Workplaces with equal mix of men and women happiest: economist

UNITED NATIONS (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A more equal mix of men and women in the workforce not only boosts national economies but also increases job satisfaction and performance in workplaces reflecting such a balance, experts said.

Employees work along a production line in Suzhou Etron Electronics Co. Ltd's factory in Suzhou, Jiangsu province in this June 8, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Aly Song/Files

If the labor market were more gender-balanced, the potential increase in GDP for European Union countries would be an average of 20 to 25 percent, Asa Lofstrom, a professor at Sweden’s Umea School of Business and Economics, said during the U.N. 59th Commission on the Status of Women which ends on Friday.

A more balanced workforce also reduces poverty among women and children and increases economic independence for both men and women, she said at a panel hosted by the Nordic Council of Ministers for Gender Equality.

Greater job satisfaction and higher productivity are additional benefits, according to recent research presented by Katrin Olafsdottir, a professor at Iceland’s Reykjavik University.

“Not only do men and women feel better when working together, but they also seem to perform better,” she said.

In a survey of 1,000 men and women, Olafsdottir found those working in gender-balanced groups scored highest in both job satisfaction and productivity, including less absenteeism and turnover, compared to those in settings dominated by females or males.

The challenge for many countries is to get more women to enter the workforce and stay there, the panel said.

It is a prospect that can be stymied, even in strong economies, by factors including inadequate skills and lack of quality and affordable care for children and the elderly, as well as by traditional attitudes and discrimination, Lofstrom said.

In the United States, where women working full-time earn 78 percent of what their male counterparts earn, women’s employment has stalled in recent years at about 57 percent, said Betsey Stevenson, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

The gender pay gap tends to vary over a woman’s lifetime, becoming more pronounced during the childbearing years when women either stop working or seek jobs that are more flexible and less demanding but tend to pay less, she said.

In 1990, the United States ranked seventh for female labor participation out of the then 24 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It has slipped to its current place at 19th out of those same 24 countries, she said.

Stevenson said key factors keeping American women out of the workforce is the lack of national legislation guaranteeing paid sick, maternity and family leave, as well as a shortage of high quality, affordable childcare.

The United States is one of the few developed countries failing to mandate some form of paid leave, despite research showing that businesses that voluntarily provide paid leave enjoy higher productivity and lower employee turnover, she said.

Because most workers, female or male, help care for young, old or chronically ill family members, individual states - such as California and Massachusetts - have passed their own paid family leave laws in order to meet workers’ needs, Stevenson said.