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Despite the fact that women constitute more than one-third of the world’s labour force, producing up to 70 per cent of Africa’s food by some estimates, in general, they remain concentrated in a limited number of traditional occupations, many of which do not require highly technical qualifications and most of which are low paid. According to data from the International Labour Organization, however, as countries become industrialized, more women obtain jobs in more occupations.

A The Developed World

The employment pattern for women in the United States, Europe, and Japan is broadly similar. Before 1990, labour-force participation rates ranged from 38 per cent in West Germany (now part of the united Federal Republic of Germany) to 55 per cent in Sweden. Most of these countries have some form of equal employment or protective legislation. Collective bargaining is used more widely than in the United States as a means to improve women’s working conditions.

Employment policies in Eastern Europe and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under Communism were based on a belief in both the duty and the right of women to work. In 1936 the Soviet constitution specified that no legislation should deviate from the principle of women’s equality with men. The USSR and its allies established childcare, health, educational, and recreational facilities. According to estimates, in the 1970s and early 1980s about 85 per cent of all Soviet women between the ages of 20 and 55 were employed outside the home; in East Germany (now part of the united Federal Republic of Germany) the number of employed women was as high as 80 per cent. Although more integrated than in the West, women in Eastern Europe were still concentrated in some traditional occupations and industries, and almost always at lower levels of responsibility than men. In Bulgaria, for example, 78 per cent of textile workers, but only 25 per cent of engineers, were women; in the Soviet Union, these figures were 74 and 40 per cent, respectively. Although part-time employment was discouraged, about half the married women worked only part time. Communist countries reported that equal pay for equal work was achieved, but almost no women achieved high office. However, the accuracy of all these figures and the real underlying situation have been called into question following the demise of the Communist regimes throughout Europe and Eurasia; though it may remain true that women in these formerly Communist countries enjoy a higher profile in the workplace than in Western European nations. It also remains to be seen how the situation will develop with the collapse of old state industries and social security systems in Central and Eastern Europe.

Among Western nations, Sweden has come closest to achieving equality in employment. In the last two decades, women’s average hourly earnings have risen from 66 to 87 per cent of men’s earnings. At the same time, the Swedish government undertook major reforms of textbooks and curricula, parent education, childcare and tax policies, and marriage and divorce laws, all geared to accord women equal opportunities in the labour market while also recognizing their special needs if they are mothers. Counselling and support programmes were designed for women re-entering the work force. Other European countries have studied the Swedish model and some are adapting programmes to fit their social-welfare policies, though the evident economic cost of a Swedish-style welfare system is a powerful counterweight to such moves.

Japan, the most industrialized nation in East Asia, has retained some of its traditional attitudes towards working women. Female participation in the workplace is only slightly behind levels in most Western European states, but women are often expected to retire when they have children, despite the fact that Japanese higher education produces a great number of highly qualified female graduates. Equal opportunities legislation has been introduced to guarantee and facilitate employment outside the domain of the “office lady” (women in low-paid secretarial work, often performing menial office tasks), but career opportunities, especially in the higher echelons of business and government, have yet to improve to the levels seen in some Western countries.

South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and the other newly industrialized economies of East and South East Asia have provided new working opportunities for women with the expansion of their economies. In South Korea female presence in work is slightly behind that in Japan; in other such countries, the level is still lower. Traditional paternalist attitudes, the importance of the family in Confucianism, and the presence of Islam in some areas have all tended to depress the working status and opportunities of women. That said, economic growth has allowed women to aspire to careers and wages never open to them before, and such countries are ever less willing to let such traditional constraints keep potential wealth creators out of their economies.

B Developing Nations

Much of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America remain primarily poor agricultural economies. Most women work in the fields and marketplaces, or gathering fuel and carrying water over long distances, but their economic contributions are generally unrecognized. African countries in particular report some of the highest percentages of female participation in the workforce, but the work concerned is usually subsistence agricultural labour. As men migrate to the cities in search of increasingly important cash incomes, many rural women are left to support families alone.

The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development has defined a “basic learning package” needed for both men and women in developing nations. This package includes functional literacy, some choice of relevant vocational skills, family planning and health, child care, nutrition, sanitation, and knowledge for civic participation. Illiteracy is higher among women than among men. Even in countries where some equality has been achieved, problems such as high unemployment rates affect women adversely. In African countries, some progress is being made in widening women’s work opportunities. These women still do not have equal access to education, training programmes, or financial grants or loans, however, especially in areas necessary to a nation-building economy.


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