Gender Equality and Trade Unions

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            Work towards gender equality at the workplace and in society is a crucial principle in the organizing and growth of trade unions.  The International Labour Organization (ILO) supports this work through international labour standards, education and the creation of training material.  Some facts:

  Women are a large and growing part of the world-wide work force. Around 45% of women aged 15-64 have jobs or are job seekers. In 2007 about 1.2 billion women were either employed or looking for work.

  Priority areas for action for trade unions are: more and better jobs for women; gender issues in collective bargaining; equal pay for work of equal value; access for women to promotion; gender awareness for men and women union members and employers; combating violence against women at work; life-long education for women, in particular vocational training.

  Unions need women as much as women need unions. Organising women workers in both the formal and informal sectors is a high priority for the International Trade Union Confederation (the ITUC) and the Global Unions as well as unions all around the worId.

  Ensuring the full integration of women into trade unions and promote gender parity in activities and decision-making at all levels is one of the constitutional aims of the ITUC.

 The International Trade Union Confederation

            The ITUC is the organization which represents national trade unions globally. It works closely with the Global Unions which are international associations of labour organizations in a particular sector such as metal work, textiles, education or public services.

Gender equality is such an important principle for the ITUC that one of the first Action Programmes it adopted after it was created in 2006 was to promote gender equality in the workplace. It states quite clearly that the ITUC believes in parity between women and men in every workplace, at all levels of society, and in trade unions themselves.

            Achieving equality between men and women is not a “woman’s” concern, but is fundamental to the aims of all trade unionists. Dynamic measures that target women are required in order to redress existing discrimination and change attitudes and conditions in the unions and by the unions. There is also a need for measures to both increase awareness among women and to enable them to reconcile work with their personal and family life, while also allowing men to spend time with their families and share family responsibilities

 There are seven major areas where women’s rights must be defended and enhanced worldwide: education and training; employment and equal pay; social protection with particular focus on maternity protection and access to health care; family responsibilities; harassment and violence against women; freedom of association; and integration into trade unions.

 The  ITUC’s Action Programme is having significant effects as unions around the world work at implementing it.  The call to action address a number of issues, including:

 Organizing women workers

 Making the trade union movement strong means organising workers into unions.  Strategies should be developed to organise and represent women. Increasing numbers of women are entering the labour market and joining unions. Organising and representing women working in the formal, traditional sectors should extend to women in the informal economy, export processing zones, young women, migrant women, women from ethnic minorities, women in rural and urban areas, teleworking and home-based workers, domestic workers, single working mothers, and women in short-term employment, temporary, casual, low paid jobs and other workers vulnerable to exploitation, by helping them to identify and meet their own needs through solidarity action. By addressing the needs of all working people, unions become stronger and truly representative.

 Organising women requires making women’s issues top priority on the trade union agenda, including gender in all policies, programmes and activities and ensuring equal access for women to decision-making positions. Women will be attracted to membership if they see that unions work for women in practice, addressing their issues and representing them.

 Trade union organisations should use organising methods suited to the needs of women, and their local conditions. For example, meeting places should be safe and convenient; the timing, agenda and duration of meetings should take account of workers’ family responsibilities; and, if necessary, care arranged for young children.

 Women should be equal members

 Women’s organising programmes should be supported by trade union leaders and trade union action policies promoting equal rights for women in all areas, in particular in the economic, social and trade union fields.

 Special bodies/structures (such as women’s committees, women’s departments or task forces, women’s groups and women’s networks) are needed at different levels of trade unions to examine the problems facing women workers and make proposals for eliminating discrimination, encouraging women’s participation, promoting equal opportunities and monitoring the advancement of gender equality in trade unions. These bodies/structures should have the power to take initiatives, liaise with other groups of members, and input directly into decision-making. Joint action in cooperation with women's organisations should be a means to achieve common objectives

 Women should participate in unions equally

 Women, whether organised into unions or not, will make their own judgement about trade unions based on their performance, including the extent to which women participate in trade union decision-making. The number of women holding union office should at least correspond to the percentage of women members (proportionality).

