Women in the Workplace: Discrimination in Western Europe and South Asia

By Fahmida Zaman*

Contributing Editor: Fatima Raza**


“The thing women have yet to learn is nobody gives you power. You just take it.” – Roseanne Barr


According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), sex discrimination is highly prevalent in the workplace, making women the largest group discriminated against. Women are also more likely to be stuck in lower-paid and least secure jobs and face higher unemployment rates. Discrimination can occur at every stage of employment, from recruitment to education, remuneration and occupational segregation (ILO, 2003). Although there is an increase in the percentage of working women across South Asia, they still have to face many serious discriminations like access to labor market, pay gap, glass ceiling, and sexual harassment.


Europe in general and European Union (EU) Member States in particular have developed some of the broadest and most effective social policies against discrimination in the workplace and have accumulated a breadth of experience in addressing the practice. However, research shows that traditional forms of discrimination based on gender still persist within Caucasian European workplaces. Therefore, the paradigm that women face less harassment in euro centric work environments needs to be abolished as research has proven the case to the contrary. Nonetheless, to limit the tarnish to its reputation the EU has played an important role at eliminating the gender gap; and countries like France, Germany, and The United Kingdom have proven valiant in these efforts. In contrast, the Asia-Pacific region continues to experience traditional forms of discrimination, particularly those based on gender. In order to increase women’s economic participation, the UN Women, has focused on women who remain excluded from socio-economic and political opportunities in urban and rural areas of South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.


The plight of women everywhere


Women working in the western liberal states have better access to the labor market, they have a relatively low wage gap, thus such measures have provided women with better social-economic status. But women in Asia have not experienced many of these opportunities. Most women are employed in low paid and low skilled jobs where sexual harassment is an everyday occurrence.


The labor force participation rate of women across the member countries of the EU has improved in the last decades. In 2007 the ILO reported:


The participation of women in labor market in France and United Kingdom has evolved throughout the history. Even if at the beginning of the twentieth century, women were only over a third of the total work force in France, it became a norm for women to be a part of the labor market in since the 1950s (Walter, 2003). By 2000, women were 48% percent of the overall labor force, while 80% percent of women aged from 25 to 49 were employed (Walter, 2003). However, unemployment rate for French women is higher than for men. With overall French unemployment rate at 10 percent in 2000, the rate for women was 11.9 percent and for men was 8.5 percent (Walter, 2003). Similarly, in the United Kingdom, in the four decades from 1959 to 1999, women’s employment rose from 47 percent to 69 and behind only Denmark, Finland, and Sweden among EU countries (Walter, 2003). Women are more likely to work to continue working through the child caring years. For example, 76 percent women in 2000 continue participating in economic activity compare to 56 percent in 1971 (Walter, 2003).


These figures reveals the growth of a more continues working pattern and shirking of the employment gaps in these European countries. In contrast, women still remain the largest group facing discrimination in terms of employment opportunities in Asia.


Women in India work in lower level positions – unskilled, low paying and with little control over the basic tools of production. In addition, jobs and career opportunities for women depend on education, class, caste, religious, regional, urban/rural location, and family background. Women’s participation in economic activities is influenced by “notion of honor and respectability” (Walter & Desai, 2003).


On the other hand, the following statistics reveal the enormity of deprivation and segregation that women in the twenty-first century are experiencing in what we today recognize as liberal countries. Educational standing is a good indicator of how the gender gap is being exploited in undeveloped and developed countries.


In the EU, the gender pay gap was estimated in 2007 at 17.6% on average (European Commission, 2010). It exceeded 25% in two countries (Estonia and Austria) and 20% in seven countries (Slovakia, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Germany, the United Kingdom and Greece) (European Commission, 2010). However, it was below 10% in Italy, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Belgium (European Commission, 2010). French women make 25 percent less than men in private sector of economy and 20 percent less in public sector which results in average 5-15 percent less than her male counterpart (Walter, 2003). Similarly, full-time British female workers’ average hourly earnings now at 82 percent of men’s while nearly 5 million part-time female workers earn 58 percent of male full-timers (Walter, 2003). In addition, in couples with children men’s average weekly income is 352 euro, whereas women’s is 147 euro (Walter, 2003).

Asian women face even sever wage gap. Most women make between 50 and 70 percent of their male colleagues’ salaries and benefits depending on the professions (Walter & Desai, 2003).


