitution activities (including, but not limited to, subsistence farming and kitchen gardening, collection of water and fuel, clothes-, textile-, furniture-making) presented similar challenges.

The early evolution of labour statistics instantiated the dominant forms of industrial and economic organisation and the accompanying social norms of the time. This meant that “standard” employment / working situations tended to be disproportionately occupied by men, with “non-standard” employment / working situations disproportionately occupied by women. As a result, women’s work has been subject to greater risk of misclassification or omission in LFS than has men’s. Social institutions which endorse women’s seclusion, assign high status to women’s withdrawal from the labour market, and/or discount or minimise women’s contributions to household livelihoods, further exacerbated these broader tendencies in many countries and regions of the world.

Evidence that women’s work was prone to systematic omission and misclassification in official labour statistics steadily accumulated from the 1970’s onwards. While there was some progress in the intervening years, efforts to improve the situation were given a major and unprecedented boost in 2013, with the release of new international standards for labour statistics. The new standards transformed the scope and content of official labour statistics, refining underlying concepts and definitions, differentiating formerly conflated categories of work, expanding the range of economic activity admitted, and better reflecting real world complexities in labour-force attachment. The changes had profound implications for the measurement and visibility of women’s work and gendered patterns and inequalities in the world of work.

Following the adoption of the new standards, the ILO – together with partners in national statistical organisations, the wider UN system, and international agencies – launched a programme of research and development to operationalise the changes. A major area of testing focussed on ensuring that updates to LFS questionnaire designs to reflect the latest standards capitalised on the newly available scope for enhanced sensitivity to gender-based sites of difference. Concordance studies assessed the impact of refinements to question wording, response codes, question sequencing, and recovery series, to adequately measure women’s work and account for persistent gender-based differences in employment / working situations.

Subsequent rounds of standard setting (in 2018 and 2023), and parallel research and development (undertaken with financial support from partners including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Data2x), built on these findings. New LFS content was developed to support the comprehensive measurement of all economic activity – paid and unpaid, and to extend and refine core LFS content on the informal economy. The new content responded to the need for improved sensitivity to gendered differences in informal sector work. Results of the ILO’s research and development programme culminated in the release of updated model LFS questionnaires, and add-on modules, together with guidance for national testing, adaptation, and implementation. These outputs form a flexible toolkit to support application of the latest standards and good measurement practices in countries.

Promoting inclusiveness in what work is measured

For over thirty years – from 1982, when countries endorsed important common standards, definitions, and measurement frameworks to align national practices for labour force surveys (LFS), the coverage of the LFS remained quite stable, until 2013, when the ground-breaking new standards discussed above were agreed. During this time, LFS were designed to monitor trends in employment, unemployment, and under-employment, and to characterise the economically active population.

In line with national accounting principles (the basis for gross domestic product (GDP) calculations) the “economically active population” referred to persons engaged in work performed for pay or profit, as well as unpaid work performed as trainees / apprentices, or as volunteers in market and non-market enterprises. Some market substitution work – subsistence farming and selected other household activities to produce goods for own-use – was also within scope (on the basis that subsistence production results in “marketable goods” even if not made available for market exchange).

Excluded from this scope were (almost) all activities to provide services for own use  – or, in everyday language, unpaid domestic and care work. While conceptual and theoretical justifications were offered for maintaining this exclusion, the rationale more commonly pointed to difficulties of measurement and (in the case of national accounting) incommensurability for the purpose of shadow pricing. Steadily, however, a new consensus emerged – a result of many decades of research, advocacy, and dialogue – and came to be expressed in new international standards, definitions, and measurement frameworks for official labour statistics. As a result, since 2013, own-use provision of service work (OPS) has been included in scope for measurement as part of an expansive statistical concept of “work”.

The inclusion of OPS as one of several forms of work, specified for separate measurement and reporting opens up new avenues for analysis, policy making, and advocacy. Persistent gender-based inequalities in responsibilities for OPS represent a major barrier to women’s labour force participation, and limit access to decent work and workplace progression. As a result, future progress towards gender equality in labour markets and employment depends on parallel progress to address women’s and girls’ unequal OPS burdens. The regular production of statistics on OPS, alongside other forms of paid and unpaid work, will be an important step forward in understanding the extent to which this is achieved.

Now – building on recent advances in measurement techniques and technologies – newly released OPS modules for national LFS allow for comprehensive measurement of own-use provision of services work – and total (paid and unpaid) work – through a single data source.

The new OPS modules were developed and tested as part of the ILO’s wider LFS research and development programme, in partnership with national statistical organisations and independent research institutes. The newly released modules are backstopped by national adaptation and implementation guides, as well as direct technical assistance and capacity building.

Promoting inclusiveness in whose work is measured

Recent developments in how and what work is measured and reported as official statistics have had profound implications for whose work is measured. Revised standards – operationalised in new, model questionnaire content – provide an important corrective to the historical tendency for labour statistics to mischaracterise or omit altogether, “non-standard” employment and work situations. Because women are over-represented in such situations, these recent changes provide for much improved understandings of women’s economic contributions. The ILO is actively supporting national statistical offices to align their LFS to the latest international statistical standards (as endorsed in 2013, 2018, and 2023).

The availability of the new statistical standards, classifications, and definitions, and accompanying implementation toolkits, has laid the groundwork for improved measurement on a range of topics. Most recently, at the request of constituents, the ILO commenced work to develop standards and guidance for statistics on care work. This development would not be possible in the absence of the standards adopted since 2013.

Recent changes in how, what, and whose work is measured, and the scope they provide for future advances, exemplify the relationship between statistics and society. At any point in time, statistics bear the imprints of successive historical perspectives, but can be reshaped as a new consensus solidifies regarding what, and who, is deserving of measurement. The recent developments described here instantiate the ILO’s transformative agenda for gender equality and non-discrimination as part of efforts to promote sustainable development, decent work and social justice. The availability of statistics on previously excluded topics, opens up new – and expands existing – possibilities for policy making and advocacy. Inclusion inspires inclusion.


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