Women In Business Essay

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While we define women’s work as paid and unpaid labor, whether at home, in the community, or in the formal or informal economy, not all work is captured by statisticians. The United Nations Statistics Division does capture both full-time and part-time paid employment. According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) 2000 study, by 1997 women comprised over 40 percent of the labor force in eastern and southeastern Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and the developed regions, approaching that of men. The largest increase occurred in Latin America, where women constituted little more than a quarter of the labor force in 1980 but made up a third of the labor force in Central America and nearly two-fifths in South America by 1997.

From 1980 to 1997, the proportion of women in the labor force also grew in western Europe and the other developed regions, but remained the same in eastern Europe. While women’s labor force participation rates have been increasing in most parts of the world, this is not true of the transitional economies of eastern and central Europe, where employment rates for both men and women have dropped since 1990, as well as in the Middle East and north Africa. As of 2008, the UN Statistical Division data show that women’s share of the labor force overall and share of part-time employment have generally continued to increase.

Transitional Economies And The Middle East

 While the growth of women’s opportunities in the labor market is attributed to economic, social, and institutional forces, the decline of women’s opportunities in transitional economies like the Russian Federation or China and in patriarchal societies like those of the oil-producing countries of the Middle East is explained by the same forces. For example, in the Russian Federation, many women have moved from active participation in the formal labor market to the unpaid work of the household. Galina Gvozdeva and Elena Gvozdeva found that young women between the ages of 20 and 29 left the labor force in larger numbers than young men, not to have children or because husbands are insisting they stay home, but because of a lack of suitable jobs. They also found a marked difference in employment levels between urban and rural areas. In rural areas, the number of women who do not work outside the home is 1.6 times higher than in urban areas, and the numbers have increased since 1994 from 22 to 30 percent. The tight job market in rural areas obliges people to be more active in household private farming.

Yuping Zhang et al. looked into the market reforms in China that have brought important changes to employment, most notably replacement of the socialist job placement system with a competitive labor market, the emergence of a private sector and privatization of state-owned enterprises, and the wholesale appearance of the profit motive as an organizing feature in personnel decision making. Their study links gender gaps in employment and earnings to family status. It is only married women and mothers who face significant disadvantages because wives and mothers spend much more time than husbands and fathers doing household chores.

Michael Ross argues that women in the Middle East (as well as women in Azerbaijan, Botswana, Chile, Nigeria, and Russia) are underrepresented in the workforce and in government not because of the strictures of Islam, but because of a culture built around oil and mineral production. He argues that oil production affects gender relations by reducing the presence of women in the labor force, leading to higher fertility rates, less education for girls, and less female influence within the family. Furthermore, he argues that women’s absence from the workforce has far-reaching political consequences: when fewer women work outside the home, they are less likely to exchange information and overcome collective action problems; less likely to mobilize politically and to lobby for expanded rights; and less likely to gain representation in government. This leaves oil-producing states with atypically strong patriarchal cultures and political institutions.

Ross’s argument challenges a common belief about economic development, namely that growth promotes gender equality, suggesting instead that different types of economic growth have different consequences for gender relations: when growth encourages women to join the formal labor market, it ultimately brings about greater gender equality; when growth is based on oil and mineral extraction, it discourages women from entering the labor force and tends to exaggerate gender inequalities. Furthermore, he suggests that oil extraction has even broader consequences than previously recognized: it not only affects a country’s government and economy, but it also affects its core social structures. His argument has potentially important implications for Western energy policies.

Globalization And Democratization

Where women’s employment opportunities have grown, this growth has been attributed to globalization and advancing democratization, both of which have encouraged governments to adopt a set of economic policies—from trade liberalization, deregulation, privatization of services to a reduction in state paid services and employment—which have had an impact on job opportunities available to both men and women.

Dong-Sook Gills and Nicola Piper point to the central role of the state as a political actor facilitating social inclusion and exercising a powerful influence over domestic outcomes, such as unemployment and capital controls, as some governments in east Asia demonstrated during the Asian financial crisis. They argue that democratization is shifting the balance of forces in favor of the political inclusion of popular movements, expanding and enhancing the importance of a progressive program and bringing about the empowerment of new social forces, whether they participate in electoral politics or even the party system, by emphasizing autonomy, self-determination, and direct action. Such democratization demands the prioritizing of social equity over economic growth or private commercial interest. It also requires the will of the state to accept public accountability for the role of protection of societal interests from the depredations of private capital and economic interests. This viewpoint is supported by United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) 2000 where the argument is made that women’s ability to engage in paid employment is dependent on state policies that encourage or constrain their participation through the provision of affordable healthcare and child care and through the availability of service sector employment in health, education, and welfare.

