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Labour force participation

Modified on 2015/05/04 14:35 by Sean Zheng Paths: Read in Order Categorized as Chapter 2 - Work
Table II.6

From gender issues to gender statistics on labour force participation: illustrative examples

Policy-relevant questions Data needed Sources of data
Are short- and long-term labour force participation trends the same for women and men? Labour force participation by sex for multiple points in time. Household surveys such as labour force surveys (LFS).
Population censuses.
Do variations in women’s labour force participation by age suggest that women temporarily or permanently withdraw from the labour force to care for their children? Labour force participation by sex and age. Household surveys, such as LFS. Population censuses.
Are young women more likely than young men to be unemployed? Unemployment by sex and age. Household surveys, such as LFS. Population censuses.
Administrative records.

  • + Gender issues
    • Women and men have different levels and trends of labour force participation (United Nations, 2010). Labour force participation rates are generally lower for women than for men and the share of women in the labour force is still far from parity in most countries. Different trends may be observed for women and men. For example, in the past two decades, men’s labour force participation declined in most parts of the world (United Nations, 2010). In contrast, women’s participation remained steady at the global level, increased in some countries and declined in others.

      Gender differences in labour force participation tend to vary by age group. Of particular interest are the age groups corresponding to entry in or exit from the labour market and to women’s childbearing and the first years of life of their children. In that regard, age is a proxy for stages in life cycle. As shown in the subsection entitled ”Reconciliation of work and family life” below, gender differences in childcare responsibilities are crucial in explaining participation in the labour market. Furthermore, changes towards more family-friendly policies, in particular employment protection during pregnancy, childbirth and maternity leave, as well as the increased education of women, declining fertility levels and increased life expectancy may be reflected in changes in the sex and age patterns of labour force participation.

      In most countries, employment is lower for women than for men and unemployment is higher for women than for men. In general, women encounter more difficulties then men in finding and keeping jobs, both at younger and older ages. Economic hardship may add to the barriers faced by women. For example, the recent economic crisis has had a disproportionate impact on the employment of women in developing countries, owing to tougher competition and gender-based discrimination (ILO, 2011). In developed countries, however, the impact on the employment of women could not be attributed to discrimination. In some countries men lost more jobs than women and there was a greater decline in the employment rates for men than for women.

  • + Data needed
    • Data on labour force participation refer to:

      (a) Labour force participation by sex and age;

      (b) Employment by sex and age;

      (c) Unemployment by sex and age.

      Additional breakdowns are available for labour force statistics when data are collected through household surveys or population censuses. Examples of additional breakdown characteristics commonly used include urban/rural areas, geographical areas, migration status and educational attainment. These characteristics are useful in assessing the need for job creation or the effect of employment policies at the level of certain population groups or regions within a country.


  • + Sources of data
    • Statistics on labour force participation and the employed and unemployed populations can be collected primarily through the following:

      (a) Labour force surveys;

      (b) Household surveys integrating a labour force module, such as living standards surveys or other multipurpose household surveys;

      (c) Population censuses.

      Statistics on selected groups within the employed and unemployed populations can be collected through the following:

      (a) Establishment censuses or surveys, primarily as a source of data on paid employment;

      (b) Administrative records, mainly as a source of data on selected groups within the employed and registered unemployed populations.

  • + Conceptual and measurement issues
    • According to international guidelines on 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). Therefore, conventional labour statistics are currently limited to activities that contribute to the production of goods and services as defined by the System of National Accounts (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 a person’s own consumption, such as agricultural work, fishing, hunting, cutting firewood, carrying water, threshing and milling grain, making butter and cheese and slaughtering livestock. These unpaid productive activities are within the production boundary of the SNA. Own-account production of services, carried out mostly by women, is within the general boundary of the SNA but beyond its operational production boundary and therefore not covered in the definition of the labour force. This type of work refers to cleaning dwellings, carrying out small repairs, preparing and serving meals, caring for and instructing children, caring for other persons in the household and carrying out volunteer services directly rather than through organizations, including community service. Therefore, based on conventional labour statistics, the participation of women in work activities and their contribution to the economy tend to be underestimated (United Nations, 2001a; Mata-Greenwood, 2003). As all the 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 the labour force and employment may be underreported. The underestimation of women’s participation in the labour force and employment may result from the incomplete measurement of all forms of work implied by the definition of the labour force and the SNA production boundary (United Nations, 2001a). Some economic activities may be omitted for the reason that it is difficult to separate production of goods by households for own final use (which are included in the SNA general production boundary) from own-account production of services (which are considered beyond the SNA production boundary). The assumption by respondents and interviewers alike that certain work does not imply participation in the labour force, as well as gender-based stereotypes of women as housewives in charge of domestic work, also contribute to the underreporting 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 on the basis of 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 that is expected to capture the seasonal variations of specific types of work may be based on a longer reference period (for example, the previous 12 months) (United Nations, 1984; Mata-Greenwood, 2003).

      Lastly, employment of some groups of women or men may be underreported in employment statistics owing to the 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 persons temporarily absent from work. However, establishment-based surveys tend to cover only workers appearing on the payroll, 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 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 and where the labour force is largely self-employed (International Labour Office, 1982). The number of women in the unemployed population may be underreported for three main reasons. First, women may be perceived or may define themselves as not seeking work because (a) they are less likely to use in their search for work 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 not therefore 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 of women would be considered unemployed only if a relaxed criterion of seeking work was used. Third, when data on unemployment are collected from administrative records, the unemployed population is reduced to those receiving benefits and registered jobseekers and women are more likely to be excluded (Mata-Greenwood, 2003).

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