Women worldwide are seizing a stronger management role in business and government than ever before and pressing harder against the "glass ceiling" that blocks them from top jobs.
From banks in South Korea to entrepreneurial firms in Finland, women through sheer numbers are pushing aside the traditions and biases that deny them positions of power in the workplace, according to a report by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO) to be released today.
"We can be optimistic about the future, in the sense that the base is there" for continued expansion into management positions and a stronger role in top leadership, says Linda Wirth, an ILO expert and main author of the report.
The ILO report, based on data from dozens of countries, reveals that the rise of women in the workplace is rapidly spreading even into many developing countries where women are most bound to traditional roles.
Moreover, women are increasingly launching their own businesses, many of them after leaving companies that they felt failed to adequately reward their talents. One in 3 small- or medium-sized companies in the United States is run by a woman; 1 out of 3 Finnish entrepreneurs is a woman, says the report.
Despite clear gains, obstacles persist, even in countries that limit women's gumption the least.
In South Korea, companies in the past only hired women when they needed secretaries. These days women have more opportunity in fields like public relations and graphic design, particularly in big conglomerates. But few are in positions of power. "Compared to 10 years ago, it's a lot. [But] we need more opportunity," says Han Sang Yun, an office worker.
Although women hold on average 20 percent of the management positions worldwide, they still bump up against a stubborn glass ceiling. Even in the least restrictive countries - Australia, Canada, and the US - women's share in leadership positions of the largest, most powerful institutions does not exceed 3 percent, says the report.
"Women in all countries still tend to be thwarted at the highest levels," says Anne Ladky, executive director at Women Employed, a Chicago-based group.
Moreover, many women who have broken into management and advanced upward eventually confront "glass walls." They are relegated to personnel and administration and snubbed for more strategic positions that lead to the top.
Also, women still are paid less than men for the same job. In the US, where women make up 46 percent of the managerial work force, the weekly median earnings of women are just 68 percent that of men, says the ILO.
Finally, in many countries women are still often relegated to a second-class status. They have yet to see many of the forces that have helped bring progress elsewhere, including:
* National laws mandating equal opportunity. These have opened doors for women, especially in government. In many countries, women hold more management jobs in government than in any other sector. In the Philippines, women hold 29 percent of the upper level public service posts, says Ms. Wirth.
* Expansion of service industries. Women have benefited with the growth in finance, medicine, hotels, and other services where they have traditionally held a toehold. In South Korea, the percentage of women managers and administrators has ballooned sixfold in the past decade, largely because of rapid growth in the financial industry, says Wirth.
* Better, more accessible education. Opportunities for woman from basic schooling to sophisticated training have improved, reinforcing their demands for more management heft in the workplace. "As women gain in education and training, it's much easier to advocate for them," says Ms. Ladky.
* Activism. More than 30 years of feminism in some countries is steadily bearing fruit and stirring early progress in other countries.
In developing countries like Colombia, Uruguay, and Venezuela, well-trained women enjoy two boosts on their way up the management ladder. Often they can rely on comparatively cheap labor and extended family for child care. This removes a major financial and emotional drag on a career, Wirth says.
Moreover, the women compete in a talent pool that is small compared to that of women in developed countries. Managers are so scarce in many developing countries that well-trained women can often find a job with relative ease. In Colombia, the proportion of women managers swelled from 14 percent in 1980 to 37 percent last year.
* Michael Baker in Seoul contributed to this report.