As long as discrimination barriers exist Workers’ Day can’t be celebrated

It is time to respect women’s agency about their career growth and their need to self actualise, and create an enabling environment to do so.

Workers’ Day provides an opportunity to celebrate, honour and appreciate the value of workers across the globe as well reflect on pertinent issues that affect them. But Workers’ Day cannot be a celebration as normal when the gender parity gap continues to widen and more than half of the world’s population continues to face discrimination and structural barriers in the labour and economic space.

For the first time since 2006, the World Economic Forum’s records in 2017 showed that the global gender gap is widening. The Global Gender Index ranks 144 countries in the world to see how they perform in economic participation and opportunity, education, political empowerment, and health and survival. Last year’s report showed an overall decrease in parity when compared to other years with the economic pillar which addresses salaries, work force participation, and leadership indicating one of the fastest growing gaps in spite of some of the strides that have been made in the health and education sectors.

It is disheartening to note that although women make up more than half of the world’s labour force, they continue to lag behind in terms of access to economic participation and remuneration.

They are more likely to engage in unpaid care work compared to men and they encounter gender barriers in the work place. The quality of their work and their ability to execute their roles effectively tends to be questioned and subjected to more scrutiny than that of their male counterparts, thus meaning that women carry an unfair burden of constantly having to prove their competence. Additionally, more women tend to be employed in temporary, low-productivity and low-paying jobs.

Also, globally only half of women of working age are employed and often earn about three-quarters as much as men earn even for the same kind of jobs and with the same level of education and qualification.

The challenge with underpaying women is that not only is it structural violence and discrimination, but it also has adverse effects on their personal lives, esteem and wellbeing. Being underpaid not only communicates that one is undervalued and disposable, but it also says no one cares about one’s contribution and the value of their work. This can have adverse effects on one’s self esteem and sense of worth when the substance and value of what they do is given less regard. In turn, this also impacts on the quality of their work and performance.

Additionally, it is difficult for one to publicly disclose that they are being underpaid because it draws attention and speculation about what may be wrong with the quality of their work for them to be treated this way, thus subjecting women to further victimisation and scrutiny, which also violates their sense of dignity.

Addressing gender inequality and parity is not only beneficial for women but society at large. Research has shown that closing the gender-parity gap would increase the GDP of countries in 20 years, with 12% estimation for developed countries and an even wider margin for developing economies.

Investing in gender equality within the economic and educational space promotes more inclusive growth for both men and women because women are more likely than men to invest in the human capital and well-being of their families when capacitated to do so.

It is therefore time to realise and acknowledge that gender equality in the labour and economic space is a human right, moral and economic necessity that should be respected, promoted and protected as a matter of urgency. Sustainable economic prosperity cannot be achieved when women’s labour continues to receive less recognition than men as it means that only half of the world’s economic participation and contribution is realised.

This year’s Workers’ Day cannot be business as usual. As workers commemorate this day, it is an opportunity for States to take decisive steps and commit to addressing the widening gender parity gap. While achieving gender equality globally may take a long time, it is imperative for States and society at large to pursue this goal relentlessly. This includes increasing women’s access to resources and economic participation, including access to and ownership of land.

While laws are necessary, on their own they are not adequate to promote gender equality within the work place. An acquaintance of mine who works in the corporate sector once shared an experience where her and a male colleague were tasked with wooing a certain client to do business with the company. The one to scoop the deal would get a “hefty” commission.

The male counterpart was subsequently “invited” to an all-male golf game with the client where, needless to say, he managed to scoop the deal. From this, I realised the need to interrogate and challenge certain practices and culture that perpetuates an already uneven playing field and inhibits women’s participation.

In an industry that is predominantly male, with male executives and senior management, and inherently favours men, how does pitting a man against a woman in an uneven playing field continue to perpetuate inequality?

There is also need to address discriminatory recruitment and promotion practices, unfair or unclear remuneration policies that sustain the underpaying of women and make it difficult for them to hold their employers accountable.

It is time states and employers are held accountable to ensuring that there is transformation within the labour market. It is time to demand conducive working environments that enable women to realise their full potential and be treated equally with their male counterparts.

It is time to realise and respect women’s agency to make decisions about their career growth and their need to self actualise and thus create an enabling environment to do so.

May this year’s Workers’ Day be a time to reflect and commit to making gender equality a reality.