Skip to main content

Select theme


The aim of the current article is to provide an introduction into some of the key issues pertaining to women at work. A concise summary of some of the key matters related to women at work will be presented, with a concentrated focus on issues related to occupational segregation, and the gendered division of domestic duties at home. A short introduction to gender mainstreaming will also be provided.

Historical background to women at work and the changing world of work

Globalization, an ageing workforce, and increasing migration continue to affect world economies, highlighting the need to retain and maintain workforces for a sustainable future. Women as workers are vital to the world’s economies. An estimated 52% of global working age women are actively employed [1], and women’s contribution to the workforce continues to grow. Benefiting their families through increased household incomes and employers though increased productivity. However, this growth is not without challenges for women or organisations. In Europe, it is estimated that a constant employment rate for women will lead to an expected shortfall of 24 million people in the active workforce by 2040. However, if this employment rate could increase to equal that of men, then it is estimated that this projected shortfall could be reduced by 3 million [2]. These figures illustrate that viewing and supporting women, as a resource in the workforce must be reinforced.

Women’s participation in employment and occupational gender segregation

Female participation in the workforce

Pronounced gender differences in employment patterns can be observed, which is associated to a highly segregated labour market based on gender. The Fifth European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) found an average employment rate of 58.2% for women in the EU-27, which is considerably lower than the 70.1% observed for men [3]. It is important to note that from 1996 to 2011 the gap between male and female employment rates was observed to narrow. In 2008, 20 out of 27 countries had accomplished the required female employment rate of over 60%. In 2010, only 16 out of 27 countries accomplished this rate, and it speculated that this be the result of the economic crisis. Areas of employment that saw a decrease in female employment included retail salespersons, blue-collar workers in textiles/clothing manufacture and in agriculture [4].

It is important to note that considerable variation in women’s employment rate can be observed across EU Members States, and that female employment rate has been observed to vary by age group [5], with the highest observable female employment rate amongst those aged 25 to 49. For a more detailed overview of these variations in employment trends by EU country and age please see [employment trends and their impact on women].

In 2010, youth employment in the EU was 21.1%. The unemployment rate amongst younger women has been observed to be dramatically higher than that of young men in several Member States (including, Czech Republic, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Poland and Portugal), with a difference of almost 15 percentage points in Greece [4].

Employment contract

An additional employment dimension that is found to differ significantly between men and women is in relation to employment contracts: specifically, with more women than men opting for part-time employment [6][7][8]. Indeed part-time employment continues to be important for women, as it remains one option of dealing with child and eldercare duties. In 2008, although equal proportions of men and women had full-time jobs, 73% of those filling part-time jobs were women. In 2011 with in the EU-27, almost one-third (32.1%) of women employed worked on a part-time basis, which was significantly higher proportion than men (9% respectively). Part-time employment is most common among older workers (aged 55+) and young workers (15-24 years) [5].

Gender occupational segregation

Gender occupational segregation refers to the pattern in which one gender is under-represented in some jobs and over-represented in others, relative to their percentage share of total employment [7]. A growing body of evidence indicates that a high level of gender segregation is a persistent feature of the employment structure in Europe, and, moreover, globally [6][7][8][9][10][11].

Concentration of employed women by occupational sector and profession

Occupational sectors

In general, women and men tend to be concentrated in different areas of the labour market [12]. The evidence indicates that jobs occupied by women are spread less evenly across occupational sectors, as compared to men; and that the sectors in which women predominantly work are categorically different from those in which men are concentrated in [13]. This social phenomenon has been termed horizontal segregation; whereby men and women tend to work and be concentrated in different occupational sectors and perform different types of jobs and related tasks [12].

In 2005, 60% of all employed women were concentrated in six sectors out of the 62 defined by the NACE two-digit-level categorisation. These six sectors were healthcare and social services (17%), retail (12.5%), education (11.5%), public administration (7%), business activities (7%) and hotels and restaurants (5%). In contrast, only 31% of employed men worked in these sectors. In general, the concentration of female activity in a limited number of sectors is greater than that of men. Moreover, this concentration of female activity in a limited number of sectors appears to be increasing, rather than decreasing over time [14].