While there has been an increase in the number of women involved in decision-making or appointed to decision-making posts in the EU over the last years, power is still firmly in the hands of men within the political and economic spheres. Gender discrimination is also visible in other aspects of employment. In the United Kingdom, for example, a recent report by the Equal Opportunities Commission states that 30,000 women each year lose their jobs because of their pregnancy (ILO, 2007).


Women are rarely found in the higher management position in Asia compared to Western countries. A Wall Street Journal report asserts:


Currently, the percentage of women on corporate boards and executive committees in Asian countries severely lags behind the West. Women accounted for only 6% of seats on corporate boards in the markets studied, compared with 17% in Europe and 15% in the U.S” (Chu & Ramstad, 2012). Even in China who has one of the highest female labor participation rates in the world, at 74%, but less than 10% of executive board and committee members are women (Chu & Ramstad, 2012).


However, even if women can break though the ‘glass ceiling’ and get to the top, many have to leave their jobs in order to take care of their families. The same report reveals that “an average of 30% of senior managers surveyed said that many or most women, who reached the middle and senior levels of management and left their jobs voluntarily, did so due to family commitments” (Chu & Ramstad, 2012).


Sexual harassment


Apart from the ‘glass ceiling’, sexual harassment is another major impediment for women in the workplace. A survey indicates, “up to 50 percent of European women have experienced some types of sexual harassment[NI1]  (Herderson and Jeydel, 2010). However, the estimates vary country to country, between, for example, 11 percent in Denmark to 81 percent in Austria (Herderson and Jeydel, 2010). Some of member states of European Union have already passed legislation to combat this. France has made sexual harassment a criminal offense, the only nation in the world to do so (Herderson and Jeydel, 2010).


Sexual harassment in the workplace though an age-old problem has emerged as a serious concern in Asia and the Pacific recently (Pradhan-Malla, 2005). In Nepal, a research on Sexual Harassment at the Workplace revealed that the problem of sexual harassment is highly prevalent in workplaces, as 53.84 percent of women workers reported that they have faced the problem of sexual harassment in their workplaces (Pradhan-Malla, 2005). In Bangladesh, large scale of women’s entry into paid labor force has increased incidences of sexual harassment (Pradhan-Malla, 2005). It is estimated that at least 70% of the women in Pakistan’s present workforce have faced some form of sexual harassment at the workplace. This includes women at “progressive” or “modern” offices and women in fields, factories, domestic spaces and other labor-intensive jobs (Siddiqui, 2011). Similarly, sexual harassment at the workplace in India is not a new thing. 60 percent of working women have faced sexual harassment at some point of time in their working lives. For every woman who raises an outcry, there are hundreds of others who suffer in silence, quit their jobs or get transfers (CiteHR, n.d).


Legislation offers hope


However, there is a light of hope that different actors are working on eliminating employment discrimination between men and women. In Europe, European Union integrated equal employment concerns into its early treaties and has continued to support increased gender equality at all levels. The EU has passed legislation banning sexual harassment in the workplace when it amended the 1976 directive on equal treatment in 2002 (Herderson and Jeydel, 2010).


In South Asia women are provided with equal opportunity by their country’s Constitution. For example, Equal Remuneration Act of 1976 in India forbids discrimination in hiring, pay and conditions of employment between male and female workers engaged in the same or similar work (Shenoy, n.d).  In Pakistan the constitution puts a ban on discrimination on the basis of sex in appointment and also provides that “steps shall be taken to ensure full participation of women in all spheres of national life” (Syed, 2003). here are other recent steps taken by the Pakistan Government that have improved the recruitment environment in Pakistan, like: National Policy and Plan of Action for Elimination of Child Labor (2000); National Policy and Plan of Action for the Abolition of Bonded Labor (2001); and endorsement of ILO Conventions 100 and 182 (Syed, 2003).


Unfortunately, the implementation of these laws and constitutionals rights are not every effective. As a result, the supranational entities like the UN have been working on women’s issues. UN Women’s work focuses on engendering macro economic analysis and national economies in the region, assisting to develop policy and praxis accountability and monitoring mechanisms for women’s economic empowerment (United Nation, n.d). Moreover, various grassroots organizations are providing women with opportunity to participate in economic activities too. For example, microfinance gives small amount loans to women to start their own business and any other economic activities. It has helped thousands women in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and other South Asian countries to be involved in economic activities.




* Fahmida Zaman is a senior at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh. She is passionate about politics, women’s rights, and writing.


**Fatima Raza is a Doctoral Candidate, School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, Australia



** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at






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