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"Female future": employers' organizations address gender equity

From Norway to New Zealand, via Croatia, Kenya, Jamaica, Malaysia and the Philippines, there is almost universal recognition that equality and educational opportunities for men and women and a better balance between work and family life are vital elements in achieving equality in employment. Though the situation of women varies considerably between countries, a new ILO study on employers' organizations addressing gender equity reveals that almost everywhere more could be done to promote effective gender equality in practice.

Article | 20 July 2005

OSLO - On 7 March 2002 the Norwegian Government announced its decision to introduce a statutory quota of 40 per cent of women members of boards of directors in all Norwegian companies in 2005. Unless the percentage of women in management and on the boards of Norwegian companies increases by 2005, the authorities intend to introduce gender quotas. In 2002, 8.6 per cent of the board members of Norwegian companies were women.

In response to the Government's decision the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry (NHO) carried out a broad survey of Norwegian companies in the autumn of 2002 showing that 84 per cent of companies had a positive view of including more women in senior management and on boards of directors. But they also consider that there is a lack of female candidates for leading positions.

Female future, launched in March 2003, was the NHO's response to help its members increase the number of women in management and on boards of directors by 2005. The programme aims to increase the recruitment base and the competitiveness of enterprises ensuring that their management is more diversified.

The NHO's guiding principle in its gender equality activities is that it should work towards achieving a win-win situation, both for companies and for capable women. There is no point in recruiting women to boards of directors at any price: "It is talent that counts for the enterprises of tomorrow. Prejudice is a luxury we cannot afford", says Benja Stig Fagerland, Gender Equality Manager at the NHO.

The NHO programme which ended in June 2005 followed the strategy of "pearl diving": "By pearl diving we mean companies' search for women with the right qualifications. We know that they - the pearls - exist and we want to help companies to find them", explains Ms. Fagerland.

The core concept of NHO's strategy was that member companies made a commitment, through a letter of intent, to identify, train and nominate at least three women candidates to the NHO's national network of boards. Participating companies made efforts to increase the proportion of women in management and on their boards of directors within two years of signing the agreement.

Women leaders face a dual problem: they are not sufficiently present in the networks of their male colleagues and they often work in a male-dominated environment with few other women as peers. In response, the NHO developed both physical and virtual meeting places.

In addition to board work, which is arranged in four one-day gatherings, monthly events were held which are known as Female Friday where former and current participants in the programme were invited to exchange professional information for a day. Biannual seminaries or Future Fridays supplemented this initiative. Both of these initiatives offered participants ample opportunities to develop their networks.

Through so-called 'mentorship programmes', a relation was created between a junior and a senior person with the aim of exchanging experience, promoting personal development and providing support. As a participant in FemaleFutureMentor, the Female future candidate had her own personal mentor for an entire year.

"Having access to such a partner handpicked on an individual basis represents a unique opportunity. The candidate receives support in developing both her career and her role as a leader", comments Jean-François Retournard, Director of the ILO's Bureau for Employers Activities.

The participating companies, including some of the largest in Norway but also a number of smaller ones, were satisfied with the programme. "The Norwegian example, but also the other case studies show that voluntary action is more effective than the imposition of measures by the national authorities. In particular, the case studies come out strongly against the imposition of quotas. The danger with quotas is that they are likely to result in precisely the discrimination against individuals that they are supposed to combat", summarizes Mr. Retournard the study.

Signs of progress

While acknowledging continuing inequality throughout society, the Norwegian and the nine other case studies contained in the ACTEMP publication do report on certain elements of progress.

The Employers' Organization of the Philippines (ECOP) notes, for example, that "the division of labour in the home is evolving for young married couples". ECOP reports on some of the specific initiatives it has taken on work and family within the overall context of its activities relating to corporate responsibility.

According to ECOP, "employees cannot entirely relegate family issues to the background while at work. Therefore, if work-family issues are not taken seriously, they might cause problems in the workplace that could affect work performance."

Other case studies, including Jamaica, Kenya and Malaysia focus on sexual harassment as a fundamental obstacle to equality in employment and occupation, especially for women. They show that there are also important business reasons for combating sexual harassment. According to the Malaysian Federation of Employers (MEF), the negative impacts of sexual harassment on employers include "reduced efficiency and productivity of employees, an increase in the rate of sick leave and absenteeism, high turnover with a consequent increase in retraining costs and an unfriendly office environment".

The ten case studies describe the wide range of action that is being taken on the issue of gender equity by employers' organizations from countries at different levels of development. They also highlight the pressures and business reasons that are making it ever more necessary for employers and their representative organizations to take action and ensure that their voices are heard on this important issue.

The case studies also show the increasingly widespread acceptance of the principle of gender equity at all levels of society. Several of the studies refer to the relevant ILO standards, and more particularly to Conventions Nos. 100 on equal remuneration and 111 on equality of opportunity and treatment, which have been ratified by over 90 per cent of ILO member States. These two instruments belong to the so-called fundamental Conventions under the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

The Declaration commits ILO member States to respect and promote these principles and rights, including the elimination of discrimination in employment and occupation, irrespective of whether they have ratified the relevant Conventions. A follow-up procedure, which involves reporting by governments, employers and workers on measures taken to achieve progress on respect for the principles covered by the Declaration.

Note 1 - Employers' Organizations taking the lead on Gender Equality, Case studies from 10 countries, Bureau for Employers' Activities, International Labour Office, Geneva, 2005.