Barbara Cox, Dr Cox Consulting; Hannah Hoffmann & Shannon J. Rowley Wayne State University
In recent decades, women have experienced positive global shifts in economic empowerment and equality in work. Key drivers of these positive shifts include advances in women’s educational attainment, organizational practices, and public policies. Beyond the positive impact of economic progress for women themselves, such advances also produce positive outcomes for organizations, surrounding communities, and national economies. However, there is still much work to be done to advance gender equality around the world. I-O psychologists—including both practitioners and researchers—have an important role to play in the advancement of women in work on a global scale. This article reviews recent data highlighting the global progress women have experienced in economic empowerment and provides recommended steps for I-O psychologists to consider in closing the remaining inequalities that exist for women in work.
Data show positive shifts for women at work around the world over recent decades. For example, education for women—a driver of financially viable career paths (World Bank, 2015)—is increasing around the globe. Girl’s primary-school enrollment rates doubled over the second half of the 20th century in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, rising faster than boy’s enrollment rates and substantially reducing gender gaps in schooling (World Bank, 2012). On a global scale, 95% of the gender gap in educational attainment has closed (World Economic Forum, 2021). In terms of women’s rights, almost every country in the world has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Revenga & Shetty, 2012); additionally, gender equality is a dedicated UN Sustainable Development Goal with multilateral support to see improvements by 2030 (United Nations, 2021). With such shifts in public policy and social advocacy, women are also experiencing greater success in the workplace than ever before. More than 500 million women worldwide have entered the labor force over the past 30 years (Revenga & Shetty, 2012). In addition, the percentage of skilled female professionals and corporate board members is rising, and the gender wage gap is decreasing (Millennium Project, 2017; World Economic Forum, 2021).
Research shows that such progress creates measurable value for society. For instance, a recent study found that gender equality improves economic performance and quality of life: Researchers found that as more women were employed around the world, national economies incrementally flourished (UN Women, 2017). Another study found that as more women entered the workforce, wages rose—including for men (Weinstein, 2018). In terms of organizational benefits, a Harvard Business Review survey (2013) revealed that women were rated higher than men at every management level in their leadership evaluations. Higher ratings included areas such as developing others and building relationships, as well as traits specifically correlated with leadership effectiveness. These studies highlight that women are not only becoming more visible in work but that their presence in work has measurable benefits to organizations, communities, and national economies.
Such notable progress toward women’s economic empowerment is worth celebrating. Yet, there is still much to be done. Although women’s equality and economic empowerment have improved over recent decades, widespread gaps still exist: In 2019, the global gender pay gap remained at 23%, and women remain underrepresented in high-productivity sectors (OECD, 2019). Around the world, women continue to face laws and social norms that inhibit their ability to participate in work (World Bank, 2021). Unfortunately, COVID19 has further exacerbated preexisting gender inequalities leading to a disproportionate economic burden on women (World Bank, 2021). Thus, although positive changes are occurring for women around the world, significant inequalities still remain. At the current rate of change it is estimated to take over 200 years to reach equal economic participation for women on a global scale (OECD, 2019; UN Women, 2021). Now is the time to both embrace the progress that has been made and continue to work fervently to overcome the barriers that persist for women around the world.
The field of I-O psychology is well positioned to drive progress forward for women in work. In fact, key strategies to advance women’s global economic empowerment have direct relevance to I-O psychology. Recent recommendations to achieve women’s equality have been published by various governmental and international groups. These recommendations include organizational practices such as fair recruitment, selection, and promotion practices; increased representation of women in organizational leadership; training and professional development for women, particularly in fields with higher gender disparities such as STEM; parental leave and family-friendly policies for both men and women; equal pay for work of equal value; safe and harassment-free workplaces; and gender-sensitive procurement and value chains (UN Commission on the Status of Women [CSW], 2017; UN Women, 2017; UN Women, 2021; World Bank, 2015). These recommendations present an undeniable case that I-O psychology has an important—if not key—role to play in advancing women’s equality in work. I-O psychology practitioners should consider how to advocate for gender equality in their organizations and larger professional communities with emphasis on the noted recommendations.
