Sustainable development needs working women

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The rate of global female employment has marginally decreased the last two decades.

In many parts of the world, less than 20 per cent of women are employed. Conversely, in other parts of the world, the female employment rate is ‘too high’, which implies limited access to education.

Increased gender equality – of which female labour force participation is an important piece of the puzzle – is a key factor in achieving both economic and social sustainability.

The role of women in society, and in the national economy, is often cited by the UN as a key factor towards sustainable development. In its current future strategy, the EU is aiming to increase the rate of female work participation in order to boost economic activity.

Presently, there are a number of reasons why different countries have different levels of female work participation, depending on the:

  • Number of years women attend school
  • Periods spent by women at home with children
  • Retirement age for women
  • Post-retirement life expectancy of women

There are major differences between countries with high female work participation rates, and those countries with low female work participation rates.

In Zimbabwe, for example, and many other poor countries, almost 80 per cent of all women participate in the work force.

In contrast, just over 10 per cent of women in the Middle East and North Africa are currently active in the workplace.

Measuring the changes in female work participation – and not the level – shifts the focus away from the initial position of the respective countries, and highlights countries where the position of women in the labour market has improved.

Naturally, the work conditions, the salary and other aspects of working life matters as well.

When women’s pension rights are strengthened – especially when life expectancy also increases – and cases where women’s school attendance has been extended, a decrease in the levels of work participation could be a good sign.

However, in most cases, an increase in the female work participation rate should be seen as a measure of increased gender equality and an improvement of both economic and social sustainability.

For the world as a whole, the female work participation rate has declined by 0.5 percent between the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio and the one in 2008.

The global female work participation rate currently stands at 49 per cent (according to 2008 data).

How does your country rank? The answer can be found in a report and a database presented by the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO). The Sustainable Development – Is It Measuring Up report can be downloaded here and the database behind it can be found at