ILO Policy Brief: The ILO and Gender Equality

By Mitali Sen


Globally, there is widespread acceptance of the principle of gender equality at a rhetorical level but a notable lack of adequate measures to make it a reality. High ratification of equal remuneration and anti-discrimination (towards women and in respect of employment) conventions has not led to significant reductions in gendered economic inequality. Global gender gaps in labour market participation and pay have stagnated at high levels: female labour force participation is 49.6% compared to 76.1% for men and women earn just 77% of what men do (1). Moreover, women are concentrated in low quality work, with poor conditions and inadequate maternity, healthcare and retirement protection (1, 2). Violence against women at work is also of concern – they are disproportionately subjected to harassment, bullying, assault and trafficking (2). Nonetheless, women are underrepresented in decision-making processes, making it difficult to get redress and protection (2). Sexism in labour markets constrains women’s rights and hinders productivity and inclusive growth.

Gender equality is inherent to the ILO’s social justice and fair globalisation mandate. It is also central to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This presents both the imperative and the opportunity to intensify efforts to improve women’s access to more and better jobs. Within this context, the UN has established its first ever High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, which Guy Ryder (ILO Secretary-General) and Shauna Olney (Chief of the ILO Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch) sit on. The panel seeks to demonstrate leadership and commitment on the issue, to make recommendations and to upscale successful practices. Meanwhile, the ILO has made ‘Women at Work’ one of its centenary initiatives, ahead of its 100th anniversary in 2019. The aim is to undertake a comprehensive stock-take of the status of women in work, to identify structural barriers and to foster innovative, targeted interventions.

The ILO is engaged in broad and varied efforts towards achieving gender equality. It conducts research in order to drive policy dialogue, offers expertise on best practice and is in the process of reforming its own structures to be more gender sensitive, so that it might lead by example more effectively. This brief will highlight some key activities and themes.


Traditional gender roles dictate that women are primarily responsible for household chores and family responsibilities. On average, they do two and a half times more unpaid care and domestic work than men, presenting a direct obstacle to accessing and progressing through the labour market (1). Insufficient public care services (for children, the elderly and disabled) combine with poor infrastructure and limited access to resources, to make this work excessively time and labour-intensive, especially in the global south. Furthermore, the undervaluation of care work and its invisibility in social protection measures perpetuate vulnerable, low quality work in the fast-growing, female-dominated care economy (1, 2).

The ILO (alongside UN Women) advocates policies that directly address the unequal gendered distribution of care and domestic work. Both agencies urge governments to recognise the value of care work through promoting labour standards in the care economy; to reduce time spent on unpaid care work through investments in infrastructure and resources; and to redistribute the responsibility of unpaid care work among men and the state via improved public services, adequate paternity protection, flexible working arrangements and measures for reintegration into the labour market (1, 2). Implementation of measures to recognise, reduce and redistribute care work would help achieve a new normative framework that would ease the burden of care on women and give them the opportunity to reach their potential in the workplace. Mr Ryder and Ms Olney will no doubt seize opportunities presented by the High-Level Panel to advance this message within the global conversation on women’s economic empowerment.


Despite the very high ratification rate of the Equal Remuneration Convention (172 out of 186 ILO members), women earn substantially less than men throughout the world, across all sectors and levels. On the current trajectory, it will take 70 years to close the 23% gender pay gap (1, 3). The gap is due in large part to gender biases and discrimination: the work that women do is undervalued, while less face-time and flexible work schedules (both a consequence of women’s family obligations) are penalised (3). Absence from the labour market for mothering reduces women’s entitlement to benefits and bonuses that are based on length of service and contributions. As such, the unequal distribution of care responsibilities creates a negative motherhood wage gap and a fatherhood pay premium (1).

For the ILO, fair and equal pay is fundamental to women obtaining their rights and to achieving gender justice. The organisation also highlights that it is good for business as it enables the retention and nurturing of talent (3). This is useful in cajoling them to engage with the issue. The ILO recommends training, pay equity analyses, wage transparency, gender sensitive reward systems and gender-neutral job evaluations to help identify and eliminate unfair practices (1, 3). It emphasises that better sharing of care responsibilities can reduce gender pay gaps and, as aforementioned, outlines legislative and institutional reforms to achieve this. Further, the ILO advocates adequate minimum wages and better social protection of part-time workers as useful measures to accelerate reducing the gap (1).

