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The Many Global Currents Undermining Gender Equality


tktkt. A cook in a hotel restaurant in Luang Prabang, Laos. ADRI BERGES/ILO
The pay gap remains a huge obstacle to gender equality. Here, a cook in a hotel restaurant in Luang Prabang, Laos. ADRI BERGES/ILO

How much does the economic environment of a country generate inequalities for women? A new report on wage gaps says that disparities are only partly explained by differences in experience, education and/or occupation, proving there is much more work to be done before the world offers both genders equal pay for equal work.

The report, produced by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, was shared at an all-day conference held on the margins recently of this year’s meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women at UN headquarters.

Carrying out antidiscriminatory policies is essential to making progress toward greater social justice, said Shauna Olney, the director of gender, equality and diversity at the International Labor Organization. Olney was one of 22 panelists at the conference, hosted by UN Women and Columbia University and focused on the myriad challenges — from low-paid care work by migrants to reproductive surrogacy — posed by globalization on achieving gender equality. More than 100 participants from UN agencies, civil society and academia participated in the event.

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“Poor women are the most high-potential people in the face of the earth,” and we must find ways to “shift the market” to fit them, said Patricia Morris, president of Women Thrive Worldwide and a panelist. Inclusiveness is essential, she added, which can be done by engaging with women’s collectives and carrying out local solutions so women can have an influence in restructuring sustainable economic development.

Employment is a powerful tool to improving the status of women, but low wages, barriers to unionize and unsafe working environments, including sexual harassment and gender-based violence, can limit its impacts. It is of upmost importance that women have jobs with dignity, said Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, adding: “Creating jobs does not mean that you gave us empowerment. We want these jobs with dignity. When we get dignity, I will consider that women’s empowerment.”

Crucial to women’s ability to gain dignified employment is their ability to organize, so Rosa Pavanelli, the secretary-general of Public Services International, a global union federation, said she was surprised to see that “organized work and workers are not considered at all in the process of the UN’s CSW” [Commission on the Status of Women].

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Moreover, women are the first to be affected by austerity measures instituted in economic crises, which often result in an even more deregulated financial system and labor market, shifting power from governments to corporations. These conditions make women’s ability to organize paramount to counterbalance these power shifts.

The Columbia University-UN Women conference, held at the university campus during the 2015 Commission on the Status of Women in March. STEINUNN GUDJONSDOTTIR

Migration is another important factor affecting women and labor. Most international migration results from vulnerable economic conditions, which tend to hurt women disproportionately. Migration increasingly takes place through irregular channels, and migrants fall victim to human trafficking, exploitation and forced labor. Women’s work as migrants often occurs in informal, unregulated spaces, such as the kafala system. This system forces foreign workers to be sponsored by an employer to legally work in a country, rendering them vulnerable to exploitation.

Bianca Pomeranzi, the senior adviser for gender and development at the Italian foreign ministry and a member of the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), said that although women made up roughly half of migrants, they are not often taken into consideration by international agencies because the women provide “care” work that is devalued and not always accounted for in the labor force.

Migrant domestic workers are often excluded from labor laws and subject to low wages, long working hours and lack of access to social protection, in addition to being subjected to sexual abuse and physical harassment.

Elizabeth Tang, the international coordinator for the International Domestic Workers Federation, said that these conditions often result from the involvement of private recruiters, which make migrant domestic workers “commodities for higher profit.”

In addition, women’s migration has resulted in what Sonya Michel, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, described as “not just a brain drain but also a care drain.”

The motherhood penalty, part of the “care” work being done disproportionately by women worldwide, extends beyond pay gaps and the development of care chains into increasingly complicated territory.

As demand for reproductive surrogacy rises, for example, women can risk being treated as “machines for reproduction,” said Yasmine Ergas, the director of the Gender and Public Policy Specialization at Columbia. Not only does reproductive surrogacy lead to the commodification of women’s bodies, but it can also render an undefined legal status on those who bear children through surrogacy (who, under current regulatory frameworks, are neither mothers nor workers) and thus recognizing their rights becomes challenging.

Violence across borders is another obstacle to women’s equality. As Dale Buscher, the senior director for programs at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said, “We know that gender-based violence increases in every single conflict, often exponentially.”

Humanitarians must help to prevent gender-based violence, including the provision of security and physical protection as well as economic and social opportunities. Women and migrant women who are trapped in conflict situations are extremely vulnerable to violence, so interventions in crises must integrate a gender perspective.

Campaigning to create alternative models of masculinity, involving women leaders in peace negotiations and including women’s perspectives and survival strategies into account can help mitigate such violence.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Florencia Giordano is a student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, pursuing a master’s degree in economic and political development. She works at the delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to the United Nations. Giordano has a B.A. in international relations and a B.B.A in management from Florida International University. She is from Buenos Aires.

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