Governments Looking to Increase Women’s Economic Empowerment Might Want to Look in the Mirror

Government leaders worldwide are trumpeting the need for greater equality in the workplace. That’s the correct thing to do on the grounds of both rights and efficiency, but those leaders might want to start by looking within their own organizations. Today we publish a new policy paper that studies the choices governments have made in their own hiring and compensation decisions. The data suggests the world’s public sector employers have a long way to go to ensure equal gender representation throughout their ranks, and that a first step could be compiling and publishing accurate and actionable data on the scale of the problem. 

What we know

We use data from the World Bank’s Worldwide Bureaucracy Indicators (WWBI) database, which draws on global labor force surveys. The evidence suggests that in the public sector worldwide, women account for 47 percent of employees, 41 percent of the wage bill, and 34 percent of senior officials. That’s better than the private sector, but still suggests considerable gaps, especially at senior levels.

In low-income countries, less than one out of every four dollars of public sector pay goes to women.

The problem is worse in poorer countries where public employment is a particularly important source of good jobs that provide a living wage, benefits, and labor protections. In low-income countries, the public sector accounts for the majority of all formal employment. But in those same countries, women account for just 27 percent of public employees (compared to 64 percent in high-income countries). While the private sector is worse overall (across country income levels), both in terms of employment and wage gaps, women comprise just 12 percent of public paid senior officials in low-income countries, compared to 28 percent of private paid senior officials. Moreover, the wage ratio is 89 percent in these countries, so given women are just 27 percent of the workforce, that means that, in low-income countries, less than one out of every four dollars of public sector pay goes to women, in contrast to 50 percent in high income countries. (Though this stems in part from women’s overrepresentation in the public sector workforce in high-income countries; they still earn relatively less than men).

What we don’t know

That’s what we know from the available data, but there is plenty that we don’t know. There remain significant data gaps to fill both globally and within countries.  The WWBI database only provides data on 101 out of 218 economies tracked by the World Bank on data as straightforward as “public sector employment as a share of total employment,” and that drops to 40 out of 135 low and middle income economies for disaggregated data, including on women as a share of public paid senior officials, for example. And since this is data from general labor force surveys it isn’t detailed and granular enough to allow individual governments to pinpoint departments or technical cadres with particularly significant gender gaps or understand what is behind those gaps. For that, governments need administrative data – of the kind you get from a civil service census (in the past few years such censuses have been carried out in countries including Haiti and Mali).

Department level data on government employment and pay by gender should be the global standard.

Governments, including the Philippines, that publicly report gender-disaggregated civil service employment data based on administrative records set the current best practice in low- and middle-income countries, but regular publishing of department level data on government employment and pay by gender should be the global standard.

What to do

In our paper, we argue that the Open Government Partnership (OGP) can serve as a platform for countries and cities to make commitments to better understand and work to narrow gender pay gaps, including those in the public sector. Founded in 2011, OGP promotes accountable, responsive, and inclusive governance and, to date, has been largely untapped to promote increased data transparency around gender gaps in the workforce. Open government commitments are an opportunity for member countries and localities, many of which are low- and middle-income, to advance the policy agenda by collecting, analyzing, and disseminating data on gender pay disparities. But, to date, there have been few commitments around greater transparency in government employment data. That should change. New commitments might include progress towards a “gold standard” of regular (yearly or every few years) publication of administrative employment data in government at all levels and including state-owned enterprises. This data would include:

  • Type of employment (part time, full time, consultant, regular), professional classification, and employment grade
  • Comparable wage data (hourly/pro-rated yearly), comparable benefits data
  • Age, years of experience, and education

This data would be disaggregated by gender and any applicable ethnic/race and disability status classifications to the lowest institutional level (department, for example) to preserve anonymity where needed to protect individuals’ privacy, or at the individual level where norms allow.

Such commitments should be seen as the first step towards broader coverage, with the second most straightforward addition being a regulatory requirement for similar data release by large formal private sector companies. A third step might involve regular surveys to capture data about gender wage disparities in small and informal companies.

More data is, in itself, only a guide and incentive to action. Governments championing gender equality should start in their own offices, ensuring women have an equal shot with men when it comes to hiring, promotion, and pay, and, in turn, presenting an example for private sector counterparts to follow.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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