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Equality and empowerment in action: Sharing our gender agenda at the United Nations

28 Apr 2017

Research and Policy Officer Arianna Rossi leads Better Work’s cutting-edge research agenda, and is currently developing a global gender strategy for the programme. In this personal account, she shares her experience representing the International Labour Organization (ILO) at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women in New York.


28 April 2017.

New York – Gender equality is a key component of what we do at Better Work. The results of our impact assessment showed that empowering women is critical to the achievement of our objectives: having female representatives in worker-management committees and training female supervisors are key strategies for achieving better working conditions and improving productivity, by as much as 22 per cent. When women are represented in numbers reflective of the overall workforce, this significantly improves outcomes for workers, particularly in terms of reducing workers’ sexual harassment concerns.

These findings gave us the impetus to work with even more focus on ensuring that quality jobs in the global garment industry can be an engine for gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.

With this in mind, I was part of the ILO’s delegation to the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) 2017. Established in 1946, CSW is dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. This year’s CSW focused on “Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work”, and attracted more than 8,000 registered participants from governments, trade unions and civil society organizations.

Being at CSW provided a great opportunity to understand how people define “women’s empowerment”, as it is clear that the concept means different things to different groups. Although there was a broad range of issues covered – everything from girls’ education to careers in science and technology – I followed events and discussions on three areas that we directly target in Better Work: reducing the gender pay gap; eliminating gender-based violence at work; and improving conditions for women in global supply chains.

I attended the the launch of the ILO-UN Women Platform of Champions on “Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value”, where trade unionists, employers, government representatives and Hollywood stars pledged to raise awareness of the unequal treatment of women in the workplace. This includes tackling occupational segregation, a very common occurrence in Better Work factories where machine operators are usually women and cutters and mechanics – better paid occupations – are men.

The ILO and UN Women also joined forces for an event on “Ending Violence Against Women: Prevention and Response in the Workplace”. Here, the focus was the ILO’s efforts to establish a standard framework for tackling violence and harassment in the world of work, which will be discussed at the International Labour Conference in 2018. A lot of emphasis was given to the need to challenge cultural stereotypes and gender norms, including by working with the media and focusing on early education.

I participated in the Women’s Empowerment Principles Forum, jointly organized by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, UN Women and the UN Global Compact. The Forum’s objective is to showcase how the business community can play a role in advancing women’s and girls’ empowerment. Here, I moderated a panel on women workers in global supply chains with a focus on the apparel sector, setting the stage with Better Work’s findings on the importance of empowering women for improving working conditions, productivity, and economic and social development.

The panelists shared their companies’ experiences with empowerment initiatives, in particular factory training to raise awareness of workers’ rights and build leadership skills, arrangements for maternity/parental leave and flexible working time. They also shed light on changing cultural norms on stigma associated with garment workers by bringing employers to rural areas and communities to explain the nature of factory work. Interestingly, despite the focus on women’s empowerment there was initially no mention of women’s voice, participation or representation, so I asked the panelists to share their experiences in this area, and they highlighted the challenges of trade union representation, where many shop-stewards are men and the workforce is mostly female.

I also shared Better Work’s experience and findings on the impact of monitoring compliance and empowering women at a side event focused on the impact of the trade environment on women’s employment, organized by Finland, Sweden and UNCTAD. It was fulfilling to share Better Work’s concrete findings on how removing discrimination and sexual harassment, minimizing the gender pay gap, and giving voice to workers is instrumental in achieving better working conditions, improved wellbeing, and economic and social development outcomes. Our message echoed the new UN Secretary-General’s statement at the CSW opening on how achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Five on gender equality underpins the whole of the SDG agenda.

It was an intense week with lots of inspiration from thought leaders and women’s rights organizations from across the world – a momentum that we certainly need as we embark on our new Stage IV strategy with a renewed focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

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