International Women’s Day 2014

Women at work – where we are, where we want to be

To mark International Women’s Day, the ILO reflects on the progress that has been made and what still needs to be done to achieve gender equality in the workplace. Follow two women, an Indian CEO and a US school teacher, whose experiences shed an interesting light on the common challenges facing women across the globe.

Feature | 08 March 2014
In pictures
Take a look back: The fight for women’s rights in the workplace – an ILO history in pictures
GENEVA (ILO News) – When the International Labour Organization was founded in 1919, most women around the world did not have the right to vote and most in paid work had little or no collective voice to advocate for their workplace rights.

Nearly a century on, female participation in the labour market has significantly increased, along with progress on their rights at work. However millions still face significant barriers in accessing equal opportunity and treatment in their jobs.

“Stubborn gaps in gender equality in the workplace still remain. We need to assess the effectiveness of existing policies so we can renew strategies and take concrete action to improve women’s working lives,” says ILO Director- General, Guy Ryder.

Breaking the glass ceiling

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,” she explains.

“I would say that you’ve got to believe in yourself. You’ve got to have confidence. You don’t need to be deflected by what other people are saying. If women are given an opportunity, the world is going to be a better place,” she adds.

Interview with Vinita Bali, India

However, despite successes 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 – despite the fact that many countries have adopted ILO conventions relating to this issue. This is true for developed and developing countries.

Unpaid maternity leave

Marie Holmes, who teaches at a high- school in New York, has had to take unpaid leave following the birth of her second child because she used up all her allocated sick leave and vacation days for her first child.

“I was not eligible for any paid maternity leave, so we had to figure out how we were going to live on one income,” she says.

“I think it is essential for working women to have access to maternity benefits so that they don’t have to make the choice between having children and having a career or a job when they need income to provide for their family.”

Interview with Marie Holmes, USA

Other key issues relating to women at work also need to be addressed. According to ILO research, while many more women have entered the labour market, their share has stagnated over the last two decades. In addition, occupational sex segregation and gender pay gaps persist.

Women are overrepresented in the informal economy, in precarious work and in low-paid jobs. They are also often the targets of direct and indirect discrimination.

Since its founding, the ILO has developed landmark international standards on gender equality, equal pay, discrimination, workers with family responsibilities and maternity protection. As the organization approaches its 100th anniversary, it will be launching a Centenary Initiative on Women at Work, which will involve a major assessment of the progress and gaps in achieving gender equality in the workplace.