7. /Positive action is needed to overcome direct and indirect discrimination against women taking up leadership positions in trade unions. This requires:


        •  strong commitment from trade union leaders;


        •    transparent budgets for gender initiatives in trade unions;


        •    implementing intensive training programmes to prepare women for leadership  positions;

  •    collection of separate statistics on male and female membership, on their participation
in all trade union activities and on the representation of women and men in decision making             bodies;

        •     reporting on progress in policies and measures, supported by facts and figures, be made to         Congresses;


        •     examining structures and removing obstacles that prevent women taking leadership roles,         and ensuring they are at least proportionately represented at all levels, if  necessary through         the creation of additional seats (which should carry equal rights and responsibilities) or                 co-option;


        •     giving statutory status to women’s structures; providing special budgets and adequate                  working conditions and logistical support;


        •      establishing a standing committee within unions to promote the gender equality and                      recruitment policy;

  •       inclusion of women unionists in trade union delegations to meetings, conferences and
                missions at national, regional and international levels; including to international financial nd                 economic institutions and bodies;

    •    introducing minimum target, starting at 30% for women’s participation, and a parity target,         at all trade union levels;


        •      introducing, reserved seats, quotas or other transitional measures in trade union                         decision-making bodies where parity has not been achieved;


        •       transparency in nominating women to consultative and decision-making bodies;


              supporting women by extra training, childcare or the sharing of family responsibilities;


        •       making full use of women trade unionists’ skills in all areas of activity;


        •      inclusion of women in negotiating committees/teams at all levels and gender dimension in all items of the bargaining agenda.

Training and communication for gender equality

    Men and women in trade unions should accept, practise and disseminate the principle of equal rights and opportunities between men and women, including women who return to work after a career break. Gender awareness training as well as practical training on gender mainstreaming should be part and parcel of all trade union education programmes and activities, at all levels. All general trade union training should include an element on equal opportunities and gender issues, especially equal pay.

 All trade union literature and educational material should present the image of women workers and their economic role in a positive manner.

 Trade unions should carry out research into the working conditions of women, to help them respond more effectively to women workers’ needs. Trade union research should be disseminated to policy makers and other stakeholders to ensure a wider understanding of the gender and decent work agenda.

 Training programmes catering especially for women are needed in many trade union organisations to encourage women members and help them to express themselves and their own demands. It is very important that more women should receive training without loss of pay.

 Trade unions should fight for educational leave where it has not yet become a right, and encourage women to take it up.

 Educational activities should be tailored to the time women have available and, where necessary, childcare should be provided.

Internal trade union procedures

Trade unions should:

• Develop equal employment, recruitment and training guidelines to ensure that they are not        inadvertently discriminatory and that they reflect the diversity of their membership with the aim of gender parity;

• Elaborate equality plans for the unions;

• Undertake gender-impact assessment of all internal policies and programmes in order to

  ensure gender mainstreaming;

 • Carry out a gender audit of the trade union organisation, including gender-budgeting.

Gender equality and the ILO

            The primary goal of the ILO is to promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. Thus, ILO considers gender equality as a key element in its vision of decent work for all women and men for social and institutional change to bring about equity and growth.

 The main focus or thematic areas of the ILO on gender equality coincide with the organization's four strategic goals, which are to: promote fundamental principles and rights at work; create greater employment and income opportunities for women and men; enhance the coverage and effectiveness of social protection; and strengthen social dialogue and tripartism.

Non-discrimination and promoting equality have been fundamental principles underpinningthe work of the International Labour Organization (ILO) since its creation in 1919. These principles are also an integral component of the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda: promoting decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. All workers have the right to decent work, not only those working in the formal economy, but also the self-employed, casual and informal economy workers, as well as those, predominantly women, working in the care economy and private households.

 International Labour Standards (Conventions and Recommendations) are one of the ILOs primary means of action to improve working and living conditions of women and men, and promote equality in the workplace for all workers. ILO standards apply equally to women and men, with some exceptions, in particular those standards addressing issues relating to maternity and women’s reproductive role. However, there continues to be a gap between the rights set out in national and international standards and the real situation of workers. These rights must be made effective in practice. A major obstacle preventing workers from exercising their rights is a lack of awareness of their existence. Dissemination of information about these rights is, therefore, a vital instrument for improving gender equality.

 While progress has been achieved in the ratification of the fundamental standards promoting equality between women and men and their translation into national law, gender issues also need to be taken into account in the application of other ILO standards. Gender mainstreaming in the application of International Labour Standards:

• helps to ensure that women and men have equal access to benefits derived from  these standards;

• recognizes the needs, experiences and interests of both women and men;

• enables stakeholders to manage change;

• demonstrates a willingness to undertake differential measures to respond to the needs
  and interests of men and women; and

• advocates equality brought about by the implementation of Conventions.

ILO instruments for promoting gender equality

 The four international labour Conventions of the ILO recognized as the key equality Conventions are:

    •      Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111)

    •      Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100)

    •      Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention, 1981 (No. 156);

    •      the Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183).

 The rights and principles set out in the fundamental Conventions, are also reflected in the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The Declaration provides that “all Members, even if they have not ratified the Conventions in question, have an obligation, arising from the very fact of membership in the Organization, to respect, to promote and to realize, in good faith, and in accordance with the Constitution, the principles concerning the fundamental rights which are the subject of those Conventions, namely:

(a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;

 (b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour;

 (c) the effective abolition of child labour; and

 (d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.”

