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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009)

Women's Employment and Welfare Regimes: Globalization, Export Orientation and Social Policy in Europe and North America



Women’s employment and the policies facilitating it, constraining it or ignoring it are central to contemporary social politics across the developed countries. Social policies and other political interventions, such as equal-opportunity legislation, are hardly the only influences on women’s employment. We must also point to changes in labour markets and the demand for women’s labour (as employers tend to see labour in gender-specific ways); women’s rising education and aspirations, and their increased productivity and real wages; the decline of men’s wages; the decline of fertility; increasing individualization and the rising instability of marriage. But social policy is also significant, if not so much for increasing women’s employment, then for shaping the patterns of women’s employment, especially the continuity of their participation over the life course, and the conditions under which they work—as well as for helping to constitute the stakes in gendered social politics. And in this respect, even as women’s labour force participation has increased everywhere, there are significant cross-national differences in the policies and politics affecting women’s employment.

Women’s increasing presence and (uneven) advancement in paid employment is understood by many observers as integrally linked with the emergence and (uneven) successes of various gen-der equality projects. Indeed, for many, women’s movement into the workforce is the key symbol of women’s equality—what some call “woman-friendliness”—overall. Let me make three caveats to the folk understanding of gender equality and women’s employment. First, women’s increasing rates of employment have resulted from a complex of forces, many of which have little to do with equality (gender or otherwise). And because women’s paid and unpaid work have significance for the economy and the reproduction of the population, the politics and policies around women’s employment involve a wide range of political actors—from employers and trade unions to religious organizations and nationalists. Second, advocates of gender equality would point to the multidimensionality of any robust notion of equality; for example, advocates of women’s movement into paid work argue that it must be complemented by men’s taking up greater caregiving responsibilities. Third, advocates do not entirely agree about the meaning of equality, although we consistently find the themes of securing women’s economic independence, empowering women and ending unequal burdens of work. Some feminists have rejected a notion of gender equality as resting on women’s employment, arguing that this represents an unacceptable androcentrism and preferring what is often thought of as a strategy of “equality in difference”, by which women’s “traditional” domestic and caregiving activities are valorized and serve as a basis for citizenship rights and political standing. But most femi-nists would agree that employment on the male model cannot serve for the greater part of women’s employment if it is to lead to gender equality.

Three tasks are undertaken in this paper. First, there is a review of material on the character of women’s employment and the social policies that affect it, including frameworks that attempt to categorize cross-national policy patterns in different types of policy regimes. Second, available options are examined for women when they cannot work for pay, particularly when they are engaged in periods of intense caregiving. Third, research is considered that attempts to explain different national patterns of policy affecting women’s employment. I conclude with some thoughts about the ways in which women’s employment may lead to greater gender equality. Thematically, this paper is unified by attention to the links between social policy, patterns of women’s employment and gender equality. Empirically, the focus is on developed countries.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jun 2002
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8208
    From: UNRISD