According to international guidelines in mainstreaming gender in labour statistics, definitions and measurement methods should “cover and adequately describe all workers and work situations in sufficient detail to allow relevant gender comparisons to be made” (International Labour Office, 2003a).
Not all forms of work are covered by conventional labour force statistics. The population in the labour force is defined as comprising all persons of either sex who furnish, or are available to furnish, the supply of labour for the production of goods and services as defined by the United Nations systems of national accounts and balances, during a specified time-reference period (International Labour Office, 1982). Thus, conventional labour statistics are currently limited to activities which contribute to the production of goods and services as defined by the SNA. Employment and disaggregations of economic activity by industry, status in employment or occupation cover mainly paid work and some unpaid work. Included unpaid work refers to activities that produce goods for own consumption, such as: agricultural work, fishing, hunting, cutting firewood, carrying water, threshing and milling grain, making butter and cheese, slaughtering livestock, etc. These unpaid productive activities are within the production boundary of the SNA. Own account production of services, mostly carried out by women, is within the general boundary of SNA but beyond the operational production boundary of the SNA, and therefore not covered in the definition of the labour force. This type of work refers to cleaning dwellings; small repairs; preparing and serving meals; caring for and instructing children; caring for other persons in the household; as well as volunteer services carried out directly and not through organizations, including community services. Thus, based on conventional labour statistics, the participation of women in work activities and their contribution to the economy tend to be underestimated (United Nations Statistics Division, 2001; Mata-Greenwood, 2003). As all work of women (as well as of men) needs to be reflected in statistics, the issue of own account production of services should be addressed by using statistics such as those based on time use data.
Women’s participation in labour force and employment may be underreported. The underestimation of women’s participation in the labour force and employment may result from incomplete measurement of all forms of work implied by the definition of the labour force and SNA production boundary (United Nations Statistics Division, 2001). Some of the economic activities may be omitted because it is difficult to separate the production of goods by households for own final use (which are included in the SNA general production boundary) from own account production of services (considered beyond the SNA production boundary). The assumption by respondent and interviewer alike that certain work does not imply participation in the labour force and gender-based stereotypes of women regarded as a housewife in charge of domestic work also contribute to the under-reporting of economic activities.
Furthermore, the coverage of women’s activities may depend on the reference period chosen to define the labour force. The labour force is measured based on a brief reference period (one week or one day), and unless the measurement is carried out repeatedly over the year, it will not capture the subtleties of many women's seasonal and intermittent economic activity in agriculture and the informal economy. An alternative approach expected to capture the seasonal variations of specific types of work may be based on a longer reference period (for example, the preceding 12 months). (United Nations, 1984; Mata-Greenwood, 2003)
Finally, some groups of women or men may be underreported in employment statistics due to limitations of the sources of data used. By definition, employment includes persons at work, even if only for one hour during the reference period of one week or one day, and also persons temporarily absent from work. However, establishment-based surveys tend to cover only workers who appear in the payrolls, who are usually regular employees; they may leave out managerial staff as well as employed persons who work part-time, are seasonal or are contracted from other agencies (Mata-Greenwood, 2003). These surveys may also exclude from their samples small enterprises where women may be more often found.
Women’s unemployment may be underreported. The unemployed population is defined as comprising all persons above a specified age who during the reference period were: “without work”, that is, were not employed; “currently available for work”, that is, were available for paid employment or self-employment; and “seeking work”, that is, had taken specific steps in a specified reference period to seek paid employment or self-employment (International Labour Office, 1982). The criterion of seeking work should be relaxed in situations where the conventional means of seeking employment are of limited relevance, where the labour market is largely unorganized or of limited scope, where labour absorption is, at the time, inadequate, or where the labour force is largely self-employed (International Labour Office, 1982). Women may be underreported in the unemployed for three main reasons. First, women may be perceived or they may define themselves as not seeking work, because (a) they are less likely to use in their search formal channels such as going to government offices, applying formally, or registering with unemployment agencies; and (b) they are more likely to look for work that is atypical and therefore not perceived as labour force participation (United Nations, 2006; Mata-Greenwood, 2003). Second, women are more likely to be “discouraged workers” or “seasonal workers” waiting for the busy season. These categories would be considered “unemployed” only if a relaxed criterion of “seeking work” is used. Third, when data on unemployment is collected from administrative sources, the unemployed population is reduced to those receiving benefits or registered in the offices for job seeking, and women may be more likely to be excluded (Mata-Greenwood, 2003).