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Women's Economic Contributions

Women & Paid Work
Related section>> Where Manitoba Women Work

Women make tremendous contributions to the economy through their paid work. Women work in a wide variety of occupations around the world from teachers and secretaries to welders and doctors to machine operators and child care workers. Women's access to paid work is crucial to their efforts for economic equality and to their sense of self. But women's paid work is generally valued as less important than men's. With the exception of unionized women, women still earn considerably less than men. Women more often find themselves in low-status, insecure jobs with few benefits. Women represent the majority of the working poor in all regions.1


Jump ahead to:

Woman at workHow it was - the origins of paid work
At one time work was structured very differently than it is today. In subsistence economies (see Economic Systems for more on this), people's ability to work hard was directly related to their chances of survival. All members of a community worked to the best of their ability performing the tasks necessary for life, including food-production and gathering, construction of shelters, and the reproduction of life. Work was not structured in 9-5 work days but intermingled with socializing and play and connected to the rhythm of the seasons.

During the Industrial Age, work was moved from home and farm, to factories and office buildings. Instead of working for their own immediate needs, people began to work for money which was later exchanged for food, housing, and other necessities. As society moved from a goods-based economy to a money-based economy, women were sidelined. Men went into the factories and offices and received payment for the services they provided; women stayed home and continued on the work of reproduction and care of home and community but received no pay. When women did start to enter the paid workforce their incomes were considered supplementary to their husband's or father's and their work was seen as an extension of their unpaid work at home. As a result, the work they did was assigned a lesser monetary value than men's work. Today women's paid work remains chronically and systematically unstable and underpaid, and much of their work remains entirely unpaid. (More on Women's Unpaid Work.)

Woman reading to childHow many women are working?
As the saying goes, "Every woman is a working woman." But labour force statistics do not show this. Instead they show the number of women working for pay. In 2006, 59% of all Canadian women were participating in the paid labour force in contrast to 74% of men. These women made up 46% of the paid labour force, a huge increase from 1891 when women made up 13% of the paid labour force in Canada. How do these numbers compare to the rest of the world?

Number of women in the paid work force

  • Botswana 38%
  • Chile 36%
  • Croatia 48%
  • India 15%
  • Jamaica 50%
  • New Zealand 48%
  • Niger 9%
  • Spain 37%
  • Thailand 45%
  • Turkey 10%

    Source: UNIFEM Biennial Report. Progress of the World's Women, 2000.

Where are women working?
While some things have changed in the past 110 years, others have stayed the same. Women still find themselves over-represented in 'traditional' occupations of keeping house and shop, taking care of children, and sewing clothes.

Leading female occupations in Canada in 1891 and 2001

1891 2001 
clerical worker
dressmaker secretary
teacher sales clerk
farmer teacher
seamstress child care and/or domestic worker
tailoress nurse
saleswoman food and beverage server
housekeeper cashier
laundress retail food & accommodation manager
milliner machine operator

In 1996, seventy percent of Canadian women in the paid work force were in teaching, nursing and related health services, clerical, administrative, sales and service occupations. While things are changing, they aren't changing fast. To read about one Canadian initiative designed to expand women's opportunities in non-traditional fields visit Vancouver Island Highway brings changing face of labour to construction. To see exactly where women in Manitoba are working visit Where Manitoba Women Work.

Woman at cashierWhile women in Canada have moved into many fields which were once male-dominated, the sexual division of labour is still very real. Pink-collar job is one term used to describe low-status, low-paying, female-dominated occupations like secretaries, salesclerks, and food servers. For many women the choice of this work is determined more by economic necessity than career choices. This kind of work also more easily allows them to leave the workforce for a time while they are having children and return when their children are older.

While women across the world are found in a wide variety of occupations, pink-collar jobs and job ghettos exist in every country. Here are some examples:

Global Job Ghettos for Women

  • United Kingdom - office-cleaning

Woman walking to workHow much are women paid?

While women make up nearly 40% of the global paid workforce, they earn only 26% of the world's income.2 In Canada, women earn an average of 70.5 cents for every dollar that a man earns. As of 2005, university educated women face an even larger gap of 68 cents, down from 75 cents in 1995.3 Female-dominated professions in general are valued much lower than male-dominated professions. Until recent years, child care workers were paid on par with parking lot attendants; today, plumbers still earn more than nurses. Men outnumber women in each of the ten highest paid occupations in Canada while women outnumber men in all but one of the ten lowest paid occupations. In both the highest and lowest paid occupations in Canada, women in these occupations earn less than men in the same occupation. For example, female food and beverage servers earn 76% of what male servers earn while female dentists earn 66% of what male dentists earn. See Men, Women, and the Highest and Lowest Paid Occupations in Canada for more.

Women are seen as a source of cheap labour across the globe; they are overrepresented in the informal seWest Bengal, Indiactor and in Canada they make up 70% of the part-time work force.4 They also make up 2/3 of minimum wage earners in Canada putting women at great risk of poverty. See Women, Poverty, and Minimum Wage.

