Opinion

Gender equality at workplace

Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa | Updated on March 07, 2021

Urgent action is needed to end gender disparities

It’s now more than 100 years since the International Labour Organization first established standards on women in the workplace, focussing on maternity protection.

A century on, much has changed, and we can all point to women who are successfully making a living, carving out careers, doing well in business and taking up leadership positions.

International Women’s Day should be the perfect occasion to celebrate this success and to look forward to a bright and prosperous future for all women who wish to work.

Unfortunately the reality for so many women is different.

Covid-19 is partly to blame, amplifying pre-existing inequalities and often having a disproportionate impact on women’s employment. Women are also more at risk of being pushed out of jobs into the more precarious informal sector.

Even before the pandemic hit, the situation was less than rosy.

Just over a year ago, ILO’s flagship report ‘A Quantum Leap for gender equality for the future of work’ highlighted how progress in closing gender gaps had stalled, and in some cases reversed.

There are numerous factors preventing women from entering, remaining and progressing in the labour force. Top amongst them is unpaid care work, the burden of which still rests disproportionately on the shoulders of women worldwide.

Between 1997 and 2012 the amount of unpaid care work carried out by women fell by just 15 minutes a day while men did 8 minutes a day more.

Women continue to occupy fewer jobs and sectors than men. Those working in the same occupation as men are still systematically paid less. Globally, according to ILO data, fewer than one third of managers are women, a situation that has changed very little in the last 30 years. Women with children are further penalised with regards to employment, pay and leadership opportunities. These penalties are carried throughout a woman’s life cycle, often contributing to poverty during elder years.

Violence and harassment are unacceptable and continue to have a detrimental impact on women’s participation in employment. It remains a depressingly widespread phenomenon, irrespective of country, position or sector.

But the good news is, we know what needs to be done.

Gender equality in the world of work requires a ‘quantum leap’ and not tentative, incremental steps. We must all play our part — governments, workers’ and employers’, women’s organizations, schools and academia, and you and me.

These four key areas can make transformative change for women in the world of work.

First, we must seek to tackle the huge disparity between women’s and men’s unpaid care responsibilities. Men need to do more and would benefit from a better work-life balance. Increased support and investment at workplace level is also vital, through policies that allow a more flexible approach to working hours and careers.

Second, governments need to adopt legislation and policies that enhance women’s access to the labour market as well as higher skilled and better paid jobs and opportunities. This includes investing in publicly funded, accessible, professional care services.

Third, gender-based violence and harassment, including sexual harassment is unacceptable and must be addressed. ILO’s Violence and Harassment Convention provides a clear framework and practical actions in this regard since it was shaped by world of work institutions. Ratification and implementation of the Violence and Harassment Convention should be at the top of the agenda for every country.

Lastly, steps are needed at every level to support women’s voice, representation and leadership. Discrimination in hiring and promotion must be removed and affirmative action considered to close stubborn gender gaps once and for all.

The opportunity loss of failing to tackle gender equality at work is enormous. Despite the cloud cast by Covid-19, there is no time to waste. Now is the time for commitment to be shown and courageous choices to be made. Together we can narrow inequalities and break down barriers.

The writer is ILO's Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

Published on March 07, 2021

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