Gender segregation in sectors, occupations and roles still sees women persistently losing out.
‘Women belong in all the places where decisions are made,’ declared the late United States Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. These decisions are made everywhere and at every level: in the home and at work, in the boardroom and on the shopfloor.
That is why it is of such serious concern that gender segregation is so deeply rooted across Europe. It is not only evident in employment in general but is embedded in particular sectors, occupations, roles and responsibilities.
There had been progress in Europe in the years before the pandemic: women’s employment rates had increased, for instance. Yet more women than men lost their jobs when Covid-19 struck—mostly because women outnumbered men in the sectors, such as hospitality, most severely affected by the consequent lockdowns.
This pattern is reproduced across the European labour market, with women concentrated in highly segregated sectors. More men are employed in industry, transport and construction, whereas women still predominate in health and education.
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Far larger shares
The occupational structure is no less segregated. Women constitute far larger shares of those working in clerical support, services and sales, with men prevailing among craft workers and plant and machine operators. Despite efforts to promote broader access to sectors and occupations traditionally associated with one gender, data from the 2021 European Working Conditions Telephone Survey (EWCTS) show that more than half the working population in the European Union still work in occupations dominated by their own gender.
Nearly one third of the working population consists of men working in male-dominated occupations—for example, around 95 per cent of drivers and mobile-plant operators, metal and machinery workers, and building workers are men. One quarter of the working population is made up of women working in female-dominated occupations, such as personal-care workers and cleaners and helpers—they constitute over 80 per cent of workers in these occupations. Meanwhile, women and men working in mixed-gender occupations (no more than 60 per cent of one gender) represent less than one quarter of the working population.
Men working in female-dominated occupations represent just 10 per cent of the working population, while women working in male-dominated occupations make up a paltry 8 per cent. And of course in some places segregation is even worse than the average. While more than 30 per cent of the workforce in Luxembourg are employed in mixed-gender occupations, this is so for fewer than 20 per cent in Bulgaria and Romania.
There is also segregation when it comes to roles and responsibilities. Men continue to exercise more power in the workplace, with more men occupying the role of line manager than women: two-thirds of employees had a male boss in 2021. The vast majority of men (80 per cent) have a male boss; female employees are equally likely to have a male or female manager.
These figures are alarming—not least if we do seek to have both women and men active in the places where decisions are made. But this is not just about data.
The fact that workplaces remain so segregated means that issues within a particular sector can have a broader impact on gender equality. Female dominance in the health and care sectors, for example, means that issues related to working conditions in these sectors overwhelmingly affect women and have wider ramifications in the labour market.
This was evident in the pandemic, for instance in the way large shares of female workers in health, social care and retail—their contributions newly recognised as ‘key’—were not only particularly exposed to the virus but were often burdened with additional job demands while affected colleagues were having to isolate. Segregation implicates men too: men’s employment was disproportionately affected by job losses in construction and manufacturing during the Great Recession of 2007-09 while women experienced higher job loss during the pandemic.
There can also be more sinister effects, as the most recent EWCTS data show. The incidence of unwanted sexual attention reported by healthcare workers was over three times as high as the EU average—5.7 per cent in the month before the survey, the average being 1.8 per cent. To put this in perspective, just 0.3 per cent of information-and-communication professionals reported unwanted sexual attention in the previous month.
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Women as frontline workers are most exposed to adverse social behaviour in general—also including verbal abuse, threats, bullying, harassment and violence—which can have long-term impacts on affected individuals. These include significant implications for their mental as well as physical health, with all that implies for the labour market and indeed society as a whole.
No silver bullet
A more balanced gender distribution at work could go some way to ensuring that these and other risks associated with working conditions in certain sectors—as, indeed, the benefits of any improvements—are more evenly shared. Whether or not such risks are foregrounded by crisis, this can only be a good thing.
It will not, of course, be a silver bullet for the gender employment gap, which still stands at around 11 per cent, or the gender pay gap, which remains fairly persistent at 13 per cent—or even the perennial divide between paid and unpaid work, which sees women continue to work eight weeks more each year than men when the latter is included. But it will help.
More analysis of gender equality in Europe is available on the Eurofound Talks podcast
Mary McCaughey is head of information and communication at Eurofound. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin and of the College of Europe, Bruges, Mary has an early background in journalism and has contributed to a wide range of publications, including the Wall Street Journal Europe and the Irish Times.