Globally the gender gap in wages is hard to determine because so much data is not available. Within the industrial and services sector, the gap ranges between 53% and 97% with an average of 78%. The chart below shows what the wage gap in industry, services, and manufacturing looked like around the world circa 1997.

The Global Wage Gap
Numbers given indicate women's earnings as compared to men's, by percentage. In Australia, for example, women involved in industry and services earned 90% of male wages.
  Industry & Services  Manufacturing 
Australia 90
Egypt 97 74
El Salvador 89 95
Eritrea 58 no data
Korea 62 56
Latvia 80 89
Portugal 67 69
Sri Lanka 90 85
Swaziland no data 71
Sweden no data 90

Source: UNIFEM Biennial Report. Progress of the World's Women, 2000.

Workplace hazards for women
Women encounter certain obstacles and barriers that keep them from workplaces as well as challenges and hazards within the workplace. One of the biggest obstacles that keep women away from the workforce is the absence of quality, affordable child care. This is especially critical for women in rural areas and for single mothers trying to fit in the demands of paid and unpaid work. (See Caring for Children for more.)

Another obstacle women face is their reduced access to training and education - this is a major impediment to accessing good paying jobs.

Sexism is not the only barrier to women's participation in the paid labour force. Racism and ableism (discrimination against people living with disabilities) also limit women's ability to secure good employment. Women in rural areas also face limited opportunities. For more on these experiences visit our section on Women's Different Experiences.

Women at workWithin the work place women are at risk of sexual harassment and in some cases sexual abuse. At the same time paid work can give the self-confidence and financial independence they need to leave abusive situations at home. Women who do paid work in the home, for example piece work in the garment industry, are also at risk. They have few outlets for emotional and physical support and protection should their homes not be safe places for them.

Women working in nontraditional fields stand out and are sometimes taunted by their male co-workers. Diane (see Diane's Story) got used to being singled-out by her colleagues when she worked as a drywaller - she was usually the only woman on the job. Women in professional fields face sexist attitudes that prevent them from reaching upper-level management positions. Sometimes this is called hitting the glass ceiling - an invisible yet very real barrier that prevents women from advancing past a certain level of pay and responsibility. Some women are unable to accept the positions they'd like to hold because of responsibilities at home. For many women the choice between career and family is a difficult one.

Women also have a higher incidence of disability resulting from workplace injury than men. At age 35 the disability claim incidence rate for women in Canada is three times greater than for men.5 While women may live longer than men, they do experience more years in poorer health. Globally women are at risk of injury in demanding export-oriented industries. Vegetable pickers suffer from pesticide poisoning and garment workers and other machine operators experience carpal tunnel syndrome and other skeletal-muscular disorders from repetitive work. Garment workers are also at risk of poisoning from the dyes used on clothing like stone-washed jeans. (Visit Globalization to learn more.)

Woman janitor Benefits of Paid Work
Despite the hazards paid work is a tremendously important part of many women's lives offering many benefits. The economic security provided by earning one's own income can give women the strength to leave abusive relationships, the opportunity to provide fully for their children, and the freedom and self-confidence to choose the course of their lives. Paid work can give women intellectual and physical challenges, a social atmosphere, and the satisfaction of feeling that they are contributing to the economy and being remunerated for that.

While women face barriers within the paid workforce, they are finding many ways to get around these. Women's income in comparison to men's has increased significantly over the last several decades as have their career options. Women have also shown spectacular success in running their own businesses.

Enterprising Women
Entrepreneurship offers many women a way to balance work and home responsibilities. For Robin (see Robin's story) who suffers from severe chemical allergies, starting her own business was a way to create a chemically-safe place for her to earn an income. It also gave her a chance to use her massage therapy and other healing skills that had few other outlets.

Woman working with machineryWhen Carmen (see Carmen's story)) lost her government job due to a change in government, she and a friend decided to chance taking an entrepreneurial course. A high-school drop-out, Carmen now runs two successful companies. Despite her success Carmen has dealt with her share of discriminatory comments. Although her own mother was a successful entrepreneur in the 1960s, family members still ask, "When are you going to get a real job?" Carmen recalls a man at her first Chamber of Commerce meeting saying, "Well that's a really nice hobby you girls are getting into." Following her own experiences as a woman in business, Carmen became a co-founding chair of the Women's Enterprise Centre of Manitoba.

Carmen credits women's business success to the fact that women start smaller, are better planners and more organized, and start later in life. While Canadian men are slightly more likely to start their own businesses than Canadian women, women's businesses are more likely to succeed. Globally women are also daring to strike out on their own. To read about some of the successes of women in Kenya visit Women's World Banking. To hear from two other enterprising Manitoba women see:

  • Lori Ann's story
  • Darlene's story

    To learn more
    Women's work is adjusting to the demands and effects of economic globalization. To read about some recent trends in women's paid and unpaid work stemming from globalization visit Globalization and Women's Work.

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