Demographic Trends

Demographic trends also affect women’s work, including fertility, aging, and migration. While the proportion of the working-age population increased slightly between 1950 and 2005 from 61 percent to 63 percent, UNIFEM 2000 estimates a decline to 52 percent is expected by 2050, and in less-developed regions, the proportion of the working-age population is expected to decline slightly, from 61 percent in 2005 to 59 percent in 2050. These trends have implications for employment, for the provision of paid and unpaid health and welfare services, and for unpaid care work.

Developing regions must somehow create jobs for the growing working-age population, while developed regions must find a way to support the care needs of growing numbers of older people. Even developing regions will also face the challenge of an aging population in the not-too-distant future. Even China, with 1 billion people (one-sixth of the world’s population), is undergoing rapid demographic change marked by a rapidly aging population as well as exceptionally low fertility. The transition to a market economy has occasioned both rapid economic growth and widespread unemployment. The “one child” policy means that the unemployed older generations have a limited number of children to support them. There is also a marked gender imbalance in the children who are currently being born, based on a preference for sons, with boys significantly outnumbering girls. Among other problems, this will place great strain on the care-giving responsibilities of decreasing numbers of women— unless men become more active providers of care.

Some developing countries have experienced reversals in the demographic transition, mainly because of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) pandemic. Over the last two decades, life expectancy has decreased dramatically in some sub-Saharan African countries; in South Africa, for example, life expectancy at birth fell from over 60 years in the mid-1990s to slightly over 40 years by 2010. In sub-Saharan Africa, the HIV/AIDS virus affects women in greater numbers and at a younger age than it affects men.

Worldwide, the growing number of young people also has implications for employment creation. The International Labour Organization estimates that unemployment among the young was twice as high or more as unemployment in the total labor force in all regions in 2003. It also estimates that there will be over 500 million new entrants into the global labor force between 2003 and 2015.


International comparisons have demonstrated that female labor force participation is high in low-income countries and highly developed countries, and relatively low in middle-income countries, creating a U-shaped relationship between national income and female participation. J. Sinha first suggested a U-shaped female participation curve, observing that very poor countries have high female participation, which tends to fall during early stages of development. Middle-income countries have relatively low female participation. At the other extreme, highly developed countries also have high levels of female participation. Sinha attributed the downward portion of the U-shaped curve to a decrease in female agricultural work during shifts to urbanization and nonagricultural production. The upward portion of the U-shaped curve occurs when women return to the labor force at advanced stages of development to fill service sector jobs. Theorists have attributed this relationship to changes in labor market structure, social norms regarding the nature of women’s work, and cultural factors such as religion, social mobility, and family structure.

A study by Jane Lincove focuses on the important intervening effect of female education in the relationship between economic growth and female labor force participation. In the past 30 years, developing countries have invested significant resources to expand female schooling. Since girls’ education is a preferred policy strategy to promote development, Lincove argues that it is important to examine how investment in education influences labor markets. If female education results in greater productivity at home, investments may accelerate the decline in female participation. Alternatively, if female education increases labor market opportunities for women, investments may counteract the negative effects of initial economic growth.

Lincove’s study adds to the understanding of the role of women in developing countries over time by integrating theories of education, labor, and growth in longitudinal analysis. Her results support previous conclusions about the U-shaped relationship between wealth and female labor force participation. However, controlling for country-specific fixed effects, the negative effect of initial economic growth is small, and female schooling is positively related to female labor force participation over time. If expansion of female education accompanies economic growth, developing countries will most likely see little or no decline in female labor force participation as growth progresses. Simulations suggest that low-income countries are likely to see increases in female participation when economic growth is accompanied by investments in girls’ education.

The effects of female schooling are particularly important for policy makers because promoting girls’ education is a central development strategy to increase household productivity by reducing fertility and improving child health, as well as a strategy to build the labor force. For many countries, female education has changed dramatically during periods of economic growth. Female primary school enrollment rates in developing countries have increased from 52 percent 30 years ago to 88 percent today. Growth in individual countries from all regions has been very impressive.

To cite a few examples provided by Lincove, Algeria increased girls’ secondary enrollment from 6 percent in 1970 to 73 percent in 2000; Brazil increased from 26 percent in 1970 to full enrollment in 2000; South Korea increased from 32 percent in 1970 to 94 percent in 2000, the result of explicit policies to increase girls’ education. Mexico’s Programa de Educación, Salud y Alimentación (PROGRESA) program, which provides stipends for school attendance, is credited with increasing girls’ primary completion by 15 percent; a scholarship program for girls in Bangladesh is credited with almost doubling female enrollment; and Indonesia has reached 90 percent enrollment for girls through a program with a focus on building new schools that meet the specific educational needs of girls. Countries that have not invested in girls’ education have experienced limited growth. Girls’ secondary enrollment remains below 20 percent in Pakistan, Cambodia, and many sub-Saharan African countries.

