20 years after Beijing:
Women still paying a gender penalty
Twenty years after the 1995 International Conference on Women in
Beijing, the “woman question” still begs for answers.
For Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, the
question boils down to such a simple query as: “Why should an
11-year-old girl, on frail legs, have to fetch the water to quench the
thirst of a muscular man?”
Speaking at last week’s at the High Level Dialogue on ‘Economies that
Work for Women’, Mlambo-Ngcuka sought to situate the question in the
context of “unpaid care work,” which afflicts the majority of the
world’s women and is, she said, “a structural cause of gender
All over the world, she added, “children are made by both men and
But child care is a woman’s responsibility in almost all countries.”
But women are expected not just to look after babie s and children;
the responsibility of caring for elderly parents and sick members of the
family likewise falls on them.
This ‘caring duty’ also extends from family members to the home
itself, to ‘providing household necessities’ that include food
preparation (and, in many instances, food gathering), fetching water,
foraging for fuel, housecleaning, and even providing sexual
services-even as, frequently, a woman must also ‘contribute’ her share
of productive labour with work outside the home.
“In an era of unprecedented global wealth, millions of women are
still trapped in low-paid, poor-quality jobs, denied even basic levels
of healthcare, water and sanitation,” she declared, noting how “this is
particularly true of women facing multiple and intersecting forms of
discrimination, based on factors such as age, income level, ethnicity
True, much has changed since 20 years ago, including the creation of
UN Women after decades of campaigning among women’s groups and women
within the UN System for a major and distinct UN body devoted to the
advancement of women.
But as Mlambo-Ngcuka admits, despite the advances gained in the last
two decades, “progress in gaining gender equality overall has been slow
and uneven.”Still, bemoaning the situation-and stopping at that-was not
the reason for Mlambo-Ngcuka’s visit to the country.
What needs to change to make economies work for women?
The UN Women executive director focused on three areas: the pay gap
in formal labour, informal employment, and the ‘gender penalty’. “Women
almost universally earn less for the same job than men, or do precarious
work,” Mlambo-Ngcuka observed. Globally, she noted, women are paid 24
per cent less than men, although the specifics vary widely: Women earn
20 per cent less in East Asia and the Pacific and 33 per cent less in
Unprotected by labour laws
It isn’t just wages that matter. The nature of the work works to
women’s disadvantage, too. “In some developing regions,” Mlambo-Ngcuka
said, “upwards of 75 per cent of women’s employment is informal,
unprotected by labour laws or social protection.”
An “honourable exception,” she added, is the Philippines, which till
now is “the only country in East Asia and Pacific region that has
ratified the ILO Domestic Workers Convention adopted in 2011.”
In East Asia and the Pacific, excluding China, 78 per cent of women
are engaged in informal employment (nonsalaried, impermanent,
unrecognised) and over one-third are in informal agricultural
employment, added Mlambo-Ngcuka.
Globally, millions of women in developing countries make their living
through small-scale farming, while in South Asia, 64 per cent of women
are informally self-employed, with 31 per cent in informal wage
Over a lifetime, noted the UN Women head, such inequalities “add up
to a devastating loss of security and status,” reflecting and
reinforcing economies and societies “that chronically undervalue girls
This Mlambo-Ngcuka calls ‘the gender penalty’, consisting of
“fundamental attitudes and conceptions of relative human value that play
out in sexual violence, in discrimination, or in the decisions about who
stays home, who misses school, who fetches water and fuel.”
Beyond hand wringing, there are clear (maybe even easy) steps that
governments, societies and communities, and even employers can take to
make an economy work for women.
Equal pay for equal work
Among these steps: Transform paid work. Governments need to “enact
policies to implement and enforce minimum wages,” ensure that there is
“equal pay for equal work,” and provide women equal access to pensions
and social protection.
There is also a need to support the livelihoods of self-employed
women, such as market traders (vendors) and small farmers since, she
said, 62 per cent of women work in family businesses.
It is also imperative, Mlambo-Ngcuka declared, to address the needs
of farmer-women, to “make their jobs decent, ensure their control over
land, and [give them] access to credit so they can buy seeds and
fertilizers to make their land productive.” Just as crucial: “Increase
their resilience to climate change.”
There is also a need to “ensure that social protection, such as
employment guarantee schemes, reaches rural women to bolster their
income security.” In particular, governments must extend social
protection to informal workers, since more than 75 per cent of women’s
jobs are informal in developing regions.
“If women stopped having children, caring for them, or shaping them
into productive and creative human beings, there would be no labour
force and the global economy would grind to a halt,” Mlambo-Ngcuka
reminded her audience, sending a message to all men and women seeking
answers to the age-old “woman question.”