Glass Ceilings and Concrete Floors: Measuring Progress in Women's Employment

Martha (Marty) Chen Fri May 1, 2015

2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the Fourth UN World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China in 1995. To mark this historic anniversary, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation recently released their “No Ceilings: The Full Participation Report,” which takes stock of the progress of women and girls since 1995 and found, not surprisingly, that “we’re not there yet.” 

"Employment is the one area, according to the No Ceilings Report, in which the gender gap has not narrowed over the past two decades."

Only 55 per cent of women worldwide, compared to 82 per cent of men, are in the workforce. And women around the world continue to earn less than men.

An important driver of gender gaps in earnings is gender segmentation in labour markets. Across the developing world, half or more of the workforce is employed in the informal economy. Women are more likely than men, in most countries and regions, to be informally employed. And, within the informal economy, women are more likely than men to be in the least remunerative types of work and most disadvantaged work places. Women are more likely than men to be sub-contracted workers and unpaid contributing workers in family firms or on family farms; and they are less likely than men to be entrepreneurs who hire others. Also, women are more likely than men to work in private homes—as home-based producers (in their own homes) or as domestic workers (in their employer’s home)—are less likely than men to work in factories or offices; and often work in public spaces.

For working women in the informal economy, breaking glass ceilings is not a relevant metaphor for measuring progress. They want to earn enough to feed their families, send their children to school, and pay for medical expenses. Rather than breaking glass ceilings, building concrete floors—both literally and figuratively—is their goal.

Concrete floors have a literal meaning for many groups of women informal workers. Consider home-based workers whose homes double as their work place: they need concrete, rather than mud, floors to make their work more productive. In India, where 30 per cent of all women workers are home-based, women worry that their homes will flood or their roofs will leak during the monsoon rains, damaging their raw materials, finished goods and equipment. Consider waste pickers who reclaim recyclable materials from waste for a living. They need work sheds in which to sort, compact, bundle, process and store recyclable materials. And consider street vendors who need a secure designated spot on the sidewalk or other public space in a good location with basic infrastructure to sell their goods. In all cases, having work places with concrete floors and other basic infrastructure increases productivity and earnings. 

Concrete floors also have a figurative meaning for all women informal workers: namely, agreed-upon and enforceable social floors below which their earnings and their social protections cannot fall. Informal workers earn less, on average, than formal workers and face greater risks both financially and physically; yet, by definition, they do not receive social protection through their work.  

A key future goal is to help working poor women in the informal economy build concrete floors, both literally and figuratively. Fortunately, there are promising examples from around the world of initiatives to provide basic infrastructure services to home-based workers, to negotiate secure vending sites for street vendors and to provide infrastructure services to waste pickers. And there is a growing consensus around the need to extend health care to informal workers and promising examples of how to do so. In sum, building concrete floors is both desirable and feasible, especially if organizations of women informal workers are involved in the process.