National Institutional Context

Becky Petit and Jennifer Hook examine whether and how the demographic and economic causes of women’s employment vary with the national institutional context. Their argument suggests that national institutional arrangements affect the wage-labor exchange for specific subgroups of women, and thus influence the propensity to engage in paid labor. They investigate the utility of thinking about maternity leave, parental leave, and publicly supported child care as separate institutional arrangements that may influence the labor market decisions of women. Rather than focus on overall policy packages or welfare state typologies, they attempt to disentangle how different policy conditions and configurations influence the employment patterns of different groups of women.

While generous maternity leave policies may be associated with continuous attachment to the labor force after the birth of a child and the costs of leave taking are shared across social and demographic groups, in contrast, costs are highly individualized in countries without maternity leave provisions. In countries such as the United States and Australia, with no national paid maternity leave and very little publicly provided child care, the costs of having children are highly individualized as families negotiate private solutions for balancing work and family. In other countries, even though spending on family policy may be relatively generous, the configuration of benefits reinforces the traditional breadwinner homemaker model. Extensive parental leaves, particularly in the absence of public or private supports for child care, may encourage women to stay out of the labor force and combine work and family sequentially rather than simultaneously. Extensive parental leave coupled with few other child care options may encourage women to stay at home to care for children while men work in the paid labor force.

Since 1990, almost 95 percent of eligible women in Austria take advantage of parental leave, and only a minority of mothers who take parental leave return to work immediately after taking leave. At the same time, there are few public child care facilities for very young children and sizable geographic variation in child care availability. Similarly, through the 1980s and 1990s, legislation had extended the length of parental leave available to West German parents and by 1989, parents were entitled to 12 months of parental leave with job protection. Parental leave has since been extended to more than two years, but despite generous parental leave policies, there is a substantial shortage of publicly and privately funded child care in the former West Germany so the birth of a child often necessitates one parent, usually the mother, to exit the labor force and provide at-home care. Hungary and the Czech Republic provide additional examples of countries that also combine relatively long parental leaves of three and four years, respectively, with low levels of public child care provision.

Structural accounts of women’s labor force decisions suggest that the presence of children will be negatively associated with the probability of employment. The presence of children raises the costs associated with women’s employment largely because of the need for child care during work hours. Public provision of child care not only reduces the financial burden of child care for mothers with preschool children, but it also reduces the costs of finding care, and indicates the social acceptability of nonmaternal or parental child care and shifts the financial burden of child care from individual mothers to all workers.

Several countries in Petit and Hook’s data set provide generous child care in support of working women. Denmark has historically placed a premium on providing publicly funded child care. Publicly funded day care is regarded as a public responsibility and a necessity for maintaining high employment. France’s universal approach to child care and early childhood education is long-standing and based on a pragmatic approach that supported women’s labor force participation. From a theoretical standpoint, the Petit and Hook research suggests that there is clear evidence in support of the effects of parental leave and public child care provision on the employment decisions of women.

Egalitarian Wage Structures, Family Policies, And Earnings Disparities

In their study of 20 countries, Hadas Mandel and Moshe Semonyonov found that earnings disparities between male and female workers are less pronounced in countries with developed family policies, but it is not the family policies but their more egalitarian wage structures that lower earnings differentials between men and women in developed welfare states. In general, the earnings gap between men and women tends to be more pronounced in the liberal market economies of English-speaking countries than in the corporatist economies of continental Europe and Scandinavia.

As compared with liberal market economies, the corporatist economies tend to be characterized by more generous social policies (which protect workers’ social rights), by more developed family policies (which support mothers’ economic activities and employment rights), and by more comprehensive coverage of collective agreements (which protect workers’ earnings and work conditions). Long parental leaves, reduced working hours, and tolerance toward absenteeism from work all are examples of family policies that, while increasing female participation and strengthening women’s ties to the labor market, can also harm their economic attainments either directly by lowering their labor market experience and time devoted to paid work or indirectly by encouraging employer discrimination. Although the main objectives of family policies are to facilitate women’s employment and to protect their rights, long absence from paid employment may reduce women’s earning capacity by lowering their employment continuity and work experience. Mothers, not fathers, are most likely to use parental leaves and to reduce time devoted to paid work when children are young. Hence, long parental leaves are likely to lower women’s work experience and undermine their earnings capacity.