Gender mainstreaming

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) set gender mainstreaming as the main vehicle for achieving gender equality. This involves assessing all policies, programmes and practices for their differentiated impacts on men and women, with a view to making them equitable. The ILO recognises that it must achieve gender equality within its own office to lead and be credible on the matter. The organisation’s ambitious Action Plan for Gender Equality 2010-15 (action plan) was a framework to operationalise gender mainstreaming across ILO with targets on staffing, substance and structural arrangements. In addition to promoting gender parity within the ILO’s headquarters, the action plan called for gender responsive delivery of the Decent Work Agenda, emphasising measures to improve women’s access to education, training and healthcare, and to address the care economy.

In late 2015, the action plan was independently reviewed. This indicated a mixed performance: some targets were met, many were not, some were not reported on properly, while others were difficult to measure, e.g. culture changes in management (4). On 23 March 2016, the ILO Governing Body discussed the evaluation’s findings and recommendations. It identified that poor understanding of barriers to success and effective ways to overcome these were significant problems. It acknowledged that closer monitoring of constituents’ experiences would enable learning and reflection and ensure future plans are better grounded. The governing body agreed that the 2016-17 plan must be short, simple, measurable and achievable. It must also be accompanied by a communication strategy to make it visible.

Crucially, Ms Olney, Mr Ryder and the Industrial Market Economy Countries emphasised a lack of ownership of the plan as a significant cause of slow progress. Currently, the Gender, Equality and Diversity branch (GED) is responsible for analysing gender mainstreaming across the organisation and for cajoling other branches to meet their gender commitments. This approach has the effect of negating individual branches of their responsibility to be pro-active and driven to meet their own obligations. Monitoring and evaluation must be carried out by all teams at all levels to ensure ownership and accountability. Ms Olney emphasised that dialogue and collaboration between GED and other parties would facilitate a redistribution of the responsibility to assess performance. This would help to see adequate measures taken in a timely manner to make all ILO staffing, substance and structures gender sensitive.

Data and Accountability

Issues of accountability go beyond the ILO’s efforts to improve its own governance and programmes. Throughout the world, there is a struggle to get gender equality taken seriously. The international legal framework to ensure the equal treatment of women exists (in the form of binding anti-discrimination conventions) but has not been accompanied by structural reform. At a recent high level panel discussion on how to deliver on gender equality, hosted by the ILO on International Women’s Day, Guy Ryder and Sharan Burrow (General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation) highlighted the need to hold actors to account on their commitments within the Sustainable Development Agenda. Ms Burrow argued that those who violate international laws must be prosecuted and made an example of. Mr Ryder insisted that this be accompanied by comprehensive data to enable societies to measure progress. He proposed making International Women’s Day ‘accountability day’, so that each year, on this day, the world will get out the scorecards and assess performance.

Both Mr Ryder and Ms Burrow are part of the Geneva Gender Champions initiative – a Geneva based community of leaders that hold each other to account on their gender commitments. This should guarantee that the ILO delivers on its Women at Work centenary objective. Efforts to upscale the initiative to the rest of the world could be pivotal in accelerating progress on gender equality. Improving accountability is one of the most important aspects of getting powerful actors to take their gender commitments seriously and to transforming rhetoric into action. The ILO should continue its excellent research and evidence building work to empower civil society to hold their leaders to account. It should also work to improve data collection tools of its constituents so that they might complete these endeavours autonomously and independently.

  1. International Labour Organisation. 2016. Women at Work. Trends 2016.–en/index.htm
  2. International Labour Organisation. 2015. Women and the Future of work. Beijing+20 and Beyond.–en/index.html
  3. International Labour Organisation. 2015. Pay Equity – a key driver of gender equality.–en/index.htm
  4. International Labour Office. 2016. ILO Action Plan for Gender Equality – Independent Final Evaluation Summary.—ed…/wcms_453447.pdf

 Mitali Sen – MSc Environmental Change and International Development 2014-2016.


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