globalThe conference on women’s health and work, organised by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) from March 4 to 6 in Brussels showed that a situation of equal rights for men and women in the workplace is very far from having been achieved. A serious obstacle on the road to such equality is the invisibility of the specific risks to which working women are exposed and that stem frequently from work organization methods. The deeply entrenched nature of sexual segregation on the labour market and of sexist stereotypes serves to reinforce the status quo.

Gender-based segregation

The main findings of the European Working Conditions Survey – conducted every five years by Eurofound (the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions) – were presented by Colette Fagan, a sociologist from the University of Manchester. She described the extent to which the phenomenon of gender-based occupational segregation remains present: in 2010, 69% of managerial posts are still filled by men, while 67% of service and sales workers are women.

Reduced-hours work (less than 30 hours a week) remains essentially the preserve of women. More than 30% of European women workers are employed on this basis, as against only 7% of working men. If the time required for travelling to work plus all the many hours spent on unpaid labour (childcare and housework, etc.) is added on to the number of hours spent in employment, a women with children puts in a 70-hour week. No category of male worker, whatever his family status (married or cohabitee, single father caring for his children, etc.) works a comparable number of hours.

Not spared the physical risks

Nor are women spared by physical risks, as the survey shows. They are affected just as much as men by long hours spent working standing up or in painful or tiring positions, and entailing repetitive movements. These risk factors contribute largely to the development of musculoskeletal problems among women, causing them to complain more than men of pain in the shoulders, neck and upper limbs. Women also more frequently report ‘poor general health’ and ‘mental health at risk’.

The question of mental health was central also to the presentation given by Katherine Lippel, a lawyer and researcher at Ottawa University, who has coordinateda survey on working conditions, terms of employment and health and safety provision in Quebec. The survey showed that female workers are more exposed to workplace harassment than men (17% compared with 13%). The phenomenon of bullying is particularly common in health and social services. Whereas a high educational level appears to play a protective role for male workers, no such phenomenon is observed among women; those with a good level of formal qualifications are just as exposed to workplace harassment as are those with a lower educational level. ‘Sexism is stronger than social class’, was the way Ms Lippel summed up this situation.

Occupational diseases

The same speaker drew attention also to the blatant discrimination that characterises the system for recognition of occupational diseases in Quebec where it is extremely difficult for women workers suffering from cancer to get their illness recognised as an occupational disease. Ms Lippel cited the example of a woman employed in the aluminium industry whose cancer of the bladder was attributed to the fact that her partner was a smoker whereas no details of this nature were to be found in any of the files of her male colleagues suffering from a similar form of cancer.

Elke Schneider, of the European Safety and Health Agency, also stressed the invisibility of the exposure of women to biological and chemical risks. ‘Women’s exposure to dangerous substances remains largely unexplored’, she said.

Lucia Artazcoz, of the Barcelona public health agency, made a point of emphasising the impact of social class on women’s health. The more a woman is in an economically vulnerable situation, the more she is likely to endure harmful working conditions, excessive or unsocial working hours, and inappropriate demands from her employer. The situation of manual workers gives cause for particular concern, particularly in the case of those with large families. Social health inequalities of this kind have, what is more, worsened as a result of the crisis.