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Where gender equality fits into the ILO’s future of work

Where gender equality fits into the ILO’s future of work

| Text and photo: Berit Kvam

How do you close the pay gap and create a less gender-divided labour market? The answer does not lie in the past. Gender divisions in the Nordic labour markets have been nearly static since the 1970s and global data from the ILO shows shockingly little movement. So what is needed? That is what the discussion about gender equality in the future labour market is about. Does Iceland have the solution?

Iceland can become the first country in the world to get a certified standard for measuring and developing equal pay. A company practicing equal pay for equal work can have this certified and made visible. The aim is to create a system which secures men and women equal pay for equal work, and equal working conditions for jobs of a similar nature. The measure is also designed to reduce discrimination in general.

Shauna Olney, Chief of the Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch of the ILOI, is excited about seeing the result.

“The Icelandic tripartite Equal Pay Standard is an innovative solution which we would like to promote,” she says. She heads the dialogue Women at Work which will run until the ILO’s centenary in 2019.

What do you want to achieve by then? 

“That is when the action starts. This is the time for reflection and debate. We will establish a high level commission in 2017. The debate about women in work will then become part of the major Future debate and perhaps sit at its very core.”    

The commission will be working independently from the ILO. It has not yet been decided whether the commission’s work will result in a new declaration. 

“We have not had a declaration as part of the ILO’s constitution since the 1944 Philadelphia declaration.” 

The constitution was signed in 1919 as part of the post WW1 peace process. In 1946 the ILO became the UN’s first special organisation for labour market issues. Its aim is decent work for all.

“If we now can achieve a declaration about the future of work in 2019, gender equality must play an important part,” says Shauna Olney.

Equal pay in the Nordic region

“Gender equality is a question of justice and morals and of economy and growth. The Nordic countries would not have been able to achieve the growth they have seen without the high participation of women in working life. Nor would they have been able to build the same universal welfare rights or achieve the same level of gender equality between all citizens in all of the countries without the participation of women,” said Lisbeth Pedersen, head of research at the Danish National Centre for Social Science, SFI, as she addressed the seminar on the future of work on 6 September.

The Nordic countries are way ahead when it comes to gender equality, and according to the OECD they have a remarkably high proportion of women in the labour market. While many countries have a great potential for growth if more women were included into the labour market, the Nordic countries have already enjoyed the benefits from this. 

The ILO has carried out a major survey together with Gallup taking in 178 countries. It shows that the employment gap between women and men has only shrunk by 0.6 percent over the past 20 years, despite the fact that far more women have got an education. 

“This is quite a shocking result,” thinks Shauna Olney. 

Steady wage gap

Yet although there are many women in the labour market in the Nordic countries, the study shows a permanent structural inequality 

“In Denmark we have had a steady pay gap since the early 1970s, from back when we began talking about gender equality,” says Lisbeth Pedersen.

The education level among women has steadily increased, but it has not had an impact on the pay gap. 

Why is this? Is it because of education or work experience?

No, the researcher says. 

“But it does have something to do with a segregated labour market, the fact that women and men have different jobs and that there is different pay for similar jobs. There has been almost no changes to the segregated labour market over time. Men still work in what is considered to be typical male jobs and the other way around.

“The difference is that when studies have looked at five different educations which are popular with both genders, it turns out that there are more men working in the private sector, and this goes for all kinds of educations. The tendency is also that differences have been growing rather than shrinking.”

Her conclusion is therefore that if we are to overcome inequality in the labour market, both the private and public sectors must be made equally attractive for both genders.

“The fact that this is not already the case could have something to do with culture, or that there are better welfare benefits included in the collective agreements where women dominate. It could also be that the wage system structures were negotiated during the 60s and that the wage structure has been pretty stable since then.”

The partners’ responsibility

The development in the labour market could mean that wages are pushed down, especially in jobs where you do not need a higher education. The need for highly educated labour will rise. 

“This means that in order to include everyone in the labour market you have to concentrate on education for all levels. We need a more flexible labour market with equal conditions in the private and public sectors, and there is also a need to reduce the pay gap for work of a similar nature.

“In the Nordic region the social partners are responsible for negotiating wages and working conditions. So we need to ask them to do something about it. If this is something we need to do in the future, it is something we need to do today,” said  Lisbeth Pedersen.

Iceland is an inspiration

The ILO’s Shauna Olney also underlined the need to create a comprehensive agreement on the changes. 

“The tripartite cooperation then becomes important. That is why the Icelandic initiative is so interesting, because it has been developed through tripartite cooperation. We have already talked with UN Women about how to implement the ILO convention about equal pay. When it comes to different countries it is not natural to say that we here have a model which is ready for implementation.“

The tripartite agreement on equal pay is based on the same model as the ISO certifications, and can be translated into other languages. The work is nearing its final phase. This autumn the parties will present the work which covers the terminology for a definition of work of a similar character, the terms for management systems and appendixes with a guide for job classifications and a guide for wage analysis.

“This is important as a process and can perhaps inspire others. It is important to have good models,” says the ILO’s  Shauna Olney.

What do you consider to be the greatest challenge to gender equality right now?

“How to challenge the stereotypes: That women are the ones who should stay at home, that women’s work is of less worth. Here too the Nordic model is so important, for instance when it comes to getting men to take parental leave.”

The debate about the future of work

The parties in Finland have decided that this year’s collective negotiations will be the last of their kind. From next year wage negotiations will happen on a local level. It is difficult to say what that will mean for the development of equal pay. 

Markus Äimälä, Director Confederation of Finnish Industries EK, is focusing on protecting jobs. 

“It is important for our industry to make sure that businesses remain competitive. If technology changes, businesses must change fast. For this you need flexible legislation, we need basic rights but on top of that we need to be able to negotiate on a local level as much as possible. 

“In Finland we have a tradition of collective agreements covering all trades. But employers feel that this does not offer sufficient flexibility. Therefore we do not want this any longer. We are now moving to trade-specific negotiations like Sweden has had for many years. This is not enough. We need to be able to agree on working hours and conditions on a local level.”

Katarina Murto from the Finnish Confederation of Salaried Employees STTK, underlines that Finland is also in a difficult economic situation. 

“Finland has been in a recession for many years now, and we still have a problem with how to solve the question of employment. We have signed the Competition Act. This is an historic agreement because we have for the first time signed an agreement to reduce the rights of workers. We now hope this means employers will have the courage to hire more people and increase investments.

“As for collective agreements, the trade union movement wants as much as possible to be settled through collective agreements and regulations, even though the trend is going in the opposite direction with much negotiation on a workplace level.

“I believe an important question on a Nordic and international level is to work for gender equality in the labour market. Gender equality, anti discrimination and human rights are important issues. Of course we can have a minimum legislation, but I think that if we want to raise these issues, we need to make sure they work in all workplaces.”

The future of work

Katarina Murto from the Finnish Confederation of Salaried Employees STTK, and Markus Äimälä, the Director Confederation of Finnish Industries EK, summed up after the Future of Work conference


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