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Woman sewing
Politics and Economy:
Rich World, Poor Women
More on This Story:
Women and Work

There is an old saying that you can judge a society by the way it treats its women. In the last several decades many world organizations have signed on to that belief — making improvements in the status of women among their highest priorities. The World Bank's Millennium Development Goals put it broadly: "Goal Number 3: Promote gender equality and empower women." UNIFEM, the United Nation's Development Fund for Women lays out the road to progress in greater detail:

  • Women's share of seats in legislative bodies should reach 50%
  • The ratio between girls' and boys' school enrollment rates should be one to one
  • Average female weekly earnings as percentage of male weekly earnings should equal 100%
  • Women's share of paid employment in the non-agricultural sector should be expanded
  • Men and women should spend an equal number of hours on unpaid housework

Political power, education, type of work — all these factors have an influence on women's economic power.

A few years ago musician and artist Laurie Anderson sang "You know, for every dollar a man makes a woman makes 63 cents. Now, fifty years ago that was 62 cents. So, with that kind of luck, it'll be the year 3,888 before we make a buck." Of course, she was referring to American women and American wages. The good news is that the AFL-CIO reports that women's wages relative to men's for comparable work now stand at 75 cents for every dollar as of 2002. Of course, wages in much of the developing world have further to go to reach parity. See how men's wages in manufacturing stack up against women's around the world.

Chart: Where do Women Stand Today?      

Overall women wage earners in developed countries receive an average of 77 cents on the dollar, in developing countries 73 cents. -- World Bank, Gender and Equality, April 4, 2003

In some areas women's employment is still concentrated in low-wage agricultural, temporary and piece-work sectors. However, the World Bank estimates that only one-fifth of the wage gap can be explained by education, work experience or job characteristics. Recently, The International Labour Organization noted in its report "Time for Equality at Work" that progress has been made in awareness of gender inequality and discrimination in the working world, but there is a long way to go to achieve parity, especially at the highest paid levels. See how much progress women have made in breaking the glass ceiling.

Another important element in achieving economic equality for women is political power. As of 2003 only a handful of countries had achieved 30 percent of female representation in parliaments and legislatures (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, The Netherlands, South Africa). UNIFEM's Progress of the World's Women report shows that while some countries have made progress, others have lost ground.

Women in Political Power, 1987/2000
Share of Seats in National Parliament

Senegal:  11% / 14%
South Africa:  1% / 30%
Gambia:  8% / 2%
Tunisia:  6% / 11.5%
Egypt:  4% / 2%
India:  8% / 8.9%
Thailand:  3% / 6.6%
Mongolia:  25% / 7.9%
Argentina:  6% / 23%
Mexico:  11% / 17.9%
Poland:  20% / 12.6%
Romania:  32% / 5.6%
Australia:  6% / 22.4%
United States:  5% / 12.5%
Source: UNIFEM, Progress of the World's Women Report, 2000
Sources: International Labour Organization; UNESCO: The Education of Girls and Women; Millennium Goals: Gender Equality; UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women)

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