Gender Inequality in the Workplace

Throughout the globe, women are underrepresented in senior leadership positions. Ask people to explain why and they usually mention some combination of factors: Women’s devotion to families, women’s penchant for opting for part-time work or internal-facing roles that don’t move their careers forward, the fact that men tend to take more risk in the workplace and be considered “leadership material,” and a pervasive mindset that holds that the right career path is the one that involves climbing a corporate ladder while remaining “fun.”

The reality is that gender inequality exists in every industry, at all levels of business. While there have been improvements in some areas, such as enrollment in secondary and tertiary education, substantial gaps persist in others, including labor force participation and pay. And a host of social and economic shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters, can further entrench pre-existing gaps by making it even harder for women to access jobs or find financial security (see graphic).

Many of these gaps are the result of discrimination against women. The good news is that laws and policies to end such discrimination have a strong record of success. This includes laws requiring equal wages and rights in employment, promoting awareness of gender issues, and educating women about how to combat discrimination in the workplace. But gaps also remain because of other forces — the more subtle and implicit, such as a culture that views men’s work as “harder” than women’s, and a tendency for everyone, both men and women, to ignore or revert to old ways of thinking once new opportunities appear.

In addition, the pace of closing gender gaps has slowed in recent years. This may be due to a combination of factors, such as women’s growing preference for flexible work arrangements and other ways to balance their family responsibilities with their professional lives; the slowdown in global economic growth; the fact that countries have varying levels of progress in fighting discrimination; and external events that can cause setbacks, such as health and climate crises, political turmoil and war (see graphic).

Gender inequality has a direct impact on the bottom line of businesses. Companies that invest in gender equality can expect to see improved productivity and greater employee satisfaction. Gender diversity initiatives in the workplace can include targeted recruitment efforts, training and mentoring programs, and open communication about the importance of a diverse workforce.

The OECD Gender Data Portal provides selected indicators on gender inequality in formal and informal laws, social norms, and practices, covering 160 countries. It’s an invaluable tool for research, policy development and decision-making to help accelerate the decline of gender gaps that have less to do with laws and regulations and more to do with attitudes. This type of change requires policies and their designs to be more nuanced and targeted. And it will likely take more time, as the results are slower to emerge compared with changes in observable outcomes such as school enrollments and labor force participation.