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Breaking the Glass Ceiling

From the collection Gender Inequality

Inequality takes many forms, such as wealth inequality, or inequality amongst northern and southern hemisphere nations (the developed vs developing economies). One can make the case that gender inequality has been with us the longest, arguably since the days of Adam and Eve. And whilst progress has been made, the so-called glass ceiling dividing men and women, both in the workplace and society at large, has yet to be shattered. Monika Queisser, Head of the Social Policy Division at the OECD, discusses the challenges still facing women.

Queisser notes that the impact of pay inequality is very dramatic over a woman’s lifetime. Having worked less in formal employment, but having carried out much more unpaid work at home, many women will retire on lower pensions and see out their final years in poverty. Living an average of nearly 6 years longer than men, women over 65 are today more than one and a half times more likely to live in poverty than men in the same age bracket.

How much progress have we actually made in the last hundred years? It is a debatable proposition whether we’re better off than we were 100 years ago, when women were the ones repairing cars, driving buses, building roads and houses, mining coal, fighting fires and ploughing fields, with men nowhere to be seen. Of course, there was a war going on and positions normally occupied by men were vacated as the latter went off to the battlefield.

So do we need another catastrophic war to ensure greater gender inequality? One hopes not, even though Queisser points out that about half of the economic growth in OECD countries in the past 50 years is due to increased educational attainment, particularly among women, but women still earn on average 15.3% in OECD countries. At the top of the pay scale, the gender gap is even higher, 21%, suggesting the continued presence of a glass ceiling. The average pay gap between men and women widens to 22% in families with one or more children. For couples without children, the gap is 7%. Overall the wage penalty for having children is on average 14%, with Japan and Korea showing the greatest gap. This is not only morally unjust, but economically inefficient, as it diminishes a potentially powerful source of additional demand (and growth) in an economy, particularly where demographics work against this (such as in Japan). Queisser’s work is dedicating in part to eradicating these differences, to strengthen gender equality in education, employment and entrepreneurship (the “three Es”) – three key dimensions of economic and social opportunities.

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