Global Glass Ceiling

TWO steps forward, one step back.

That is the dismaying pattern of progress facing working women in North America and Europe. A United Nations report, to be presented at a UN conference on women in Vienna next month, predicts that lower pay and rising unemployment will combine to give women a bleak job outlook in coming years.

The report, prepared by the UN Economic Commission for Europe, shows that women's wages have dropped since the 1980s, along with the general quality and choice of employment available to them. The findings are based on a detailed survey of 13 of the 54 member countries of the commission, including the United States, Canada, Israel, and former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

On average, the commission notes, women worldwide earn 30 to 40 percent less than men for comparable work - a wage gap that persists even in advanced nations. Equally troubling, substantial increases in the ranks of working women over the past two decades have not been accompanied by a significantly higher proportion of women in managerial posts.

Even worse than the barriers at the top - the much-touted glass ceiling - are the obstacles at the bottom, the ``sticky floor'' that keeps women clustered in traditionally female occupations, particularly in the service sector. So pervasive is the segregation of women in low-paid, part-time, and temporary positions with little security that the report calls women a ``special underclass.''

Some workplace issues - sexual harassment, child care, ``family-friendly'' benefits - receive wide press coverage. But the kind of rank injustice the UN report documents has largely faded from public attention.

What is often dismissed as ``women's work'' is indispensable to the world economy and is a fundamental component of family wages and family well-being. Dramatic increases in female-headed families make an equitable workplace even more essential.

Policymakers and the media seem conditioned to react to hot-button issues labeled ``immediate.'' Everything that is not certifiable as a crisis, everything that is long-range, tends to become a back-burner issue. But the neglect of long-range problems eventually lead to a crisis. The UN report is one more reminder - if not with a red tag - that the waste and underuse of half the world's labor pool cannot be forever ignored.

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