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Gender equality

The challenge of women workers all over the world

"I've always made it clear that I had to work, because there is no self-respecting feminism that is not based on economic independence."

– Isabel Allende

Simple and few words, able to mark how strictly intertwined women emancipation and the affirmation of women in the world of work. Now recognised as a right and not only as a duty, work is potentially able to provide economic independence to whoever does it. However, for the majority of new-born with a pink ribbon this isn’t a banal conquest.

On a global scale, the most significative steps towards the acknowledgement of the working woman have been made in 1979, at least legally. In that year, the United Nation (UN) Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was accepted in New York, it is still to this day the most complete treaty on civil, politic, social and cultural rights for women. The III part of the CEDAW came into effect in 1981 and boasts articles, particularly article 10 and article 11, that ratify equality between men and women respectively in subjects like education and work – with specific reference to the selection criteria for access to employment and remuneration criteria.

Some members of the UN, even the USA have never ratified the CEDAW. Others, using the provision contained in Article 29 thereof, have, on the other hand, considerably limited its effectiveness in domestic law to preserve the authority of national or religious law - for example, the Sharia. In any case, with 99 signatory States and 189 acceding States, the CEDAW undoubtedly represents an extraordinary achievement.

The main goal of CEDAW is known with the name of Gender Equality. Gender Equality means same rights, same responsibilities and equal opportunities in the same set of rules both for women and men and for girls and boys. Therefore, the States that endorsed to CEDAW, can’t limit the adoption of protection measurement towards women, but they will have to strive to actively promote women emancipation in each social context, including the work context.

With the aim of promoting with every means this kind of emancipation, it has become necessary to elaborate a plan of action: good intentions aren’t enough. For these reasons, at the end of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women of 1995, the Bejing Declaration and Platform of Action was ratified by 189 countries. It is a document that, even if not binding, is fundamental in order to identify those territories where gender equality is still a mirage and, above all, to elaborate the guidelines for its (full) achievement in every part of the world. There are a total of twelve themes analysed which, if subjected to strategic and targeted interventions, would positively influence the process of women's emancipation: poverty, education, health, violence against women - the importance of the recent Violence and Harassment ILO Convention, 2019 (No. 190), armed conflicts, economy, leadership roles and power, institutional mechanisms in favour of women, human rights, media, environment, girls.

How is it possible that with all these legal norms the number collected by the International Labour Organization (ILO) depict a situation different from the one projected?

ILO is the first UN agency specialised since 1946, but its foundation dates back to 1919. Its function is that of promoting social justice and 187 states are part of it. In the fight for women's rights, the ILO has intervened on remuneration (ILO Convention No. 100), employment (ILO Convention No. 111), the status of women workers in family businesses (ILO Convention No. 156), social security standards (ILO Convention No. 102) and, finally, financial benefits and medical care during maternity (ILO Convention No. 183).

It won’t be surprising to state that the Report published in March 2019 by ILO itself is, among the official sources, the most accurate resource to refer to in order to understand the scale of the problem that women, and the whole humanity, have been committed to face for generations. In 2018 ILO registered on a worldwide scale an employment gender gap (namely a drop between male employee and female employee) of 26%. This means that 26% more men than women had - two years ago, relative to the world population - a job. Specifically, in Africa the gender gap was 50,3%, in the Americas 49,6%, in the Arab states even 57,3%, in Asia and Pacific territories 31,1% and, finally, in Europe and Central Asia 15,1%. It is important to note, however, that in most areas of the world, with the exception of the Arab States and Asia with annexed Pacific territories, the gender gap has narrowed significantly from 1991 to 2018. Nevertheless, the gap remains high: for what reasons?

It is ruled out that this could be a massive female position, as 69,8% of women interviewed in that year stated that they preferred paid work to domestic work. It is also excluded that it is an imposition of men, because 66,5% of them said they were in favour of female employment.

Is this a purely logistical matter? Someone has to take care of the children, the house, the elderly: someone has to devote himself to care work, the domestic work carried out on behalf of non-self-sufficient people that does not include remuneration. In the light of data only two years old, 21,7% of women workers in the world were engaged full-time in care work, compared to 1,5% of male colleagues. The peak was reached by the Arab States, with 59,9% of women engaged in domestic work and only 0,5% of men.