In recent years there has been an increasing employment rate of women in the service sector , which can be, in part, explained by job growth several key sectors were women typically work: health and social work, education and some business activities. Indeed, health, education and other services sector provide many part-time jobs for women [15]. According to the latest European Worker’s Survey, women may be proportionally exposed to more psychosocial risks; because of their increased direct contact with clients due to the nature of their jobs. In general, women in this sector report slightly higher levels of unwanted sexual attention, threats, humiliating behaviour, sexual harassment and bullying; whilst men, in contrast, reported higher levels of violence at work [5].

Beyond occupational sectoral segregation: gender differences within professions and jobs

Horizontal gender segregation has been observed to extend beyond occupational sectors. Based on the results of the analysis of the third EWCS (European Working Conditions Survey), horizontal segregation can continue to be observed in ‘gender-integrated’ occupational sectors: namely, areas of employment which have a more equal representation of male and females (such as, ‘professionals’, 50% men and 50 % women). When the data was aggregated at the level of fields within that occupational domain, men and women were found to work in different areas and fields. For example, in 2002, technicians or associate professionals were approximately equally distributed among men and women: 52%, and 48% respectively. However, the vast majority of men were found to be concentrated in jobs in the area related to physical, mathematical and engineering science (78%); whilst the majority of women were found to work in areas of teaching (69%) and life sciences and health (80%) [7].

Interestingly, even when men and women tend to work in the same job, evidence indicates that women and men continue to perform categorically different tasks [9][16][17]. An observational study conducted by Messing and colleagues [16] examined the ergonomic demands for workers in a poultry factory: with an equal proportion of male and females. Results of the study demonstrated that although men and women held the same job title, they often conducted very different tasks with different responsibilities. Male workers were found more likely to have task related to ‘disassembling’ the chicken, requiring large ‘sweeping’ movements; whilst females were more likely to have tasks related to fine and precise cutting (such as removing skin, excess fat, or veins). Consequently, the ergonomic demands and their respective consequences for workers’ health were found to be categorically different for women and men. Thus, suggesting that horizontal gender segregation can extend into the same occupational sector and even the same job title.

Women in male-dominated professions and sectors

In general, women’s move into traditional male jobs has been slowly increasing [2]. The 4th EWCS observed that there were more women working in male-dominated jobs than there were men working in traditional female-dominated sectors. Women working in male-dominated workplaces or traditionally masculine jobs can often experience tokenism. Tokens often feel isolated and excluded from informal networks [19], and can often experience stereotyping and discrimination from the majority of the group [20]; which can create a more stressful work environment. Beyond the experience and implication of experiencing tokenism, research from the USA demonstrates that occupations not previously occupied by women may not necessarily have the required preventions in place to reduce the risks that women may face in this working environment [5]. For example, a study of female long-haul truckers showed that fewer than one-third of companies provided sexual harassment or violence prevention training; or even had a policy for violence prevention in place.

Women in management and leadership positions

In addition to this horizontal occupational and sectoral segregation, vertical segregation can also be observed; with women being typically under-represented in higher status and higher paid jobs [7]. Women continue to have difficulties in attaining senior positions within organisations, because of the ‘glass ceiling effect’ [19]. In 2010, 13% of women in the EU-27 were in a supervisory role, which is lower than the 22% of men in a similar position [3]. Moreover, women tended to be at lower levels of organisational hierarchy as they had on average 8 subordinates, which is lower than the average subordinates a man has (24). Men were also 2.5 times more likely than women to be supervising 10 or more subordinates. There are also differences in the gender of the subordinates, with only 12% of men having a female supervisor; while 47% of women having a female supervisor [3]. Even at government representation, women only make 26% representatives at parliaments across Europe, and 32% of representatives in local and regional assemblies [21]. However, a positive trend can be observed amongst the proportion of workers reporting having female immediate supervisors. According to the 2010 EWCS, the observed figures rose from 21% in 1995 to 25% in 2005, and to 31% in 2010. It is important to note that these observed rates were found to considerably vary between Member States.

