March 8 will see the world celebrating International Women’s Day. There are many reasons to celebrate women and girls’ achievements. One obvious achievement we can boast about is that the gender gap in education has reversed in many parts of the world as, now, girls rather than boys are more likely to enter college and graduate.
While this is clearly progress for women, since receiving an education signals empowerment as it puts women on an equal footing with men in enabling them to seek salaried work, gender equality in education has so far failed to be translated into gender equality in the workplace. In fact, women continue to face persistent obstacles in the workplace because this domain remains largely male-dominated.
Several reasons point to why the gender gap in the workplace should be closed. The most obvious rationale is that closing the gap in employment spurs growth in gross domestic product (GDP) rates and improves economic competitiveness and corporate performance.
According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2012, research has shown that reducing the gender gap in employment has been an important factor for economic growth in the last decade, boosting US GDP by as much as 9 percent and eurozone GDP by as much as 13 percent. Moreover, women bring a different approach to social interactions in the workplace, says Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust.
Making the workplace inclusive for women may be achieved in several ways. Ensuring equal pay for equal work across the sexes is one attempt at encouraging gender equality.
In the US, for example, in spite of wage gaps closing from 62 percent in 1979 to 82 percent in 2011 — according to data from the US Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics in October 2012, a gap still persists and, in fact, older women employees are not as compensated as well as their younger counterparts.
Removing every shade of discrimination against female employees in the area of promotion is also equally important in closing the gender gap in the workplace. The number of women in decision-making positions in corporations and businesses continues to lag behind men because of the glass ceiling.
Removing the glass ceiling would not only be inclusive toward women but diversity would also be ensured which, in turn, could result in better governance.
Also important in creating an inclusive workplace for women workers are measures to ensure that women are not penalized if they decide not to work for a short period in order to have or to look after their children.
This policy would signal to women that their skills in the workplace are important and that it is acceptable for them to be mothers and employees at the same time.
Making the workplace more inclusive for women would also include the provision of affordable childcare, especially in the case of working mothers, since women employees are more likely to be saddled with balancing family demands and workplace commitments than their male counterparts.
In this case, if childcare is beyond the reach of the average household, this would lead to a situation where many women would choose not to enter the labor force as they would see nothing to be gained by going out to work. It would be the women who would opt to stay at home as, generally, it is expected that they shoulder the responsibility of caring.
Mothers retreating from the workplace is a universal and perennial phenomenon. Since motherhood is the main reason for women to leave work, this is all the more reason why this concern needs to be addressed to make it easier for women to return to work.
Nordic countries have gained considerable success in wooing large numbers of women back to work. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2012, a combination of factors has led to this scenario.
These factors include policies enabling women to combine work and family through better work-life balance; ensuring shared participation in childcare, which entails greater involvement on the part of the state; and the prevalence of a gender ideology that encourages gender egalitarianism in the home in terms of more equitable distribution of labor.
At this time of slow and uncertain economic growth, there is enough justification for investing in women so that their participation in the labor force can be optimized.
For countries with more robust economic forecasts, accelerating women’s participation in the workforce would indicate a commitment on the part of employers and governments to ensure that workplaces continued to be inclusive. According to a Chinese proverb, women hold up half the sky. By ensuring that women are on an equal footing with men in the workplace makes logical sense.
But there should be no reason for women to feel pressured to fit in and behave like men if they do decide to join the workforce. As Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), says: “We have to dare the difference and speak about it”.
The writer is fellow and researcher-in-charge in gender studies at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.