International Women's Day 2014

Millions of women still face barriers at the workplace

Looking at the challenges that lie ahead in achieving gender equality at work

Audio | 07 March 2014
TRANSCRIPT: As we mark International Women’s Day on March 8, working women across the globe face common challenges to achieving gender equality at work.

When the International Labour Organization was founded in 1919, most women around the world did not have the right to vote and most of those in paid work had little or no collective voice to advocate for their workplace rights.

Nearly a century on, there has been progress on women’s rights at work, and many more women are working. However millions still face significant barriers in accessing equal opportunity and treatment in their jobs.

In a statement marking the occasion, ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder highlighted the challenges working women still face.

"We tend to look at the situation too frequently by anecdotes, that we’ve advanced on a certain indicator here, and we have gone backwards in another place elsewhere. I think progress is uncertain and I don't think that it is fast enough. "

Vinita Bali is an example of a woman who has successfully broken through the ‘glass ceiling’ that limits women’s access to top decision-making posts. She is managing director of Britannia Industries in India.

In my case I was lucky enough to have a renaissance father, renaissance parents actually, who gave me the freedom to do exactly what I wanted to do,”

For Vinita Bali, women in executive jobs have an important opportunity to help the next generation of working women move up the corporate ladder:I have always insisted in every job I have that I would like to see candidates who are women in addition to men.
" All else being equal, we will actually opt for a woman rather than a man and the reason for that is actually very simple: that more and more women need more and more opportunities and more encouragement.”

However, despite success stories like Bali’s, problems persist for many women in the workplace. The lack of maternity protection, for instance, is a challenge faced by millions of working women – even though many countries have adopted ILO conventions relating to this issue. This is true for developed and developing countries.

High school teacher Marie Holmes from New York gave birth to her second child, Olive, in January. She is on unpaid maternity leave, having used up all her sick days when her first child was born:

"I do have maternity benefits through the board of education, the problem is that they are unpaid. But many women don't even have that, and have to make the choice to leave their careers if they want to take time off and be with their children and that's an unfair position to put women in. I don't think it serves anybody to send women who are stressed out, and really short on sleep and up every three hours at night nursing back to work before they are ready. That has to affect productivity.”

Other key issues relating to women at work also need to be addressed. Gender pay gaps persist, and women are overrepresented in the informal economy, in precarious work and in low-paid jobs. Too often they are also the targets of direct and indirect discrimination.

ILO research shows that while many more women are working, their share of the labour market has stagnated over the last two decades.

For CEO Vinita Bali, this just doesn’t add up:

"There has to be a recognition that if society has a 50 per cent ratio of men to women, why should companies be any different?"

Much still remains to be done to achieve full gender equality at the workplace, while recognizing the multiple roles women play in our societies.

Sandra Kuchen at the ILO