At board level, the participation of women involved in top-level business decision-making remains very low in the EU; although there are small signs of progress. In January 2012, women occupied on average just 13.7% of board seats of the largest publicly listed companies in EU Member States. Since the final quarter of 2003, the share of women on boards has risen from 8.5% to 13.7%, an increase of 5.2 percentage points in a little over 8 years [21]. For a more detailed discussion on how these, and other, employment trends may impact women’s occupational health please see employment trends and the impact on women’s health.

Career progression

Regardless of working part- or full-time, women reported poorer career prospects than men [3]. Women in the workplace have typically reported poorer career progression and prospects in a variety of industries [3], these include medicine[22], teaching [23], ICT [24] and local government [25]. In general, women are over-represented in low-status jobs, which are often characterised by, multiple jobs, work intensification, lack of career progression and lack of autonomy and personal control. Such characteristics of the work environment can contribute to higher strain and stress levels [5]. The associated challenge for women regarding career progression has been referred by many as the gender talent gap.

Gender and pay differences

Generally, women earn less than men, despite the fact that there are more women in high-status jobs today. The ILO [26] reports that there is a worldwide gender gap in payment, with a woman’s income per hour worked being on average about 77.1% of men’s income. However, it is important to note that the gender pay gap has reduced from a difference of over 60% in the 1960s to 30% in the 1990s [27]. In Europe, women earn, on average, 16% less than men across Europe [28][29]; however, it is important to note that this discrepancy is stagnating. The gender pay gap has been observed to widen with age and is even present in female-dominated jobs [5]. Across Member States the gender pay gap varied by 25 percentage points, ranging from 2% in Slovenia to 27% in Estonia [3]. A recent US study has demonstrated that women and younger workers aged between 22 and 44 years in particular could be at risk of hypertension when working for low wages [30]. At European and national levels, legislation on equal pay has facilitated a decrease in the number of cases of direct discrimination (such as, differences in pay when a man and a woman are doing exactly the same job with the same experience and skills and the same performance). However, despite EU legislation on equal pay, the gender pay gap has been observed to narrow at a much slower pace than the gender employment gap [31].


In the workplace, more women (6.9%) report being discriminated against than men (5.6%) [3]. This is despite workers benefiting from the introduction of EU legislation addressing gender discrimination [31]. Further information on gender discrimination can be found in a separate article focusing on discrimination at work. In addition, women are prone to be the subject of unwanted sexual attention in the workplace [3]. The issue of sexual harassment at work is addressed in a separate article.


The examination of European data further reveals that women migrant workers are at a disadvantage to their male counterparts. Research has found that among female migrant workers language problems, poor communication and on-the-job training, working hours and fatigue are some of the possible factors that may contribute to a higher workplace injury rates. In comparison to female nationals, family demands and obligations have a significantly higher impact on activity and employment amongst female immigrants. It is important to highlight that female migrant workers are not a homogenous group, and, therefore, targeted OSH solutions should actively consider the diversity within this group of workers. Indeed, second-generation migrant women have been observed to have, in general, better educational levels and better integration into labour market than those of the first generation, and even in comparison to some Members States nationals [5]. For a more detailed discussion of migration and women’s occupational health please see employment trends and the impact on women.

