Women, men, and social stigmas

13 March 2018

Women, men, and social stigmas

This year’s International Women’s Day has come in the midst of an acute interest in the inequalities and mistreatments of some women in their workplaces. The gravity of these topics is undeniable, but whilst the current discussion is centred on working women, I have decided to take one step back and check how many women are actually working.

The global workforce

Statistics from the International Labour Organization (ILO) show that the current global labour force participation rate for women (about 49% of the total female population aged 15+) is nearly 27% lower than the rate for men, and no improvement is expected in 2018. In 2017, the largest gender gap in participation rates, at 31%, is faced by women in emerging countries, followed by those in developed countries, at 16%, and in developing countries, at 12%.

The gaps are widest in the Arab States, Northern Africa and Southern Asia (over 50%) with the lowest levels of female participation rates at less than 30%*.  However, who would have thought that the gap would be still so large (16%) in developed countries! In the UK and Europe, the percentage of salaried workers is about 8% higher for women than for men, which suggests also a different job distribution and lower female entrepreneurship. While in developing/emerging countries, issues like access to jobs and social/cultural restrictions come into play, in developed countries a major reason for this lower participation is motherhood duties, or rather, discouraging work-environment settings, lack of retention incentives, and high costs of childcare. 

Balancing family and career

I recently read an interesting FT article discussing which career-stage is best for planning a family. Amongst many good ideas, one particular suggestion struck me:

“If you want to earn flexibility in the workplace, you need in-demand skills… Women fear losing ground. The more people are able to increase [their] skills, the easier it is to take a career break without losing ground.”

To sum this up, the article suggests that women should make themselves more indispensable in their job before taking maternity leave, in order to retain the job and succeed in progressing in their careers. 

After reflecting on the above, two questions came to mind:

  1. This mostly applies to women in high-skilled jobs. What about women in other roles?
  2. Doesn’t this type of argument ring a bell of ‘inequality’ in itself: extra efforts, strategies and responsibilities required from one gender?

The same article goes on to mention another important aspect of family life: shared parental leave, where parents can both take time off together and/or take it in turns to have periods of leave with their child. While this is a great step forward, The Economist notes the low participation rates of male employees in this scheme, probably associated to ‘gender-stigma’:


“… most men assume that even gender-neutral flexibility policies are meant for women, and that if they take advantage of them, they will incur their colleagues’ disdain.” 

Apparently, sometimes societies can lag behind their allowed rights. 
How can we reduce this lag?

Dealing with the stigma

Employers should further adopt and promote gender-neutral schemes that support parenthood and the government could boost this by providing benefits to employers with large numbers of males on shared parental leave and high female employee retention rates after maternity leave. 

Wider attention to the topic in the media and in societal campaigns would also be worthwhile, in helping to showcase the importance of these schemes, and employees who have benefitted should be truly encouraged to share their experience upon return to work.

All of this, and more, should be done to eliminate the social stigma of men sharing parental leave.


Alongside her ICMA Centre academic role, Dr Miriam Marra is a champion of our annual Women in Business event, and is passionate about the topic and encouraging diversity and women in leadership.


*ILO World Employment and Social Outlook – Trends for Women 2017