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New times, old perspectives?

The long road towards gender equality has arrived at greater educational attainment, higher female labour force participation, and advances in politics and business, but we haven’t reached the end yet. 

Even though in OECD countries 40% of women versus 31% of men obtain a tertiary degree, only 65% of women versus 79% of men participate in the labour force, and they earn 16% less than men and face a higher risk of poverty in old age. With few exceptions, women’s representation on corporate boards is under 15% and in parliaments it is rarely above 35%.

Why do the old challenges persist? Partly because the “new” role of women in the economy has not translated into a change at the family level. Women devote over two hours a day more to unpaid work than men in OECD countries (and up to five hours more in other countries).

Although it is hard to disentangle the influence of family, social attitudes, institutions or the working environment on choices, allowing equal economic opportunities is an important long-term investment for individuals and society alike. 

Indeed, as well as the moral imperative, women’s active contribution to the economy results in better use of human resources and greater potential growth. It also helps to address growing demographic concerns and to promote innovation and competitiveness in business.

In that regard though, the number of women enrolled in science courses is still higher than the number of women actually employed in research or other technical fields, partly because of the organisational structure of the workplace. Male-dominated environments can be an obstacle for a woman, especially if as a mother she has to put in long hours and travel at short notice.

That said, men might be under pressure too. What does your average employer think when his male employee takes sick leave because his children are ill or says no to a business trip because of an upcoming birthday?

It is clear that equality does not take care of itself and that policy interventions are required. But this should be complemented by men and women joining forces and sharing responsibilities. Dad can cook the dinner and let Mum take the kids to the football game. 

Read the Idea Factory debate in OECD Yearbook 2012

See also: 

www.oecd.org/gender/equality

and www.oecdobserver.org/gender

©OECD Yearbook 2012