Implications for women’s OSH

The pervasiveness of gender segregation within the labour market has resulted in significant differences in both job content and working conditions amongst women and men [12][16][32]. As a result, men and women are differentially exposed to a different set of exposure rates and pattern of workplace hazards (for example, exposure to toxic chemicals, ergonomic demands, risk of accidents, and psychosocial risks; [16]). Broadly speaking women’s jobs involve caring, nurturing and service activities for people, whilst men tend to be concentrated in management and the manual and technical jobs associated with machinery or physical products [12]. Consequently, because men and women are differently concentrated in certain occupations and sectors, with different aspects of job content and its associated tasks, they will be exposed to a different pattern of work-related risks [7][6][16]. For a more in-depth discussion of the implications of the gendered nature of employment patterns and trends on women’s occupational health and safety please refer to this article: separate article

Gendered division of unpaid domestic duties and home responsibilities

There is an established gender gap in the division of labour outside the workplace [12][33]. Women, on average, report a higher total workload than men when both their vocational and domestic responsibilities are combined [34]. This proportionally increased total workload has been found to equate to longer working hours amongst women when both domestic and vocational activities are collectively combined; this trends is also observed amongst women who part time [5]. As a result of women’s, on average, higher total workload can be more threatened in terms of their physical and mental health; and are particularly prone to role and work overload [35]. A study amongst white-collar workers in Sweden found a significant gender difference in reported total workload (inclusive of both work and domestic duties), with women, on average, reporting a higher total workload; and also a higher frequency and severity of physical ailments and symptoms. Within this study, employed women’s health was observed to determine by the interaction between conditions at work and household duties [36]. A particularly at risk group of role and work overload are midcareer women (the period approximately 15 to 20 years into one’s professional career) in dual-career households [37].

Gender and Occupational Health and Safety: Policy and Practice

Currently, the approach to occupational health and safety in the EU is ‘gender neutral’ [12][38][39]; whereby, equality is actively promoted as the norm, and explicit gender differences (with the exception of sex differences; namely, reproductive health issues) are not acknowledged or directly addressed [38]; Gender mainstreaming, or the integration of gender into occupational health and safety policy and practice, was included in the ‘Community Strategy on health and safety at work 2002-2006’ [40] as a key objective. There is growing criticism of ‘gender neutrality’ as an effective policy approach. Indeed, it has been argued that by taking a gender-neutral approach in policy and legislation this has contributed to less attention and fewer resources being directed towards work-related risks to women and their prevention [5].

A recent report by the EU-OSHA [5] identified a number of gaps in policy with direct implications to women’s occupational health. For example, European safety and health directives do not cover (predominantly female) domestic workers; or women working informally, for example wives or partners of men in family farming businesses, may not always be covered by legislation. These examples in gap in policy highlight the importance and necessity of conducting gender impact assessments on all existing and future OSH directives, standard setting and compensation arrangements. Informed by the current knowledge-base of prevention and mainstreaming gender into OSH, existing directives could be, and arguably should be/ can be, implemented in a more gender-sensitive manner.

In addition, a growing number of experts have observed that gender issues have typically been neglected in the planning and implementation of health promotion initiatives and disease prevention strategies [32][16][41]. In general, interventions have been described by some authors as ‘gender blind’; whereby, interventions are assumed to be equally as effective for men as women, and vice versa [26]. Despite the growing body of evidence indicating that integrating gender considerations into interventions results in a strong positive effect on health outcomes across various domains [42].

Central to addressing the issue of gender in the workplace is strengthening the link between gender equality and occupational health [5]. This involves taking into account a gender-sensitive approach in order to prevent occupational health problems; and, conversely, taking into account how working conditions and work organisation can encourage gender equality. Central to addressing working conditions and broader issues of gender equality is the active participation of women in all decision-making practices concerning occupational health and safety at all levels; and their active involvement in developing and implementing targeted OSH strategies and solutions that are gender-sensitive.

Going forward research and interventions must take account of the real jobs that men and women do, and differences in exposure and working conditions there within. This can be accomplished through improving research and monitoring by systematically including the gender dimension in data collection, adjusting for hours worked (as women generally work fewer hours than men) and basing exposure assessment on the real work carried out [5]. A report by EU-OSHA [5] provides a number of examples of gender-sensitive studies and polices.