Women And Advancement

In a study of work/life balance programs in Europe and their impact on women’s career advancement, Caroline Staub finds that although women have made great strides in the job market, their increased employment has not reduced vertical gender segregation within the organizational hierarchy. On average, women, for all countries she studied, held 32 percent of manager positions and only 20 percent of executive positions.

Countries ranking above the average for women managers are France, Austria, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Finland, whereas countries ranking below the average are Germany, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Portugal. The proportion of executive positions filled by women is also above average in Finland, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Greece, and Italy, and below average for Portugal, Denmark, Spain, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. Except for Austria, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Germany, there was a big gap between the percentage of female managers and female executives.

In the case of Austria, women hold 39 percent of manager positions but only 15 percent of the executive positions. This might indicate a strong male-biased corporate culture hindering women’s advancement. Another explanation might be that well-educated women do not stay long enough in the pipeline to be selected for executive positions in these countries. Although Italy and Greece are traditionally based on the model of men as breadwinners and women as caregivers, they show high percentages of women executives. This may be explained by the fact that these countries lack well-educated employees. Therefore, well-qualified women are in high demand. In addition, these countries are known for their strong family structure and cheap domestic services, both of which lighten the burden of child care and household tasks. This, in turn, may make it easier for women to spend more time on their jobs and strive harder for career success.

While Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands have high rates of women university graduates, they have the lowest share of women in executive positions. It seems that these countries still retain the traditional gender roles in which men are expected to be breadwinners and women to be housewives. This suggests that stereotyping based on gender may be higher in these countries, affecting selection, performance evaluation, training procedures, and overall corporate cultures. As a result, women are put in less strategic positions. Moreover, these countries are known for their lack of state support in child care, which can penalize women in their careers. The Nordic countries such as Finland, Sweden, and Denmark do not, contrary to expectations, possess significantly higher percentages of management and executive positions filled by women. Findings for France show a high percentage of women managers and a high percentage of women executives in companies. In fact, France ranks first for the proportion of women in executive positions (34 percent). Hence, one might conclude that France’s strong public child care sector and its long school days seem to be extremely successful in promoting women’s career advancement.

Staub’s results suggest a number of avenues of further research. First, dramatic economic and social changes in eastern Europe and policy shifts in much of western Europe suggest the need to investigate how changes in the economy and public policy affect women’s employment. Her paper has investigated the relationship between macro conditions and women’s employment in the cross-section, but important variation over time could be exceptionally revealing. Additional research should further investigate the role of social and political organizations such as the presence of unions and bargaining centralization on the determinants of women’s employment. Finally, future research should investigate the relative importance of structural and institutional conditions on women’s involvement in part-time work, occupational sector, and earnings. Initial research suggests that a more thorough accounting of the relationship between structural and institutional determinants of women’s labor force participation is necessary for understanding cross-national variation in women’s economic progress.


  1. Dong-Sook S. Gills and Nicola Piper, Women and Work in Globalizing Asia (Routledge, 2002);
  2. Galina Gvozdeva and Elena Gvozdeva, “Women’s Path in the Transitional Economy of Russia: From Unpaid Work to Business,” Canadian Woman Studies (v.21,22/4,1, 2002);
  3. Jane Arnold Lincove, “Growth, Girls’ Education and Female Labor: A Longitudinal Analysis,” Journal of Developing Areas (v.41/2, 2008);
  4. Hadas Mandel and Moshe Semyonov, “Family Policies, Wage Structures, and Gender Gaps: Sources of Earnings Inequality in 20 Countries,” American Sociological Review (v.70/6, 2005);
  5. Jane L. Parpart et al., Rethinking Empowerment: Gender and Development in a Global/Local World (Routledge, 2002);
  6. Becky Petit and Jennifer Hook, “The Structure of Women’s Employment in Comparative Perspective,” Social Forces (v.84/2, 2004);
  7. Michael L. Ross, “Oil, Islam and Women,” American Political Science Review (v.102/1, 2008);
  8. Caroline Straub, “A Comparative Analysis of the Use of Work-Life Balance Practices in Europe; Do Practices Enhance Females’ Career Advancement?” Women in Management Review (v.22/4, 2007);
  9. United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), International Status Report (UNIFEM, 2000);
  10. Yuping Zhang et al., “Gender-Based Employment and Income Differences in Urban China: Considering the Contributions of Marriage and Parenthood,” Social Forces (v.86/4, 2008).

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