It is no coincidence that the likelihood of having a job for a mother with a child under the age of six is substantially halved: in 2005 the worldwide gender gap in employment between childless individuals was just over 20%, while in the presence of offspring it was over 40% against women. In 2015, unfortunately, the situation had remained virtually unchanged. In 2018, 53,2% of women workers in the world were not mothers.

Unfortunately, though, this isn’t all: women are victims of remunerative discriminations. The gender pay gap (namely, the different retribution to men and women doing the same job) in 2018 was 18,8% in the world, from 12,6% in underdeveloped countries to 20,9% in developed countries or developing countries. In Italy it is estimated that in 2018, men and women doing the same job, women were paid 2,700 Euros less then their man colleagues. The gender pay gap grows as the quality of qualifications increases: in 2018 the gender pay gap between undergraduates was 8,6%, while between graduates was 30,5%. These aren’t just numbers, these are stories able to describe how the struggle for women emancipation is, in fact, cultural. The sexual division of work has antique origins and, frequently, is based or was based on biologic characteristics of the person: women are and were responsible for childbirth, the growth of the offspring and, then, the care of the house. Just know that during the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, the same conference that elaborated the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action analysed above, there was a long discussion between the NGOs representatives of the most developed countries and those of the developing or underdeveloped countries on the theme of maternity. According to the representatives of developed countries it was time to claim greater control over procreation and the right to have few or no children, while the latter it seemed irrational to give up having as many children as possible. In traditional societies, in fact, being a mother is the first requirement for being a woman. In the most industrialized areas of the world, on the other hand, women have gained greater independence, including economic independence, and can be considered complete regardless of the abundance or presence of offspring - hence the demographic decline recorded in the West.

Despite this, in 2018 the number of women workers with child dependents at an early age compared to those without was declining, especially in more developed countries. In the world, in fact, motherhood is a hindrance especially for managerial positions: again in 2018, 25,1% of female managers had children under the age of six, compared to 72,9% of men. The percentage of female managers without children or with children over six years of age, on the other hand, rose to 31,4%, while the percentage of male managers without children fell to 68,6% - perhaps because those who are still young to become managers are also young to have children.

At least in the majority of developed countries now have been created solution aimed to lighten the weight of the children in the career of their mothers. There is still a long way to go, but it is not the case to minimize the extent of the great victories achieved: it has been understood that the family can be managed by two people and that it can be managed well.

Then why in 2018 only the 27,1% of managerial positions all over the world were occupied by women? In America women managers represented 39,0% of their category, while in Europe and Central Asia it was 34,4%. Those are the only areas where the percentage overcame the global average, since the managerial power for women was 22,5% in Asia and the Pacific territories, 20,3% in Africa and a miserable 11,1% in the Arab States. Do women not reach these positions because they are less inclined to study? In the same year, the percentage of women in leadership positions with a degree or even a master's degree was 44.3% of all women in the category, compared to 38.3% of men. The only countries where the ratio is reversed are underdeveloped countries, for the simple reason that girls there cannot even access certain levels of education.

With such data, it is clear that the women's issue can by no means be considered to have been resolved. For this very reason, the UN Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 aims, among other things, at Gender Equality and is committed to achieving it by eliminating existing forms of discrimination, promoting economic growth and the universal right to work and, above all, improving the quality of education in the world. It is no coincidence that the percentage of people who find it acceptable for a woman to work is considerably higher among people with a medium-high educational qualification. Ignoring the problem can never be the solution. Informed knowledge of the facts is once again the first suitable weapon to combat any kind of discrimination and to defend one's rights.

Translated by Francesca Cioffi

Original version by Rebecca Scaglia


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  • L'Autore

    Rebecca Scaglia

    Studentessa di Giurisprudenza al terzo anno, aspirante avvocato. Interessata alla tutela e difesa dei diritti della persona umana. Pienamente convinta che ognuno di noi abbia un grande potere, ossia di saper fare la differenza.

    Third year law student, aspiring lawyer. Interesed in protection of human rights. Fully convinced that everyone has a strong power, which is to know how to make the difference.

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Sections Human Rights International Organizations Gender equality


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gender equality women rights human rights ILO UN gender pay gap women and work CEDAW workworld job opportunities Women

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