Women and the future of work: time to change the conversation

Shauna Olney

Shauna Olney is Chief of the Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch of the ILO

In 1995, a group of ILO staff watched in awe as the  World Conference on Women adopted a new roadmap for achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment in the years to come. This was the fourth global women’s conference in 20 years, following Mexico City in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980 and Nairobi in 1985. The roadmap called for actions to be completed five, 10, 20 years down the road.

At one point, a colleague, whose career had spanned those years turned to me and said, “why do we have to wait another 20 years?”

Twenty years on, I find myself asking the same question. It’s certainly time to assess what we’ve achieved, what needs to be done and how much longer we will have to wait.

Granted, there has been progress, but it is often mixed.

I have been struck over the years by the increase in the number of national gender equality policies, and the adoption of more innovative legislation addressing gender, along with other types of discrimination. The number of countries ratifying the ILO Conventions on equal pay and non-discrimination has also increased by about 50 per cent since 1995. But implementation remains a real concern.


In 2015, International Women’s Day will highlight the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action , a historic roadmap that sets the agenda for realizing women’s rights. While there have been many achievements since then, many gaps remain. Learn more.

Access to maternity protection has improved dramatically. Today, just over half the countries in the world offer 14 weeks or more of maternity leave, compared to 38 per cent 20 years ago. Yet globally, more than 800 million women, or 41 per cent, are being left behind. Meanwhile, the number of countries providing some form of paternity leave and benefits has doubled.

In business, the glass ceilings and walls are cracking, but have not been broken yet. Women CEOs today head more than 20 Fortune 500 companies. That’s up from zero in 1995, but still only 5 per cent of the total. More women sit on corporate boards, but hold less than 20 per cent of seats. And more women own and manage businesses, but only 30 per cent of the world total.

The gender pay gap still exists and is hardly shrinking. On average, women still earn 23 per cent less than men worldwide. Even among women, there’s a motherhood pay gap, with mothers earning less than women without children.

One of the figures we have is an estimate that, at the current rate of change, there won’t be pay equity between women and men for another 70 or more years.

Only half the world’s working age women are in the labour market, compared to 77 per cent of working age men, percentages largely unchanged from 20 years ago. For young women under 25, the situation is grim: fewer young women are working today than in 1995.

So what is the upshot of all this? In view of the progress that’s been made, it’s time to change the conversation.

The next 20 years cannot be more of the same. And it won’t be. Momentum is building, economically, politically and socially to break down the barriers to gender equality.

For example, the upcoming 59th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York reports that a record 166 countries have reviewed the status of women prior to the session. An unprecedented number of trade unionists, NGOs and participants have registered and hundreds of side events are planned by governments and interested organizations.

At the ILO, we are also recognizing the importance of women at work in the centenary initiatives on Women at Work and the Future of Work. We are saying that women at work are vital to realizing the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will be launched this year.

Growing inequalities, the need to accelerate progress on gender equality, and the overwhelming need for decent jobs have dominated the global consultations on the SDGs. The ILO’s mandate is at the very centre of delivering on the transformative agenda that is so anticipated.  It’s now time to deliver on the promise of Beijing, Nairobi, Copenhagen and Mexico City to ensure women and men have equal opportunities in the workplace and beyond.

One of the figures we have is an estimate that, at the current rate of change, there won’t be pay equity between women and men for another 70 or more years. Seventy years? That’s why my colleague’s question in 1995 about not wanting to wait is as relevant today as it was then.

Forty years, thousands of meetings and millions of words on, I think we can safely say that women have waited long enough. Imagine a world where gender equality, not inequality, is the norm. Now we need to make it happen.

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