The role of the ILO in facilitating greater gender equality

Jack Ithell

Policy Brief: Women and the workplace worldwide – the role of the ILO in facilitating greater gender equality


On Monday 23rd June 2015, in its High-Level Section meeting focusing on emerging employment and social challenges, the Governing Body of the ILO mentioned repeatedly the importance of facilitating equal opportunities for women – not just in terms of gaining employment, but also the quality of this employment and the equality they should experience when working. Ensuring ‘decent work’ for women was highlighted as a pressing issue by a number of participants in the Governing Body meeting, including special advisor on Sustainable Development Goals Amina Mohammed, Governing Body President Apolinario Jorge Correia and regional groups including GRULAC, the EU and BRICS. The following brief outlines the steps being taken by the ILO to address this issue and how its actions in 2015 are intended to help achieve this goal. This brief splits the Governing Body’s responses to gender inequality into two areas – research and policy.

The Governing Body research agenda:

The Governing Body has taken steps to investigate fully, and raise awareness of, the problems facing women in the workplace worldwide through extensive research and data collection. The research has had a number of objectives, which shall be split into three dimensions here: firstly it aims to highlight for the attention of ILO member countries the existence of gender inequality and in which employment sectors and countries it is most pronounced; secondly it attempts to show why such inequalities are problematic and should be addressed; and thirdly, it proposes measures that countries can take to address issues related to inequality.

The organisation has carried out research on many different issues facing women worldwide. Reports published in late 2014 and 2015 have covered issues such as comparative employment levels, wage gaps, problems related to pregnancy and childcare, the glass ceiling phenomenon and the dangers of the informal sector. This research is vital in bringing the issues facing women to the fore and the ILO highlights these issues to its members through publications and high-level reports. The Governing Body’s discussion of the ILO’s 2015 report on Global employment and social challenges: Emerging trends and the role of the ILO, is a good example of this. The report’s examination of the specific employment challenges faced by women was noted and welcomed by member countries, many of whom, including Brazil on Behalf of BRICS, suggested potential solutions to the problem, covering both social and economic measures.

Research aims also to explain why these gender inequalities are harmful and should be addressed, both from a social and an economic perspective. For example, in its 2015 report on ‘Women in Business and Management’, the ILO states that “promoting gender equality in the workplace is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do” because of the positive impacts of doing so on productivity and diversity within enterprises. The ILO’s attempts to show the economic and social benefits of reform represent an effort to counter the slow progress made by some countries in improving gender equality.

Finally, again as demonstrated in its High-level Section discussions, the ILO’s research agenda aims to suggest to countries practical measures that might be taken to improve gender equality. Examples of policy recommendations include the increased implementation of gender neutral job evaluations by employers in order to reduce wage gaps, job protected parental leave of adequate duration for women, and improvements in the accessibility of affordable and quality childcare in order to address the motherhood pay gap. More broadly, in its discussions of employment challenges at the 323rd Governing Body meeting, the importance of more jobs worldwide being created was emphasised, so as to help women to move out of informal work and unemployment. Through recommendations like these, the ILO attempts to draw the attention of its members to the importance of gender equality and use its research capabilities to devise and promote solutions to these problems.

ILO policy and women

Beyond research, there are other steps the ILO is taking to promote gender equality. The organisation has a specific Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch, which produces its own research, including regular participatory gender audits of ILO offices, which are intended to ensure gender equality within the organisation. It also advises other ILO departments about how to identify and address gender related inequalities and challenges when working on projects and in the field.

Beyond the efforts specifically of the Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch, a broader policy of ‘Gender Mainstreaming’ has been practised by the ILO as a whole since 2001. This policy involves incorporating measures and planning strategies across all ILO projects and departments to consider the issue of gender in policy. Since the adoption of this new approach, the ILO has viewed gender as a cross-cutting issue, with each of its strategic objectives having important relationships with it in different ways. The Governing Body’s proposed 2016 budget exemplifies this way of thinking about the gender question. The ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, mentioned explicitly the issue of women in work in his revised budget proposal speech at the 323rd meeting, stating that the question of addressing it cuts across the ILO’s 10 key desired policy outcomes. This is reflected in the ILO 2016-17 budget-plan report, which separately recognises gender equality and discrimination as an issue for consideration in the implementation of all ten of its planned Policy Outcomes. In these considerations, the budget-report notes the importance of advocating gender equality to domestic employers and business, adapting the business environment to facilitate female entrepreneurship and encouraging gender-responsive labour migration interventions amongst other policies.

It is important to note, however, that certain budget revisions may potentially prove harmful to the progress of women, in particular the Governing Body’s decision to remove spending from the ILO’s policy outcome 6 , the ‘Formalization of the informal economy’ – an issue that the ILO has linked to the exploitation of many women worldwide. Women face particular dangers from the poor wages and unreliable, often unsafe, work associated with the informal economy, and yet the revised ILO budget has reduced funding for formalizing the informal economy by US$9 million. Given the disproportionate presence of women in informal economies worldwide, this move may harm efforts to move more women into the formal, regulated economy. However, this re-allocation of funds is not necessarily problematic for gender equality as long as extra attention is paid to promoting alternative jobs for women.

Whether the Governing Body’s wider focus on creating ‘decent jobs’ benefits women worldwide as much as men or not, another important note is that the ILO’s Gender Equality Action Plan 2010-2015, aimed at ensuring effective Gender mainstreaming across projects will finish this year, which suggests that the Governing Body should consider further explicit plans to maintain a clear focus on the needs of women in the workplace. Although it is certainly clear that the problems of enduring inequality are being noted by the ILO, more time will be needed to see if the problems and solutions it has discussed this year will translate into meaningful change.


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