In conclusion, gender mainstreaming is a now a central component to the EU policy initiatives and has been recognised as of key importance to health and safety in the Community Strategy. However, despite gender mainstreaming being advocated at a policy level, there continues to be a limited recognition and discourse of the issue of gender in the workplace; and its direct and indirect association to health in the field of occupational health and safety; and, arguably, this has resulted in a limited number of practitioners and organisations directly addressing the issue of gender in their health and safety practices and policies. Improving women’s occupational safety and health cannot be viewed separately from wider discrimination issues at work and in society. Employment equality actions should include OSH.


[1] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, ‘The World's Women 2010: Trends and Statistics’, United Nations, New York, 2010. Available at: [1]

[2] Desvaux, G., Deviilard-Hoelligner, S. & Baumgarten, P., ‘Women matter: Gender diversity, a corporate performance driver’, McKinsey & Company, Paris, 2007. Available at: [2]

[3] Eurofound – European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, ‘Changes Over Time: First Findings for the fifth European Working Conditions Survey’, 2010. Available at: [3]

[4] Brodolini, F.G., Background note ‘Achieving the Europe 2020 employment target’, Conference ‘Equality between women and men’, European Commission, DG Justice, 19–20 September, Brussels, 2011. Available at:

[5] EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘New risks and trends in the safety and health of women at work’, European Communities, Luxembourg, 2013. Available at: [5]

[6] Burchell, B., Fagan, C., O'Brien, C., & Smith, M., ‘Working conditions in the European Union: The gender perspective’, The European Union, Luxembourg, 2007.

[7] Fagan, C., & Burchell, B., ‘Gender, Jobs, and Working Conditions in the European Union’, European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Dublin, 2002.

[8] Anker, R., ‘Gender and Jobs: Sex Segregation of Occupations in the World’, International Labour Office, Geneva, 1998.

[9] Kauppinen, K. & Kandolin, I., ‘Gender and working conditions in the European Union’, European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Dublin, 1998’.

[10] Rubery, J., Smith, M., Fagan, C., Grimshaw, D., ‘Women and European Employment’, Routledge, London, 1998.

[11] Rubery, J. & Fagan, C., ‘Occupational segregation of women and men in the European Union’, Social Europe, 3/93, 1993.

[12] EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘Gender Issues in Health and Safety at Work: A Review’, European Communities, Luxembourg, 2002. Available at: [6]

[13] EUROSTAT, ‘European Labour Force Survey’, Eurostat online database. Retrieved February 22nd, 2007, from: extraction: 22.02.2007

[14] European Commission, ‘Report on equality between women and men: 2009’, 2009. Available at: [7]

[15] Eurofound - European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, ‘Fourth European working conditions survey’, European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 2007. Available at: [8]

[16] sixteen

[17] Messing, K., Punnett, L., Bond, M. A., Alexandersion, K., Pyle, J.L., Zahm, S., et al., ‘Be the fairest of them all: Challenges and recommendations for the treatment of gender in occupational health research’, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 43, 2003, pp. 618-629.

[18] EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘OSH in figures: Occupational safety and health in the transport sector – an overview’, 2011. Available at: [9]

[19] Davidson, M.J. & Cooper, C.L., ‘Shattering the glass ceiling: The woman manager’, Paul Chapman Publishing, 1992.

[20] Kanter, R.M., ‘Token women in the corporation’. In J. Heeren & M. Mason (Eds.), Sociology: Windows on society, Roxbury, Los Angeles, 1990, pp. 186-294.

[21] European Commission, ‘Annual Growth Survey 2013’, Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union, 2012. Available at: [10]

[22] Taylor, K.S. & Lambert, T.W., ‘Career progression and destinations, comparing men and women in the NHS: postal questionnaire surveys’, British Medical Journal, 338, 2009, b1735.

[23] Moreau, M.P., Osgood, J., & Halsall, A., ‘The Career Progression of Women Teachers in England: a Study of Barriers to Promotion and Career Development’, report commissioned by the Higher Education European Social Fund, 2005. Available at: [11]

[24] Kroes, N., ‘Women in Science, Innovation and Technology’, Budapest, 7 March 2011, European Commission - SPEECH/11/151, 2011.Available at: [12]

[25] Bennet, C., Tang, N., & Yeandle, S., ‘Women’s Career Development in the Local Authority Sector’, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, 2008. Available at: [13]

[26] ILO- International Labour Office, ‘A new era of social justice, Report of the Director-General’, Report I(A), International Labour Conference, 100th Session, Geneva, 2011.

