GENEVA (ILO News) - "We cannot afford to lose out on women's talent," said Mr. Juan Somavia, Director-General of the ILO, insisted today in an address to a panel of international dignitaries on the occasion of International Women's Day. "Improving gender equality in the workplace", he added "Is the right thing to do; it's the smart thing to do."
The gathering today at the headquarters of the International Labour Organization paid tribute to the generations of women and men who struggled for gender equality, Mr. Somavia said that "the ILO remains committed to their cause."
"Gender equality is a goal and a catalyst to achieve our core vision: decent work for women and men in conditions of freedom, equity and dignity," Mr. Somavia insisted.
Other panellists who addressed the audience included Ms. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of the World Health Organisation; Ms. Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Ms. Germaine Greer, author and academic; Mr. Walter Fust, Director-General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation; Ms. Mamounata Cissé, Assistant Secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions; Ms. Angeline Low, Director of a private investment company and Ms. Christine Ockrent, a well-known journalist and broadcaster.
While highlighting the progress of women in the workforce, Mr. Somavia focussed particularly on the "glass ceiling" which so often stands as a barrier to female entry to senior executive posts characterising it "as one of the critical problems crying out for a major breakthrough."
While also pointing to the problem of the "sticky floor" which describes the forces that keep so many women stuck at the bottom of the economic pyramid, the Director-General cited ILO research which indicates that the higher women go in organisations, the larger the gender gap becomes. In particular, he noted
- Women hold only 1 to 3 per cent of top executive jobs in the largest corporations worldwide. For women who experience racial discrimination, the percentage is even less;
- Only 8 countries have a woman head of state;
- Women account for just 13 per cent of the world's parliamentarians; 21 countries have a female deputy head of state;
- Although women account for almost 40 per cent of trade union members worldwide, only one per cent of trade union leaders are women.
ILO research also indicates that the gender bias against women's accomplishments in the workplace extend to persistent occupational segregation where jobs are classified as "male" or "female" with the latter often being assigned a lower market value. Even in fields where women employees predominate, such as health and education, "men usually occupy the more skilled, responsible and better-paid positions," the ILO Director-General said.
He highlighted the "pay gap" that leads to income differentials of 10 to 30 percentage points for women in even the most advanced countries in terms of gender equality.
ILO studies have shown that women, on average work longer hours than men in nearly all countries and women continue to perform most unpaid work.
Mr. Somavia said that it was necessary to "speed up women's entry to the highest echelons of decision making" and insisted that "faster progress is possible." In the United States, for example, the number of women in Fortune 500 executive management positions more than doubled between 1996-97, from 2.4 per cent to 5.1 per cent.
"Meaningful change," said the ILO Director-General, "involves diversifying occupations for women and men; fostering greater sharing of family responsibilities; innovating with proven human resource and budget strategies and cultivating and nurturing women's entrepreneurial talent."