International Women's Day 2004

Before women had many rights, they at least had their day. The first recorded National Women's Day occurred in the United States in 1909. A year later, the Socialist International, meeting in Copenhagen, established a Woman's Day "to honor the movement for women's rights and to assist in achieving universal suffrage" ( Note 1). The following year, 1911, International Women's Day (IWD) was celebrated for the first time across Europe, demanding the right to work, vocational training and an end to discrimination.

The 1911 event evoked passionate comments from its organizers, one of whom - Aleksandra Kollontai, said the day "exceeded all expectations. Germany and Austria... was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere "in the small towns and even in villages; halls were packed so full that they had to ask [male] workers to give up their places for women. Men stayed home with their children for a change and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings." (Note 2)

In 1917, Kollontai and German socialist Klara Zetkin both took part in the IWD which was held on 8 March for the first time, a strike "for bread and peace" by Russian women in post-war St. Petersburg. As a minister in the new Soviet government, Kollantai persuaded Lenin to make 8 March an official Communist holiday celebrating "the heroic woman worker". Eventually, the date took hold, with marches held around the world and a UN General Assembly resolution in December 1977 inviting Member States "to proclaim [a] United Nations Day for Women's Rights and International Peace". ( Note 3)

Today, International Women's Day is celebrated in hundreds of places worldwide, with events, marches and other activities. The ILO has observed the day with increasing intensity since 1999, when Juan Somavia became the first ILO Director-General to address a special session of the Governing Body on IWD, pledging the ILO would "quicken the pace" on gender issues ( Note 4), and establishing IWD as an annual fixture of the ILO calendar. The voices of women marching for their human rights - with many men supporting them - have echoed louder here since then.

Updated ILO report shows "glass ceiling" tough to break

Is the glass ceiling breakable? In the two decades ago since the phrase came into common usage, the invisible barriers to the top of the managerial tree seem to be tougher than expected. A recent update of a classic ILO study on the issue shows, in fact, that women's share of top positions remains low and the rate of progress discouraging.

GENEVA - For women striving to move into managerial and upper-level jobs, the recent update of the ILO 2001 study, "Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling: Women in Management" (Note 5), may seem disheartening. What the update shows is that the number of women in top management jobs has only increased by between 1 and 5 per cent over the past five years in some 33 countries surveyed

"A handful of women are making headlines here and there as they break through, but statistically they represent a mere few per cent of top management jobs," said Linda Wirth, Director of the ILO Bureau for Gender Equality.

The overall employment situation for women hasn't evolved significantly since 2001, the update says. Women's share of professional jobs increased by just 0.7 per cent between 1996 and 1999, and 2000 and 2002. And with women's share of managerial positions ranging between 20 and 40 per cent, the data show that women are markedly under-represented in management compared to their overall share of employment.

In politics, the proportion of women representatives in national parliaments remains low, increasing from 13 per cent to 15.2 per cent between 1999 and 2003. However, the update did find recent increases in the number of women in traditionally male-dominated cabinet posts, such as foreign affairs, finance and defense.

Deeply entrenched rules and practices also keep female representation in politics low, the update says.

In fact, across all professions, women face barriers to progress. The daily challenge of balancing family responsibilities with work leads some employers to consider women less able, and women still have to work harder to prove themselves, or adapt to "male" working styles. What's more, women face isolation, limited access to mentoring and female role models, sexual harassment, and are often excluded from informal networks vital to career development.

Yet the news isn't all bad. Some employers are beginning to shift attitudes, according to the update. Businesses now understand that family-friendly policies, improved access to training, and stronger mentoring systems encourage female staff retention and can improve productivity. And governments and unions are advocating the reform of employment and welfare legislation to ensure that mothers can maintain seniority, benefits, and earning potential.

Pressures to choose between family and career can lead some women to avoid the top jobs. Says the ILO's Wirth, "Family responsibilities play a major role in whether or not women accept promotion. The way work is organized is not always compatible with raising children. Some women also seek to avoid the impact of long working hours, stress and the prevalence of aggressiveness and authoritativeness that can be found in the top ranks." The update also highlights cases where young men are seeking to balance work and family life.

The update calls for strategies that debunk the myths surrounding women's capabilities, and promote family-friendly policies which afford both men and women parental leave, ensuring that women who do have children and pursue a career are not penalized financially.

The ILO is working to expand income opportunities for women entrepreneurs by improving their business skills and access to resources, through its Women's Entrepreneurship and Gender Equality (WEDGE) work. More information about this and other initiatives to empower women and promote gender equality is available at

Note 1: UN Department of Public Information, DPI/1878, January 1997.
Note 2: A history of International Women's Day, by Joyce Stevens,
Note 3: UNGA Resolution 32/142, General Assembly, 32nd Session, 105th plenary meeting, 16 December 1977, p. 158.
Note 4: See "New Director-General pledges stronger push by ILO on gender issues", press release ILO/99/5, 8 March 1999. Note 5: "Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling: Women in Management: Update 2004", ILO, Geneva, ISBN 92-2-115523-4, also available at