[27] Weichselbaumer, D. & Winter-Ebmer, R., ‘A Meta-Analysis on the International Gender Wage Gap’, Journal of Economic Surveys, 19, 3, 2005, pp. 479–511.

[28] European Commission, ‘Closing the gender pay gap’, 2011. Available at: [14]

[29] OECD - Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, ‘Labour market discrimination still a big problem in OECD countries’, 2008. Available at: [15]

[30] Leigh, J.P., & Du, J., ‘Are low wages risk factors for hypertension’, European Journal of Public Health, Vol. 22, No 6, 2002, pp. 854–859.

[31] European Commission, ‘EU launches campaign to tackle gender pay gap’, News, 3 March, 2009b. Retrieved August 26th, 2010, from: [16]

[32] Östlin, P., Eckermann, E., Mishra, U.S., Nkowane, M., & Wallstam, E., ‘Gender and health promotion: A multisectoral policy approach’, Health Promotion International, 21, 1, 2006, pp. 22-35.

[33] Bird, C.E., ‘Gender, household labor, and psychological distress: the impact of the amount and division of housework’, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol. 40, No 1, 1999, pp. 32–45.

[34] Coltrane, S., ‘Research on household labor: Modeling and measuring the social embeddedness of routine family work’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 62, 4, 2000, pp. 1208-1233.

[35] Nelson, D. L. & Burke, R. J., Gender, work stress, and health, American Psychological Association, 2002.

[36] Krantz, G., Berntsson, L., & Lundberg, U., ‘Total workload, work stress and perceived symptoms in Swedish male and female white-collar employees’, The European Journal of Public Health, 15, 2, 2005, pp. 209-214.

[37] Friedman, S.D. & Greenhaus, J.H., Work and family--allies or enemies? What happens when business professionals confront life choices, Oxford University Press, New York, 2000.

[38] Vogel, L., ‘La santé des femmes au travail en Europe’, BTS (Bureau Technique Syndical Européen pour la Santé et la Sécurité), Brussels, 2003.

[39] EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘Risks and trends in the safety and health of women at work’, European Communities, Luxembourg, 2010. Available at: [17]

[40] European Commission, ‘Adapting to change in work and society: a new Community strategy on health and safety at work 2002–2006’, Commission of the European Communities, Brussels, 2002. Available at:

[41] Messing, K., & Stellman, J.M., ‘Sex, gender, and women's occupational health: The importance of considering mechanism’, Environmental Research, 101, 2006, pp. 149-162.

[42] Boerder C., Santana D., Santillàn D., Hardee K., Greene M. E., & Schuler S, ‘The “So What" Report: A Look at Whether Integrating a Gender Focus into Programs Makes a Difference to Outcomes’, Interagency Gender Working Group Task Force Report (IGWG), Washington, 2004.

Further reading

EU-OSHA – Summary- New risks and trends in safety and health of women at work . Luxembourg,2014: Available at:

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘Risks and trends in the safety and health of women at work’, European Communities, Luxembourg, 2010. Available at:

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘New risks and trends in the safety and health of women at work’, European Communities, Luxembourg, 2013. Available at:

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘Gender Issues in Health and Safety at Work: A Review’, European Communities, Luxembourg, 2002. Available at:

TUC- Trade Union Congress, ‘Gender and Occupational Safety and Health’, 2014. Available at:

WHO – World Health Organisation, ‘Gender Equality, Work, and Health: A Review of the Evidence’, WHO, Geneva, 2006. Available at:

WHO – World Health Organisation, ‘Gender, Work and Health’, WHO, Geneva. Available at:


Juliet Hassard

Birkbeck, University of London, United Kingdom.