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Women, work and the Sustainable Development Goals

The future of work depends on the future of women at work

Shauna Olney, Chief of the ILO’s Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch, explains why achieving gender equality is crucial for the world of work.

Comment | 21 October 2015
By Shauna Olney, Chief of the Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch of the ILO
When women are better off, the world becomes a better place for all. Reflecting this reality, 193 countries have included gender equality as a core element of the newly adopted U.N. 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. Consequently, 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) articulate gender-responsive targets and Goal 5, states simply and clearly “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” and includes six targets and three means of putting them into practice.

Despite progress in areas such as education and maternal mortality, the world has fallen short in bringing women’s employment, earnings and working conditions in line with those of men. Globally, the labour force participation rate for women is 50 per cent, compared to 77 per cent for men. Yet, having more women in the labour market is not enough. The quality of jobs is paramount.

Worldwide, women earn approximately 77 per cent of what men earn and continue to be primarily responsible for household chores and family responsibilities. While 51 per cent of ILO member States provide at least 14 weeks maternity leave, this still leaves millions of women without the fundamental right to adequate maternity protection.

Many women are at risk of violence at home and at work. Violence at work affects women’s ability to access employment, remain in employment and impacts on productivity. Women are under-represented in decision-making positions at work, and while women manage over 30 per cent of all businesses, this tends to be concentrated in micro and small enterprises with only 19 per cent of women sitting on boards of larger companies. Only 5 per cent or less of CEO’s of the world’s largest corporations are women. There is still much to be done.

Realising the world’s full potential

Cultural traditions and economic conditions cannot excuse discrimination and other violations of fundamental human rights. Countries, whether high or low income, cannot any longer afford to lose out on the social and economic potential of gender equality. Recent research shows that if women participated in the economy identically to men, this would add up to US$28 trillion, or 26 per cent, of annual global GDP in 2025. If money talks, people should be listening to these extraordinary figures.

Ambitious policies that succeed in transforming gender norms and relationships in society and at work, and hence addressing structural inequality, are required. ILO equality Conventions, addressing discrimination, equal remuneration for work of equal value, maternity protection and work and family measures, including access to parental leave as well as quality and affordable social care services for dependent family members, provide the road map for action. Recent standards of particular relevance also promote decent work for domestic workers, the creation of social protection floors and the formalization of the informal economy.

More and more countries are adopting public policies that tackle the root causes and consequences of gender inequality and discrimination in all areas of life. “Sharing the care” has been a central focus of these measures.

For example, in Chile, following a campaign to increase fathers’ attendance during childbirth, the share of women reporting the presence of a birth partner, almost always the father, grew from 20.5 per cent in 2001 to 71 per cent in 2008. In France, partners of a pregnant woman are granted leave of absence to attend three medical examinations. Paraguay just extended the duration of paternity leave from 3 to 15 days. Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme includes the provision of time off for pregnancy and breastfeeding, crèches and flexible working hours so that parents can balance paid and care work.

Valuing women’s work

There will never be gender equality until the work that women undertake is valued appropriately, and measures are being taken to address this concern. In Portugal, for example, a tripartite sectoral committee developed a job evaluation method (JEM), which helped reduce the gender pay gap by tackling discrimination against women in female-dominated jobs that were traditionally undervalued. The Netherlands protect by law the working conditions of “marginal” part-time workers, who are mostly women.

The ILO has a leading role in guiding the transformation to gender equality in the workplace. In preparation for the centenary of the ILO and as an integral element of its engagement with the sustainable development goals the organization has established the Women at Work Centenary Initiative.

As ILO Director General, Guy Ryder stated on International Women’s Day, “Promoting decent jobs for women is imperative, now and for the next generation… It is a matter of rights and what is right for women and for sustainable development.”

Goal 5 is achievable. The evidence is there and the commitments as well. It is now time to take action and invest in women.