Gender equality and women’s empowerment in the world of work

Keynote address by Mr Satoshi Sasaki, Deputy Director, ILO Country Office for India and Decent Work Team for South Asia at the Women’s Development Conference organized by Delhi Management Association (DMA)

Statement | New Delhi | 09 August 2019

Gender equality and women’s empowerment in the world of work has been an important area of work for the ILO. The organization was established 100 years ago, in 1919. Gender equality is anchored in the ILO Constitution and the preamble to the Constitution refers to the need to eliminate workplace injustice and improve conditions of labour across all age groups. The preamble also affirms the principle of equal pay. At the first International Labour Conference, the first ILO Convention on Maternity Protection (No. 3) was approved. Over the years, the ILO also adopted a number of standards that are particularly important for gender equality, including those aimed at eliminating discrimination, promoting equal pay, promoting equality for workers with family responsibilities, and promoting maternity protection. And most recently, at the ILC in June this year, the ILO adopted the first convention on violence and harassment in the world of work.

100 years since the inception of the ILO, the importance of roles played by women in the labour market is globally recognized for sustainable and inclusive growth. Gender equality is a universal common goal in the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Gender equality is also a prerequisite for progress across all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Positively, the female talent pool is widening globally with women surpassing in tertiary education and more women than men ever before are entering into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Women are a force in the labour market, breaking boundaries. Perhaps many of you here today are good examples. You may be the first one in your family in many aspects – whether about completing higher education, being employed in jobs that have been considered appropriate only for men in the past, or reaching higher positions in your office.

While the proportion of women in the labour market in general, and in leadership positions in particular remains significantly lower compared to men, there are a number of inspiring women leaders who show you what it is to be a good leader and who make positive contribution to the performance of the office and the well-being of her staff.

When I recall my memories working with different types of leaders, I resonate more with the ones who lead the team by empowering the members to the best of their performance. After all, there is no leader without team. When I talk about leadership, male or female doesn’t make much sense. It is more important to know what the leader can do to the team members. Four years ago, I was ILO OIC in the Pacific. I was the only ILO international staff left alone in the Pacific at that time, after Director left the country in a politically sensitive situation created between the Government and Trade Unions. The UNRC said she would support me and the ILO in ways she could do to address the issue with the government. She communicated with the government at its highest level and created a space for the ILO to bring both sides to the agreement. Her words and actions were invaluable support for me to handle the situation. I found something reliable in her attitude. Different leadership styles are required at different occasions, but the leadership style of Osnat Lubrani, I believe is very useful. I still believe she is one of the best leaders I have ever met. And I thought I wanted to be a leader like her.

So, does gender matter to be a good leader? Whether we were born male or female, we all have the potential to be good leaders. By now, there are also many examples, cases, and researches, including those by the ILO that prove that promoting gender equality in the world of work and in leadership positions is the smart idea and the right thing to do. However, the global environment as well as the environment in India remains highly gendered. And unacceptable gaps between women’s aspirations and labour market realities remain. According to the global survey by the ILO and Gallup, close to 70% of women want to work, and 66% of men agree. In reality, only 46% of women are employed as compared to 71% of men. As we know, the labour force participation of women in India is persistently low and has been declining. The proportion of women in management and leadership position is only 27%. Women are also paid lower than men, with the average global gender pay gap being 20%. Women and girls are more exposed to violence and harassment.

Although there are women in leadership positions that we can look up to, like the example I shared with you, we know that their journey to join and remain in the labour market and advance to the leadership position was not easy. According to the same survey, work/family balance was one of the toughest challenges for working women. If we look at the time spent by women and men on unpaid care work, this challenge is obvious. The data in India is shocking. Women on average spend 5 hours per day while men spend only 0.5 hours.

Despite the improvement in laws and policies to promote gender equality, discrimination in practice is prevalent, based on patriarchal practices and biases that negatively affect women in the world of work. Women may not get opportunities for career advancement as the supervisor may judge that women would not be equally capable. Women may not be given opportunities under the name of “protection” as certain occupations may be perceived dangerous or inappropriate for women. As women and men have different biological functions, we need to be aware of these differences and protect biological functions of both women and men. However, women and men are equal in terms of rights, opportunities, responsibilities, income, representation and voice.

We need to work towards creating an environment where both women and men can develop to their full potential on equal terms. One important area that can bring transformative change for gender equality is unpaid care work. There is a need to recognize the importance of care work at all levels - the global, national, regional, enterprise, community and family levels.

Another area I want to highlight is the need to address discrimination, including violence and harassment. This includes reviewing biases and discriminatory practices that exist in your workplace, and working towards creating an environment or a system to ensure equal opportunities and treatment for all women, men and gender. Does your workplace have a policy and action plan on gender equality and sexual harassment, so that biases do not bring negative or unfair outcomes to women and men, and where there are unfair cases, there is a procedure to address them adequately? Experience shows that compulsory measures are needed to meaningfully challenge traditional gender roles by the government as well as at the enterprise level. The examples of compulsory measures include mandating wage transparency to promote equal pay, mandating the adoption of gender equality policy at the enterprise level, and mandating the availability of quality and affordable care facilities such as child care or elderly care. Enterprises need to proactively ensure equal opportunities for all staff – so that career paths do not diverge at early stages and there is a healthy pipeline of women right up to the top. Whatever the changes we want, the ILO recognizes the importance of collective action and I hope you will continue to work with fellow women and men professionals to bring positive changes towards gender equality.

You are here today as you have overcome so many challenges, so I trust you will move forward strong, and even stronger after this conference with new friends to support you. As you continue your path to advance in your career, my message for you is to be a true leader, regardless of your gender and your leadership style. Empower yourself and your staff.

I wish you all the best for your journey.