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No one left behind? Gender segregation in the workplace sees women losing out

8 March 2023

'Women belong in all the places where decisions are made', to borrow from the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. These decisions are made everywhere and at every level: in the home and at the workplace; in the boardroom and on the shop floor. Which is why it is of such serious concern to see the ongoing deep-rooted gender segregation across Europe, in employment, of course, but more specifically in sectors, in occupations and in roles and responsibilities. On International Women’s Day we tend to take stock of progress for women in all areas, and there had certainly been much progress in Europe in the years prior to the COVID-19 crisis. For instance, employment rates of women had increased, and yet more women than men lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic.


Mary McCaughey is Head of Information and Communication in Eurofound. A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin and the College of Europe, Bruges, she started work in Brussels with...

Head of Unit,
Information and Communication


Mostly because women outnumbered men in the sectors that were most severely affected by lockdowns, such as hospitality.

Gender segregation in the labour market

And that is still the case. The reality is that women and men in the EU labour market still work in highly gender-segregated sectors. You may guess – and we can confirm – that more men are employed in the industry, transport and construction sectors, whereas women still largely occupy the health and education sectors.

The occupational structure is no less gender segregated. A very basic snapshot tells us that there are far larger shares of women among clerical support workers and services and sales workers, and more men among craft workers and plant and machine operators. This will not come as a shock to anyone, but the fact that this segregation is so embedded in the structure of our labour markets is perhaps a little more surprising.

Traditional gender roles persist

Despite efforts to promote broader access to sectors and occupations traditionally dominated by one gender, the most recent data from the European Working Conditions Telephone Survey (EWCTS) 2021 show that more than half of the working population in the EU still work in occupations dominated by their own gender.

Nearly one-third of the working population consists of men working in male-dominated occupations – for example, around 95% of drivers and mobile plant operators, metal and machinery workers, and building workers are men. One quarter of the working population is made up of women working in female-dominated occupations, such as personal care workers and cleaners and helpers – they constitute over 80% of workers in these occupations. Finally, women and men working in mixed-gender occupations (no more than 60% of one gender) represent less than one quarter of the working population.

Men working in female-dominated occupations represent just 10% of the working population, while women working in male-dominated occupations make up a paltry 8%. And where you live also makes a difference. The shares of workers in mixed-gender occupations differ across countries, for example more than 30% of the workforce in Luxembourg are employed in mixed-gender occupations compared with less than 20% in Bulgaria and Romania.

And it is not just about the sector or occupation: there is also segregation in roles and responsibilities. Men continue to have more ‘power’ in the workplace with more men occupying the role of line manager than women: two-thirds of employees had a male boss in 2021. And a deep dive into the data shows a vast majority of men (80%) have a male boss, whereas female employees are equally likely to have a male or female boss.

These figures are alarming, not least if we do indeed seek to have both women and men operating in the places where decisions are made.

The bigger picture for gender equality

But this is not just about data.

The fact that workplaces remain so segregated means – as we saw most recently with the COVID-19 pandemic – that issues within a particular industry can have a broader impact on gender equality. Female dominance in the health and care sectors, for example, means that issues related to working conditions in these sectors overwhelmingly impact women and have broader ramifications on gender equality in the labour market. The issues apply to both men and women, for instance, men’s employment was disproportionately negatively impacted by job losses in construction and manufacturing during the Great Recession (2007–2009) while women experienced higher job loss during the pandemic.

This can also have more sinister effects, as the most recent EWCTS data show – healthcare workers report up to three times higher levels of unwanted sexual attention than the EU average (5.7% experienced unwanted sexual attention in the previous month, compared with an average of 1.8%). To put this in perspective, just 0.3% of information and communication (IC) professionals reported unwanted sexual attention in the previous month.

Women and frontline workers are most exposed to adverse social behaviour (including verbal abuse and threats, unwanted sexual attention and bullying, harassment and violence) which can have long-term impacts on individuals, including significant mental and physical health implications, with all that implies for the labour market and society as a whole.

Tackling workplace gender divides

A more balanced gender distribution at work could clearly go some way to ensuring that these and other risks associated with working conditions in certain sectors – and indeed the benefits of any improvements – are more evenly shared. Whether during periods of crisis or not, this can only be a good thing. It will not, of course, be a silver bullet for the gender employment gap, which still stands at around 11%, or the gender pay gap, which remains fairly persistent at 13%, or even the perennial divide in paid and unpaid work, which sees women continue to work 8 weeks more each year than men. But it will help.

Further reading

Image: © Svitlana/Adobe Stock


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