“Making recovery work for women”: Statement by ILO Director-General Juan Somavia for International Women’s Day

Statement | Geneva | 07 March 2011

One hundred years ago women took to the streets of Europe for the right to vote;

One hundred years ago women – mainly migrant women – took to the streets in the United States to demand safe working conditions.

From those events, one hundred years ago International Women’s Day was born.

And we know that the struggle for gender equality continues, taking different forms in different societies and contexts. Some struggles more visible than others, but absolutely indispensable in all societies. The struggle goes on.

Today, we applaud the courage of the women who took to the streets in North Africa and the Middle East to demand freedom and a better life. It was a moment that illustrated that people could make a difference, that there is a moment when they are prepared to fight indignity.

Today, we join in solidarity with women the world over who are striving not to be held back simply by virtue of gender.

The big calls of history have been for freedom, dignity and justice as well as for opportunities to work in these conditions: to work in conditions of freedom, dignity and justice.

This is the demand of men and of women at all levels of development who know what it takes ultimately to move towards a life of dignity. It is the demand for decent work. At the heart of it is the struggle for gender equality, non-discrimination and downright fairness for women.

The situation

We know the data but it bears repeating.

    Half the productive potential of the world’s female population remains untapped. Female participation rates are around 53 per cent compared to 78 per cent for men. In other words some 510 million women worldwide are of working age, but are not economically active. This translates into a waste of talent; ideas untapped; productive capacity lost.

    Among the employed, 40 per cent are women: this share has not changed over the last decade.

    Unemployment rates are still higher for women compared to men.

    Women remain disproportionately represented in poorly-paid, insecure, part-time, home-based or informal work. For the same job, women much too often still receive less pay than men.

    Social security coverage globally is lower among women and poverty levels are higher.

In the economic crisis, women and men have been adversely affected, yet there is a differential impact, for example:

    Food price increases hit women hardest, especially in the least developed countries.

    For people living in poverty, when things get worse, girls’ education suffers first – if they were in school to begin with.

    Care burdens – still disproportionately carried by women - increase.

    Experience shows that women who lose their jobs in a crisis have greater difficulty obtaining work in the recovery.

    And when fiscal consolidation becomes the foremost concern, women tend to be disproportionately affected by austerity measures. This is the situation which many countries are going through today. I will just mention one example - a Gender Audit of the June 2010 Budget in the UK done by the House of Commons Library shows that women will bear 72 per cent of the burden of their government’s cuts. The experience is replicated in countries that have shifted abruptly to intense fiscal consolidation.

The simple truth is that there is still too much lip service to gender equality.

We cannot be for gender equality while real economic conditions flagrantly undermine it.

We cannot expect sustainable development when half the working population participates on varying terms of inequality.

We cannot want girls to have a brighter future if parents have no opportunities for work, no basic social protection including support for children to go to school.

We cannot advocate empowerment without supporting respect for the rights and organizations that empower and the institutions that allow these to develop.

In 2009 the Global Jobs Pact adopted by the International Labour Conference as a decent work response to the crisis, saw the crisis as an opportunity to shape effective policy responses that are gender aware.

The Pact called for recovery packages to take into account the impact on women and men and integrate gender concerns in all measures. And in discussions on recovery packages, both regarding their design and assessing their success, women should have an equal voice with men.

This was a very strong call from the real economy, governments, employers and workers, to place gender equality as an axis of the recovery policies.

It is timely to remember that call.

The UN theme

For this year’s observance, the UN Family has chosen the theme “equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women.”

Let me note that this is the first international women’s day we are celebrating under the leadership of the new UN agency – the UN Women, led by Michelle Bachelet. The ILO welcomes the establishment of the new entity and put its capacities on gender in the world of work at the disposal of efforts to empower women and promote gender equality.

Our monitoring shows that many governments are indeed seeing upgrading the skills of women as a winning element.

What does it require?

    Enhancing access of adolescent and young girls to quality formal and non-formal education programmes, including vocational technical training;

    Girls and women must have equal opportunities as boys and men for vocational education, training and skills development connected to the world of work and the evolving reality of labour markets, enterprises and workplaces where new technologies will be key;

    Tackling societal perceptions that tend to stream girls into non-scientific courses that ultimately restrict their choice of jobs and employability, and in tandem address the occupational segregation of traditionally accepted “male” and “female” jobs by opening them up to both sexes;

    Facilitating the transition of young women and men from school to work, taking into account that young women (who are increasingly doing better in school than young men) face greater barriers entering the labour force;

    Instituting systems for recognition and certification of formally or informally acquired skills and competencies, because the portability of skills makes it easier for both male and female workers to move into new jobs that may emerge; and

    Targeting particularly disadvantaged groups of women through specially designed skills training programmes, for example, through catch-up technical courses, community-based and mobile training programmes to reach women in the informal economy;

Yet the focus on education and training for girls and women must be paralleled by attention to the broader environment: jobs for the future as well as support measures that enable them to progress.

Gender-sensitive social protection policies and programmes targeting mothers have proved to be effective elements of an enabling environment

Gender equality in the context of recovery

As we consider the issue of gender equality in the context of recovery, it means focusing on the bigger picture.

Looking around we see a marked tendency to go back to business as usual as we come out of the crisis – perhaps especially so in Europe.

I believe we have to ask a fundamental question: What is the kind of growth that we need? We need investment, innovation, technology to create jobs. At the same time we also have to focus on the quality of work. Will the business as usual model of growth yield gender equality in the world of work? Will it yield the stable societies that we need? I think not.

And if there is a place where can have a reasoned discussion on these issues it is the ILO. To move forward on the gender agenda we need to think differently. We need to consider the issue in the framework of the broader demand of people for a fair change at a decent job. Gender equality is part of that process.

Sufficient thought is not given to the notion that the quality of work defines the quality of a society. Work is seen as a cost of production; the worker as a consumer. This is legitimate yet work is more than this. A narrow perspective fails to capture the role of work as a source of human dignity, family stability and social stability, a source of empowerment. The linkage between the stability of families and jobs is not being made. Gender equality is at the heart of issues pertaining to the organization of work and of family life.

In 2004 the ILO produced a Report on the Social Dimension of Globalization. In 2008 it adopted the Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization which pointed to the imbalances of the prevailing model of globalization.

A lot has been done; a lot still needs to be done. As a tripartite organization the ILO has to play a very important role.

As we reflect on progress and the distance still to go.

As we renew commitment to gender equality.

We can say that the forces of the status quo are too powerful to resist or we can discharge the responsibility of our Organization which derives from its Constitution to work for change.

It is time to work for a new era of social justice; time to make a radical re-assessment of gender equality policies and strategies as part of the construction of this new era of social justice.