Equal is not fair (enough)

I would like to thank the Director-General for his report on the “Women at Work Initiative – The Push for Equality”. It is very comprehensive and it provokes great discussion on the topic of gender equality. I will reflect upon some of the issues and I’m going to add some extra food for thought.

Overall, the Report paints a rather negative picture about women in the world of work and emphasizes the prevalence of unfairness at work and within social structures.

Equality and fairness, the words are out. Equality is the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities. Equality has fairness embedded in it. But what is equal is not always fair. What is fair is not always equal. Aristotle said “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.” Let that be a first lesson. It is fairness that prevails. My message here is: you have to be willing to dig deep, don’t be superficial, go beyond the ‘equal’ slogans, look at the actual practices, intended and non-intended. “Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it.”

There is no doubt that a lot still needs to be done to deal with double standards in dealing with men and women in the workplace, as well as general societal hypocritical attitudes and stereotyping. The challenges remain important. But we must guard against a generic negative painting of the situation. A lot of good initiatives have been taken, a lot of good practices exist, a majority stemming from employers and employers organizations. A large number of women are now better positioned in the labour market, thanks to efforts from business investing in fair recruitment, compensation and promotions policies, flexible working time schemes, and establishing other internal human resources policies. I will not further cite examples, as colleagues already did before me.

There are many ways to address this challenge. But one thing I am sure of is that a mere legalistic, institutional or calculative approach is not an effective and efficient way to move forward. Shifting responsibilities to employers, to institutions or even to individuals is counterproductive. As the report says, we are all responsible together.

As I said we have to be willing to dig deep. We have to assess the way we work. An integrated approach is needed: recruitment, working conditions, work relations, competency development, talent and career management, the way we communicate, our leadership, trust and respect… all of that needs to be assessed from a fairness and gender perspective. We also should provide individuals with self-assessment tools. A lot of what we do is non-intended unfairness or substandard use of capacities. Self-reflection is a critical component for creating awareness amongst people of his or her implicit (unconscious) bias. This is learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply engrained, universal, and able to influence behavior.

A statistical approach to equal pay or pay gaps is not productive. Make it situational! And yes that requires much more effort…

The topic of this report of Guy Ryder links with other topics relevant for this Conference.

Probably the most important one is “The future of work” although working in the future is the more appropriate terminology. There is an important key element to make sure we will benefit from the opportunities that the future will bring, opportunities to create more and decent jobs. That element is to go for what I call all-potentials. That means an approach that seeks at getting the best out of each and every single person in the world of work. This is about talent! We need an approach that enables discovering talent and allows for developing those talents. This is not about more women in STEM or man in nursing.

There is nothing wrong with woman making a choice for a so called female occupation, nothing wrong with a choice for family care… provided that that choice was a real choice, based on talent. Not a choice under pressure from, culture, family or religion or out of economic necessity. A talent and capacity approach is also the best way to get women in the corporate world. But first things first. If deploying your talents does not result in sufficient income and/or a decent job, you are stuck and your choice is not a fair one. That’s why we have to keep investing in the basics! Social protection floors, governance capacity, fight corruption, fair justice, etc.

Back to the future. The environment, in which we live and work, is constantly and rapidly changing. It takes agility to cope with those changes and turn them into opportunities. Agility is a trademark of most women! Women are generally more flexible, faster and better able to adapt to all kinds of circumstances than men. That is why employers globally are fully committed to continue making progress for women as a critical talent pool. To all women in and outside this is room. The future is yours! Don’t feel or behave restrained. If you only seek to be equal with men, you lack ambition!

In this working in the future there is no space for violence and harassment against women, or anybody else. The report states “Cases of sexual harassment and disrespect against women have made the headlines in the past months. All women, regardless of their place in the hierarchy, are vulnerable to unfair and abusive treatment at work.” Our concern should be how to bring that to practice. We don’t need high-flying statements; hash-tags, declarations and conventions if they don’t result in effective prevention and protection. True equal treatment means holding everyone accountable in the same way, regardless of race, gender, religion, ethnicity – or political ideology. Voilà, I mentioned some of the elephants in the room: culture, religion and ideology. Can we openly address them? There is another one: practice what you preach. With gender, violence and harassment on the agenda, my team and me have been walking around here with a photographer’s eye. We have witnessed disrespect, intimidation and other forms of violent and gender based behavior from participants and from high-ranking ILO officials, like ignoring the woman in the delegation or only addressing the man assuming he was the head.

Equality of treatment and opportunities is a founding value of the ILO and at the heart of social justice. This concerns us all! Action, not words!

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