EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life


There are two types of recognised segregation in the workplace: horizontal and vertical. Both are seen as contributing to gender inequality and to the gender pay gap.

Horizontal segregation can be broadly defined as the concentration of men and women in different kinds of jobs. The European Commission, in its 2009 report on Gender segregation in the labour market (1.7 MB PDF), states that horizontal segregation is understood as ‘the under-representation or over-representation of a given group in occupations or sectors not ordered by any criterion’.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) states that:

...horizontal segregation is where the workforce of a specific industry or sector is mostly made up of one particular gender. An example of horizontal segregation can be found in construction, where men make up the majority of the industry’s workforce, whereas childcare is almost exclusively a female occupation.

The countries with the highest levels of gender segregation were found to be Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Slovakia, and the four countries with the lowest levels of gender segregation were Greece, Italy, Malta and Romania.

The report highlighted the top six occupations employing the largest numbers of women:

  • shop salespeople and demonstrators;
  • domestic helpers and related jobs such as cleaners and launderers;
  •  personal care and related workers;
  • other office clerks;
  •  administrative associate professionals;
  • housekeeping and restaurant services workers.

The top six occupations employing the largest numbers of men are:

  • motor vehicle drivers;
  •  building frame and related trade workers;
  • managers of small enterprises;
  • building finishers and related trades workers;
  • physical and engineering science technicians;
  • machinery mechanics and fitters.

Horizontal segregation in practice means that women are typically over-represented in sectors or occupations that often offer lower rates of pay. They also require skill levels that are rated lower than those required by sectors and occupations in which men are over-represented. This is considered to be a major contributory factor to the gender pay gap in the EU.

It its Strategy for equality between women and men 2010–2015 (PDF), the European Commission points to occupational segregation as one of the causes of the gender pay gap, as women and men still tend to work in different sectors and jobs.

On the one hand, women and men are often over-represented in certain sectors, with ‘female’ jobs (mostly in health care, education and public administration) being in general less valued than typically male professions. On the other hand, within the same sector or company the jobs done by women tend to be of lower value and less well paid.

In its Strategic engagement for gender equality 2016-2019, which follows on from the 2010-2015 strategy for equality, the European Commission found that for the EU as a whole, segregation remains relatively high, at 26.9 % for occupational segregation and 18.9 % for sectoral segregation.

Vertical segregation denotes the situation whereby opportunities for career progression for a particular gender within a company or sector are limited. This can contribute to a range of gender-related inequalities such as, for example, the gender pay gap. In its report on New and Emerging Risks and Health and Safety, EU-OSHA warns that vertical and horizontal segregation can have serious implications for occupational segregation in terms of the risks to which the different genders are exposed.

Gender segregation in the European labour market continues to be high despite increasing numbers of women in employment, according to findings from the Sixth European Working Conditions Survey, published in 2016. Sectors such as construction, transport and industry are still very male-dominated, whilst women continue to be more prevalent in education and health. Survey data indicates that 56% of men and 54% of women declare that their ‘co-workers with the same job title’ are mostly of the same sex. Respondents stating that there were a similar number of women and men in the same position were only 20% of men and 22% of women.

In general terms, the European Pact for Gender Equality for 2011–2020 aims to improve equality between men and women in the labour market. This is supported by the European Council, which in 2011 urged the EU and its Member States to take action to combat gender segregation in the labour market. It also called for the promotion of  gender equality at all levels of education and training, as well as in working life, in order to reduce gender segregation in the labour market.

More specifically, there is a European-wide debate about the under-representation of women in senior and management positions in the workplace and in particular the lack of women in board-level positions in European companies and organisations. In 2013, the European Commission published a report on the number of women in leadership positions in the European Union (PDF). While the Commission points to the evidence that more women are reaching top positions, it underlines the fact that more needs to be done to tackle thea significant disparity across EU Member States. It says the under-representation of women in corporate decision-making represents a significant economic cost to companies and to the economy as a whole, noting that regulation at EU level may be the only way to solve the problem.

Overall, the report notes that women account for 16.6% of board members in the largest publicly listed companies in the EU. The highest levels of female representation on boards are in Finland (29.1%) and Latvia (29%), followed by France (26.8%) and Sweden (26.5%). Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Slovenia are the only other EU Member States to have at least 20% women on boards. However, in six Member States – Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Malta, Portugal and Romania, – women hold fewer than one in 10 positions on company boards.

The European Parliament has repeatedly called for legislation on equality between women and men in business leadership. In its Resolution on women and business leadership of 6 July 2011, it called for a binding minimum quota of 30% by 2015 and 40% by 2020. The European Parliament reiterated this call in a further Resolution on equality between women and men on 13 March 2012.

Following a stakeholder consultation, in 2012 the European Commission issued a proposal for legislation (PDF) that would ensure that women fill at least 40% of all non-executive board-member positions in European companies by 2020. Expected to affect about 5,000 businesses, the new law would apply only to publicly listed companies, and those with fewer than 250 employees or an annual worldwide turnover of €50 million or less would be exempt.

This proposal has not yet been formally adopted. However, the Commission still believes that regulation is necessary, noting in a factsheet on gender equality (PDF), issued in March 2014, that top senior positions, particularly at the highest levels, are still predominantly held by men, whether in business, politics or other fields. Women in EU Member States only account for an average of 18% of the members of boards of directors in the largest publicly-listed companies, and 3% of the CEOs. The factsheet argues that despite improvements in this area, the rate of progress is not enough to reach the target of 40% by 2020.

See also: Discrimination; Equality between women and men; European Institute for Gender Equality; Gender equality; Gender mainstreaming; Gender pay gap; Women in the labour market.

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