Women's employment is surging across the European Union - but why?

Women in the European Union are gaining on men in one important respect - employment. The gap between the share of men and women who work has narrowed dramatically over the past decade, including in countries with more traditional mindsets.

International Women's Day, celebrated this Friday, is an occasion to highlight where gender equality is still lagging.
But it can also illustrate women's gains - and one of the clearest examples is in employment.
The difference between the share of adult men and women who are working - known as the gender employment gap - has sharply narrowed across the European Union since 2005, the first year with full data available, according to the EU statistics agency Eurostat.
Moreover, it has happened in almost every EU member state, even though the bloc has wide disparities in gender norms, economic growth and social policies.
Many scholars point to long-term shifts in explaining this trend, from the rise in women's education levels to the transition from economies focused on heavy manufacturing to those based on services, where physical strength is not necessary.
A bigger debate concerns the effects of particular policies - such as parental leave and child care - that member states have adopted more recently.
Barbara Petrongolo, an economist at Queen Mary University and the Centre for Economic Performance in London, describes the convergence in rates over the past decade as a continuation of trends that started after World War II, notably in education, health and de-industrialization.
"A lot of the drivers bringing women into the workforce started decades ago," she says. "And in education, gender gaps have reversed."
The numbers show a rapidly changing workforce since the mid-2000s. In the 28-member EU, the gender employment gap narrowed from 15.9 per cent in 2005 to 11.5 in 2017, while the 19-member eurozone saw a bigger drop, from 17.3 per cent to 11.2 per cent.
Despite this convergence, those figures mask major differences among member states. The gap is far smaller in Scandinavia and the Baltic states - ranging between 4 to 6 per cent - while it stands close to 20 per cent in Greece and Italy.
However, the EU's southern members have also seen the most dramatic catch-up, in some cases by 10 percentage points or more. Similarly, the gap in Ireland shrank by more than 8 percentage points.
Hungary, by contrast, is the only EU member state where the share of women working has dropped relative to men, widening the gap from 13.6 per cent to 15.3 per cent.
Petrongolo sees the rise in women's educational levels as a key driver behind their surging numbers in the workforce. Also important is that advanced economies have moved away from manufacturing and towards services, "which has a very gender-specific effect."
Advances in technology - including in time-saving home appliances - are another reason, she notes.
By contrast, the evolution of gender roles "has been much more gradual than these other changes," she says. "And these still vary a lot across Europe."
The dramatic convergence in employment rates in some of Europe's more traditional countries is driven by the same reasons as elsewhere, she says. However, she adds, they started from a point where relatively few women were working.
The financial crises that hit several EU states especially hard may have played a role as well, says Emma Tominey, an economist at the University of York in Britain.
The severe credit crunch in those countries, including Spain and Greece, meant that many men stopped working - reducing their share in the workforce.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), this drop-off was far more pronounced for men than for women. After the crisis, women made up a higher share of the workforce.
In the EU and beyond, debate continues over how effective government family policies can be.
Petrongolo and economist Claudia Olivetti of Boston College in the US have researched the impact of such measures, finding that public spending on day care and early childhood education was more effective than paid leave in lifting women's workforce participation.
An OECD study looking at 18 countries similarly found that subsidized day care was one of several factors boosting the increase in women working.
Numerous studies show paid leave, by contrast, as having a lesser effect. But Tominey notes that it has the potential to be more powerful when fathers use it.
"When dads do take the leave, childcare tends to be shared more equally across the two parents once they return to work," she says. "The policy challenges social norms regarding gender roles of parenting."

Thursday, March 7th 2019
By Helen Fessenden,

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