Opposite sexes on the same side when it comes to women and work

This blog is written by Julie Ray, writer and editor at Gallup. It is the first in a new blog series on women, work and economic empowerment


Women don’t get a paycheck for taking care of their families and doing housework but, unequivocally, it is still work – important work without which society cannot function. Disproportionately, women are providing free labour and either staying home – and out of the workforce – or somehow balancing a job that pays them on top of caring for their families and their housework.

Most women worldwide would prefer to find themselves in the latter situation, according to findings from a 2016 study conducted by Gallup in collaboration with the International Labour Organization. The majority of women surveyed (70%) in more than 140 countries and territories said they would prefer to work at a paid job (29%) or both work at a paid job and take care of their families and their housework (41%).

Behind almost every woman…

And the survey suggests that behind almost every woman who wants a paid job, is a man who thinks she should be able to have one; 66% of men worldwide say they want women to work in paid roles – more than double the percentage who would prefer women stay at home and out of the workforce. More than a quarter of men would prefer the women in their families to work paid jobs (28%), or to be able to work as well as take care of their homes and families (38%).

In Northern, Southern and Western Europe – where men and women are most likely to favor women working at paid jobs – there is no gender gap on the issue. Nearly 9 in 10 women and men in this region say that women should only work at paid jobs, or work at paid jobs and care for their families and homes. In fact, in Nordic countries, more men than women would prefer women to be working at paid jobs. In other regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Northern America and Eastern Asia, gaps are also almost nonexistent or extremely narrow.

The reality

Yet real gender divides exist in regions where women’s workforce participation tends to be low. For example, a slim majority of men in Northern Africa (51%) – the highest percentage worldwide – and nearly half of men in the Arab States (45%) would prefer women to stay home. In Northern Africa, this is particularly true among men under the age of 45.  This is at odds with how women in these regions feel: 32% of women in Northern Africa and 36% of women in Arab States say that women should stay at home.

And, despite the support the survey shows worldwide, it is far  from the current reality in the world of work. The ILO estimates that barely half of all women worldwide are in the labour force, compared with about four in five men. If many women – and many men – had their way, these numbers would be far more balanced. But women spend more time on unpaid work than men do, and until unpaid care work becomes less of a barrier to women’s access to the workforce, these ratios are unlikely to change. And the gender gap has the potential to only grow wider. As the world’s population grows and ages, women’s family responsibilities, which encompass not only childcare, but also care for the elderly, will likely expand.

Tensions between care and work – a major concern for women in the workforce – could also grow. These women are often performing unpaid care work in addition to their paid work.

Making it work

Importantly, though, the Gallup and ILO survey found that men and women also agree that women could use some help. Both sexes cited ‘balance between work and family’ as one of the top challenges – if not the top challenge – facing women who work at paid jobs. Men and women also mentioned other aspects related to work and family issues, including ‘lack of flexible work hours’ and ‘lack of affordable care for children and relatives.’

And challenges facing women differ across the world. Balancing work and family is the number one challenge in developed and emerging economies, while unfair treatment at work is the most frequently mentioned concern in developing economies. Lack of affordable care for children and relatives is a bigger challenge in emerging and developing economies than it is in developed ones.

The demand for change

The ILO/Gallup study provides the first-ever account of how men and women worldwide think and feel about women and work, and what they are experiencing. What it shows is that preferences may not be reflected in realities. Measuring these preferences rigorously can challenge received wisdom and provide important ballast to policies focused on opening more opportunities to women – both by making clear the demand for such policy and in identifying specific barriers that policy-makers need to focus on lifting.

But as robust as this study is, these data only scratch the surface. For governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations and many others, greater cognizance of what people are feeling and thinking in this arena can only lead to better policies – new or revisited – which in turn could contribute to charting a better future for women at work.

As gender roles and the nature of households, markets and societies continue to evolve, these data underscore how crucial family-supportive policies (for both women and men), at the national level and in the workplace, will be to achieving gender equality in the world of work – and why we need to continue to monitor these attitudes and experiences.

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