Similarly, researchers in I-O psychology can support women’s economic equality through social advocacy research and an expanded understanding of women in work around the world. Key areas to support women’s equality in work include research on discriminatory laws and social norms that drive gender inequalities in work, women in nonformal work (e.g., women-owned enterprises and the informal economy), women who work in developing countries, and economic empowerment for women in poverty (Saari, 2017; Schein, 2013; Traylor et al., 2020). These are critical areas for civil society groups, international organizations, and policy makers to address, and I-O psychology research on such topics could influence positive change (OECD, 2019; UN Women, 2016). For example, SIOP members led parallel panels at the 2017 and 2018 UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to share strategies on how to drive women’s participation in leadership at work and in their communities (SIOP UN Committee, 2017). In addition, the impact of COVID-19 on women in work has created a new research opportunity for I-O psychology. Although data are still emerging, it appears that women in work have been disproportionately impacted due to COVID-19 (World Bank, 2021). As the world continues to research the economic and social impact of COVID-19, I-O psychology can contribute to the conversation by exploring the impact on women in work.
Finally, it is important to note that gender dynamics are complex and can be impacted by many external factors. When participating in international research, interventions, or initiatives to advocate for women’s economic empowerment, I-O psychologists should keep local context and realities at the forefront. Factors such as economic, political, legal, and institutional landscapes may cause variances in gender-inequality dynamics from country to country (UN Women, 2016). For example, women from different cultures may hold differing attitudes about appropriate approaches to women’s advocacy (Folberg, 2020). Unintended bias on part of the I-O psychologist—including limitations in research theories, measures, and techniques—could disrupt well-intended efforts to support gender equality around the world (Gloss et al., 2017; Traylor et al., 2020). Thus, a keen awareness of context will be critical for I-O psychologists working around the world.
Over the past several decades, women’s economic empowerment has advanced significantly. Although crucial work remains to close the gender inequality gap, it is important to recognize and celebrate the progress that has been made. We invite you to join the dialogue with others who are making positive shifts for women in their communities and their lives. An encouraging number of organizations around the world are making gains in women’s equality and economic empowerment. Several groups relevant to I-O psychology include
• Economic Dividends for Gender Equality (EDGE) Certified Foundation: A globally recognized certifier of gender equality in the workplace, the EDGE foundation assesses and awards the EDGE certification to organizations who meet gender equality criteria. https://edge-cert.org/
• International Center for Research on Women (ICRW): A global research institute focused on issues related to gender inequality and poverty around the world, including women’s economic empowerment. https://www.icrw.org/issues/economic-empowerment/
• SheWorks!: A global digital marketplace that matches female job seekers with remote-based positions, provides professional-development training for women, and offers workforce management solutions to employers. https://wheresheworks.com/
• Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI): Developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Centre, this index measures discrimination against women in 180 countries using social institution dimensions (e.g., laws, social norms) and is an official data source for UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 (gender equality). https://www.genderindex.org/
• UN Women: The official United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment programs, policies, and global standards. https://www.unwomen.org/en
• Women Deliver: A global evidence-based advocacy group that works to promote women’s health and rights through conferences, communication tools, initiatives, and advisory roles. https://womendeliver.org/
• Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO): A global organization focused on improving working conditions for the women in the informal economy through research and advocacy. https://www.wiego.org/
Women are gaining visibility for the skills and talents brought to the table. They are becoming more empowered in their work, and this has a positive effect on the surrounding communities. Let the significance of what has been accomplished fuel your effort to work for the equal and fair treatment of women around the world. We encourage you to identify one action you can take as an I-O psychologist to support this important agenda. It may be as simple as learning about gender equality in your workplace, your local community, or even globally by getting involved with an organization—such as those listed above—to support women in work around the world. Everyone can enact change—what can you do today to support the fair treatment of women in work?