Two decades after the world’s largest gathering of women adopted a far-reaching agenda for advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment, women are only marginally better off with respect to equality at work.
“Are working women better off today than they were 20 years ago?” asked ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. “The answer is a qualified yes. Has this progress met our expectations? The answer is decidedly no. We need to be innovative, to reframe the debate and to intensify the focus on ensuring the rights of women at work, and promoting gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.” (See ILO Director-General's statement)
Progress in realizing the Declaration and Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 has been mixed, the ILO said in a briefing note prepared for International Women’s Day.
At the same time, the ILO also published a new working paper on the “motherhood pay gap” that imposes a wage penalty often over and above the wage gap already experienced by women worldwide. According to “The motherhood pay gap: A review of the issues, theory and international evidence”, mothers often earn less than women without children, depending on where they live and how many children they have.
Some progress, many challenges
In terms of policy, legislation, and the ratification of international labour standards, there has been notable progress. For example, in 1995, 126 ILO member States had ratified the Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100) and 122 had ratified the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111). Those numbers are now 171 and 172 respectively.
Yet women continue to experience widespread discrimination and inequality in the workplace. In most parts of the world, women are often in undervalued and low-paid jobs; lack access to education, training, recruitment; have limited bargaining and decision-making power; and still shoulder responsibility for most unpaid care work.
Globally, the gap in labour market participation rates between men and women has decreased only marginally since 1995. Currently about 50 per cent of all women are working, compared to 77 per cent of men. In 1995, these figures were 52 per cent and 80 per cent respectively. It is estimated that reducing the gap in participation rates between men and women by 25 per cent in G20 countries by 2025 would add more than 100 million women to the labour force (See G20 Leaders’ Communiqué from Brisbane Summit).
Access to maternity protection has improved, though many women are still left out. While the percentage of countries offering 14 weeks or more maternity leave has increased from 38 per cent to 51 per cent, more than 800 million women workers globally, or 41 per cent of all women, still don’t have adequate maternity protection.
At the same time, states are increasingly recognizing men’s care responsibilities (See Maternity and paternity at work: Law and practice across the world - 2014). In 1994, 28 per cent of countries surveyed provided some form of paternity leave. As of 2013, this figure had increased to 47 per cent.
Today women own and manage over 30 per cent of all businesses, but tend to be concentrated in micro and small enterprises. Women sit on 19 per cent of board seats globally, and only five per cent or less of the CEOs of the world’s largest corporations are women.
While men are beginning to take on more care responsibilities, women continue to shoulder most of the responsibility for family care, often limiting their access to paid employment completely (See Global Wage Report 2014/15), or confining them to part-time positions, which are typically not as well paid. For example, in the European Union (EU), women spend an average of 26 hours per week on care and household activities, compared with nine hours for men (See Progress on equality between women and men, European Commission, 2013).
Violence remains a major factor undermining women’s dignity and access to decent work. Some 35 per cent of all women are victims of physical and/or sexual violence that affects their attendance at work.
A gender pay gap persists, both for women with and without children. In general, women earn on average 77 per cent of what men earn, with the absolute gap widening for higher-earning women. The ILO has noted that without targeted action, at the current rate, pay equity between women and men will not be achieved before 2086, or at least 71 years from now (See Equal pay, An Introductory Guide, ILO, 2013).
In addition, the ILO says it appears that the unadjusted motherhood gap tends to be larger in developing than developed countries. Globally, the motherhood pay gap increases with the number of children a woman has; in many European countries, for example, having one child has only a small negative effect, but women with two and especially three children experience a significant wage penalty. In developing countries, evidence suggests that the sex of the child may matter as daughters may be more likely than sons to help with household and caring tasks, thereby reducing the motherhood gap.
“The overriding conclusion 20 years on from Beijing is that despite marginal progress, we have years, even decades to go until women enjoy the same rights and benefits as men at work,” said Shauna Olney, Chief of the Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch of the ILO.
“The ILO has launched the women at work centenary initiative to accelerate its efforts to support global action to meet this challenge and deliver on the transformative agenda on gender equality and women’s empowerment called for in the proposed UN Sustainable Development Goals. This change won’t happen organically. It requires specific, targeted, and courageous policy interventions.”