Women are more likely than men to want a job but not have one

Measures of joblessness that reflect the most urgent need for employment (such as unemployment) point to moderate differences between women and men. Yet, broader measures of joblessness point to much larger gender disparities – particularly in developing countries.

Measuring the lack of jobs

Unemployment is the best-known metric to measure how many people struggle to find a job, and it is a critical indicator for policy makers. Globally 189 million people were estimated to be unemployed in 2023. This is particularly worrying as to be considered unemployed the requirements are quite strict. Jobless persons need to be available to take up employment at short notice and to have been recently searching for a job, as unemployment aims to reflect the immediate pressure being placed on the labour market.1See this take on how the concept was developed during the 1930s in the United States. However, as useful as this indicator is, it has long been recognised that it does not capture all people with an unmet need for employment. The latest global estimates show that a vast number of people do not fulfil the conditions to be classified as unemployed but nevertheless want a job, some 245 million in 2023.

The 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS) recognised the importance of measuring labour underutilisation beyond unemployment. For those without a job, the resolution identified the “potential labour force” and “willing non-job seekers” as separate groups from the unemployed that are also relevant to assess the degree of labour underutilization. The potential labour force includes those who have recently been searching for a job but are not available to work within a short reference period and those who have not searched recently but are available to work within a short reference period (i.e. they fail to satisfy only one of the criteria to be considered unemployed). A third category, willing non-job seekers, is composed of those who want employment but have not recently searched and are not available at short notice (i.e. they fail both criteria).

These three categories, unemployed, potential labour force, and willing non-job seekers represent different degrees of labour market attachment. The unemployed are placing more immediate pressure on the labour market compared to the other two categories. Willing non-job seekers will tend to be at the other end of the spectrum, with the lowest probability of taking up a job. Consequently, the distinction between these categories is highly relevant for economic analysis and policy making. Indeed, job-search and availability status are critical components of different policy objectives and strategies.

The ability to job-search and to start a job at short notice will not in general be evenly distributed between women and men, and this has been long recognized – see for instance this analysis in the context of 19th ICLS guidance. Hence, for a comprehensive gender analysis of the unmet need for employment, it is critical to consider all persons wanting a job but not necessarily classified as unemployed. To this end, the ILO has developed an indicator, the “jobs gap”, which leverages the existing ICLS concepts to capture all persons who want employment but do not have a job (including the unemployed, the potential labour force and willing non-job seekers). This indicator, together with unemployment and the potential labour force, provides a comprehensive view of labour market “slack” in the extensive margin, i.e. for those individuals that do not have a job. The 19th ICLS framework additionally enables capturing underemployment on the intensive margin (lack of access to employment with sufficient working hours), which falls outside of the scope of the jobs gap.

The hypothesis that women are less likely than men to meet the criteria to be considered as unemployed is heavily supported by the data. Leveraging the ILO Harmonised Microdata collection, we find that while the average unemployment rate across countries is somewhat higher for women than men (2 p.p.), the jobs gap is 7 p.p. higher. This is driven by larger gender gaps both in the potential labour force (5 p.p.) and willing non-job seekers (3 p.p.). A similar pattern arises in global estimates: ILO estimates show that women face a much larger jobs gap than men, with the global jobs gap in 2023 for women being 13.7 per cent, much higher than rate of 9.3 per cent for men.2Global rates differ from the microdata averages due to population weights of a country, different time periods being considered, additional sources of data other than microdata, and the imputation of missing data. In contrast, the global unemployment rate for women is 5.3 per cent compared to the rate of 5 per cent for men.

These findings show that even if they want a job, women will tend to be disproportionately not searching and less available to take up work at short notice. Hence, women’s willingness to work tends to put less immediate pressure on the labour market than men’s, as more of them will not be searching and/or available. Hence, focusing solely on the unemployment rate when considering job scarcity will miss a large number of women with a stated interest in having a job. The existence of this gap highlights the importance of measuring and analysing gender disaggregated data on the different degrees of labour market attachment for policy making. It is likely that policies aimed at lowering unemployment will not be as effective when targeting the potential labour force or willing non-job seekers, hence different targeted approaches need to be incorporated.

Women in the developing world face dire job prospects

Disaggregating the global rates reveals further differences. The lowest jobs gaps are in high-income countries, where men register a rate of 7.2 per cent and women 9.5 per cent. However, in developing and emerging economies, the jobs gap tends to be far higher, particularly for women. In low-income countries, the jobs gap for women stands at a striking 24.3 per cent and 17.4 per cent for men. Results for middle-income countries present an intermediate picture, with women registering sizeably higher jobs gap rates than men. The graph below also shows that the unemployment rate behaves very differently, as rates barely vary across income groups and gender. Leveraging the ILO Harmonised Microdata collection, we corroborate that the difference between the jobs gap and unemployment increases strongly as national income declines. Not only that, but the difference grows three times more quickly for women than for men.

This gap points to the importance of using broad measures of labour underutilisation together with narrower bands, as otherwise we cannot capture the full extent of unmet needs for employment – particularly for women in developing countries.


Differences between men and women when it comes to job search and short-term availability to start a job have a great impact on unemployment statistics. Measures of joblessness reflecting the most urgent needs, like unemployment, point to moderate gender differences. Broader measures of joblessness, like the jobs gap, point to large disparities. In developing countries, the difference between unemployment and the jobs gap tends to be larger, particularly in the case of women. These results highlight the importance of using multiple indicators to measure women’s labour underutilisation. The latest estimates of the jobs gap shows that globally women are more likely than men to want a job and not have one, with rates of 13.7 and 9.3 per cent respectively. You can find the latest data of the jobs gap in ILOSTAT.

Learn more

The jobs gap: Measuring labour underutilisation beyond unemployment

This issue of Spolight on Work Statistics discusses an indicator recently developed by the ILO – the jobs gap – which is shown to be an important complement to the unemployment rate. The indicator is particularly relevant to assess the difficulties that women face in finding a job and highlights job creation challenges in the developing world.


  • Roger Gomis

    Roger is a Senior Economist in the Data Production and Analysis Unit of the ILO Department of Statistics. He develops and maintains the ILO modelled estimates.

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