gender equality

[OPINION] It’s time to get serious about gender equality in the workplace

Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa

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[OPINION] It’s time to get serious about gender equality in the workplace

Illustration by Guia Abogado

'The opportunity loss of failing to tackle gender equality at work is enormous'

It’s now more than 100 years since the International Labor Organization first established standards on women in the workplace, focusing 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 or work that matches neither their skills nor aspirations.

However if we are to be honest, even before the pandemic hit, the situation was less than rosy.

Just over a year ago, before most of us had even heard of COVID-19, 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 labor force. Top among them is unpaid care work, the burden of which still rests disproportionately on the shoulders of women worldwide. For all the efforts to advance gender equality, between 1997 to 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. At this rate it will take over 200 years for the gap to close and certainly far longer when the impacts of COVID-19 are taken into account.   

Women continue to occupy fewer jobs and sectors than men. Those working in the same occupation as men are still systematically paid less (approx. 20% worldwide). 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, although they are likely to be better educated than their male counterparts. And if this isn’t bad enough, women with children are further penalized 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, due to a lack of pensions and social safety nets.

Violence and harassment are unacceptable and continue to have a detrimental impact on women’s participation in employment and their ability to reach their potential. It remains a depressingly widespread phenomenon, irrespective of country, position, or sector, often extending beyond physical spaces into the digital world.

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Although the challenges are considerable, 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. If we are to reap the social and economic benefits this will bring, then conscious, proactive, and concerted efforts are needed. We must all play our part. That means governments, workers and employers, women’s organizations, schools and academia, other key partners, you and me.

Following are four key areas to 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, as well as pathways to manage care responsibilities and return to the workforce after care-giving absences, without unfair penalties.

Second, governments need to adopt – or in some cases make sweeping changes to – legislation and policies that enhance women’s access to the labor market as well as higher skilled and better paid jobs and opportunities. This includes investing in publicly funded, accessible, professional care services. Many countries have legislation in place but implementation is weak, so allocating resources, increasing capacity, and holding duty bearers accountable can go a long way.

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 in the region – following the lead of Fiji, which ratified it in June 2020.

Lastly, steps are needed at every level to support women’s voices, representation, and leadership. Discrimination in hiring and promotion must be removed and affirmative action considered to close stubborn gender gaps once and for all. We must also reach out to women everywhere, including those with compounding identities who often face marginalization, such as migrant workers, members of the LGBTQ+ community, ethnic minority and indigenous women, as well as women with disabilities.

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. By doing so, women everywhere can realize their full potential in a world of work where no one is left behind. –

Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa is the International Labor Organization’s Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

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