Senior Policy Advisor
How are women faring around the world—and what can the United States learn?
With its origins in the women’s labor movement more than a century ago, International Women’s Day is a good time to reflect on the progress made toward gender equity in the labor force. And there is good news: Around the world, women today hold more leadership positions than ever before. In some countries—including the United States—their educational attainment is far outpacing men’s, opening the door for more opportunity and influence.
But progress has been uneven. Where are women gaining ground? What is the United States doing well, and where can it learn from other countries?
Women have made progress globally as key professional and political decisionmakers. The year 2021 was notable—more than 10 women ascended to the highest roles in world leadership, including in Estonia, Tanzania, and Samoa. As of September 2022, women were heads of state or government in 28 countries. In the United States, 2021 saw the first female vice president, and as of January 2023, the number of women in Congress and governorships was at a record high—149 of 535 seats (28%) and 12 of 50 seats (24%), respectively. Worldwide, the share of women holding professional leadership roles has steadily increased, from 33% in 2016 to 37% in 2022.
This representation matters. Women not only lead differently, but when in office, they are more likely than men to advance legislation that improves gender equity—laws that support child care, address gender wage gaps, promote reproductive rights, and offer protection from violence. Yet equal representation has not been achieved; at the current rate, it will take 130 years to reach gender equality in the highest positions of power.
Women’s ascent to leadership typically starts with their participation in the formal workforce. But while most women perform some form of unpaid work, not all have opportunities for paid work. Worldwide, women’s labor force participation is just over 50%, compared to 80% for men—meaning only half of women ages 15 and older are actively working. And since 2009, the global gap between men and women’s equal representation in the labor force has been slowly widening.
U.S. women’s labor force participation was one of the highest among 35 countries with advanced and emerging economies in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) until it began to decline in the early 1990s, especially among women married to men who are highly educated and have high incomes. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this trend. Women’s pre-pandemic labor force participation was 59%; it dropped to 58% by September 2022. While this 1% decline might not sound like much, it represents a loss of more than a million women from the American labor force in less than three years.
Longstanding gaps in women’s workforce participation go hand in hand with the persistent gender wage gap. In 2021, American women were paid just 77 cents for every dollar paid to American men, a difference of $11,782 per year. Latina and Black women earned even less. Among peer countries, the situation is similar: Every OECD country has a gender wage gap. Over time, this gap has affected women’s access to and control over wealth-building resources like banking, investment, inheritance, and property.
On International Women’s Day in 2017, Iceland became the first country to introduce legislation requiring companies to prove they pay men and women equally. Employers with more than 25 employees are audited to certify compliance, the findings are published, and employees can seek compensation if merited. This approach is getting results: Iceland’s unadjusted gender wage gap decreased from 12% in 2020 to 10% in 2021.
Iceland’s efforts are laudable, but they’re only part of the solution. Evidence shows that dismantling entrenched inequities requires a suite of work-life policies, including paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, and affordable child care. In one study of high-income countries, investments in early childhood education and care—such as subsidized child care—showed the strongest evidence of reducing gender inequalities in employment.
Among high-income countries, Iceland and Denmark have national child care policies that rank highest in both affordability and quality. By contrast, the United States ranks among the lowest, suggesting child care is considered a private rather than public responsibility. Even with subsidies, a single low-income parent in the United States needs to spend one-third to one-half of their salary to keep two children in child care. This high cost, coupled with the gender wage gap, means women often have to choose between unpaid caregiving and paid work.
Around the world, women are typically primary caregivers in their families, whether for children, parents, or spouses. Policies that ensure paid time off to care for family—such as the birth or adoption of a child or care for a sick parent or spouse—can help women balance caregiving and paid work. Yet, the United States is one of only two countries in the world without a federal law requiring paid leave for parents after childbirth.
Some countries—such as Angola, Cambodia, Peru, and Spain—also provide workers with paid leave to care for children and adult family members. In the United States, 11 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws providing a right to paid family or medical leave, though no federal law exists.
Even with pro-caregiving policies, gender norms often dictate that women are the primary caregivers in the family. Gender-equitable parental leave policies encourage both parents equally to take leave and working fathers to share infant caregiving responsibilities. Countries including Canada, Italy, Japan, Portugal, and South Korea have implemented policies that encourage mothers and fathers to take parental leave together, increasing the total amount of leave and the payment rate if both parents use it. But changing these norms takes time. In Sweden and Finland, where policies have been in place since 1980 and 1991, respectively, nearly 80% of fathers participate; in Australia, where the policy was enacted in 2013, participation is under 40%.
When we take an international perspective on gender equity in the workplace, the United States shows signs of stalling relative to other countries. Policies that support equitable wages, paid family leave, and child care can advance equity. To prioritize women’s engagement in the paid labor force, U.S. leaders can refer to experiences of other countries as they take steps toward greater advancement.