 Other Conventions with particular implications for gender equality include those on employment promotion, working conditions, and migrant workers. In fact, the gender implications of all ILO standards should be considered in ensuring their effective application. The instruments as well as all other ILO Conventions and Recommendations, can be found at This website also provides detailed information on international labour standards, ratification and the supervisory system.

Issues related to gender equality

The ILO approach to gender equality is grounded in the rights-based argument and the economic efficiency rationale: not only is gender equality in the world of work a matter of human rights and justice for workers, it also makes good business sense for employers and is instrumental in achieving economic growth and poverty reduction at national levels.

 Equality of rights applies throughout life. Women and men, from their early years through to old age, may face different manifestations of sex discrimination. This has clear life-cycle dimensions. More and more governments – as well as the social partners – are recognizing that if no remedial action is taken, disadvantages tend to accumulate and intensify over time and through generations, with negative repercussions for women, families and societies.

 Safe maternity and health care for mother and infant survival is at the core of life itself, for mothers, infants, communities and nations. It is also central to decent work and productivity for women. The integration of maternity protection as part of social and economic policy is recognized in all regions. Maternity protection has two aims. First, it preserves the special relationship and the health of the mother and her newborn. Second, it provides a measure of job security, crucial for protecting pregnant workers and mothers. Pregnancy or motherhood should not constitute a source of discrimination in access to training, skills development and employment.

 Having to work is one of the biggest obstacles to a decent childhood. Where poverty and discrimination prevail, so can child labour. Children may be freed from poverty and economic and social marginalization through education. Evidence from a range of countries shows that educating girls is one of the most effective ways of fighting poverty. Educated girls are more likely to have higher incomes and increased control over resources as adults, marry later, have fewer and healthier children and  exercise greater decision-making power within the household. Importantly, they are also more likely to ensure that their own children are educated, thus increasing their earnings, avoiding future child labour and breaking the cycle of poverty.

 Much action has to be taken to avoid exacerbating growing youth unemployment and working poverty.  Sex is not an indicator of competence, and the decision to recruit, train or promote young women and men should always be based on reasons such as skills and the inherent requirements of the job. It is now widely accepted that long-term investments in human capital play a key role in enhancing productivity and growth. Ensuring that adolescent and young girls are provided with quality formal and non-formal education programmes is essential.

 Young women and men need to be made aware of their rights, including freedom of association and collective bargaining as means for attaining decent work. For both adult men and women, pursuing decent work, providing and caring for family members, as well as fulfilling obligations to enterprises, communities and societies, is a tall order indeed. Women experience systemic barriers in almost every aspect of work – this ranges from whether they have paid work at all (full time or part

time); the type of work they obtain or are excluded from; the availability of supports such as childcare; their pay, benefits and conditions of work; their access to higher paying “male” occupations; the insecurity of their jobs or enterprises; the absence of pension entitlements or benefits; and the lack of the time, resources or information necessary to enforce their rights.

 Changing the gender division of labour in the household to a more equitable distribution of tasks, as well as investing in labour-saving technology, can have a significant impact on productivity. Men stand to gain in dual-income partnerships through better work/family balance, improved contact with children and inclusion in family life, as well as less vulnerability to economic shocks.

 Longevity is one of the most positive and relevant demographic phenomena to emerge in recent decades, and a fundamental policy objective is to build societies fit for people of all ages. The ageing of populations and the new inter-generational relationships radically affect the human landscape and decent work. The ILO emphasizes that adequate employment policies, human resource development and lifelong learning are crucial in maximizing the potential of older women and men. The gender dimension of older workers’ labour force participation has been an important feature in employment policies targeting this age group. The shortfall in women’s economic participation and earnings means that they are inevitably at an economic disadvantage in old age. If and when better-educated women enter the labour force in greater numbers, and earn equal pay for work of equal value, they will be able to provide for themselves.


     ILO action over the last decades has focused on the voice and visibility of women of all ages in the world of work. Tripartism and social dialogue are essential if real progress is to be made in attaining gender equality. Increasing the institutional capacity of member States, as well as of representative organizations of employers and workers, to facilitate meaningful and coherent social dialogue on gender equality will be necessary to mark an improvement in current practices. It is not only a matter of national gender machineries being more sensitive to world of work issues. It is also essential that national social dialogue institutions increase women’s membership, and address gender concerns more seriously their policies and programmes

     By leveraging social dialogue for gender equality, political leadership can be influenced. First, an increase in the participation and status of women in the dialogue processes is necessary. Second, there is the challenge of introducing a gender perspective into the content of the issues on the social dialogue agenda, so as to reflect the changing nature of labour markets and patterns in the world of work.



Discussion Questions


How can the work of the ITUC and Global Unions in supporting gender equality be implemented in your country?

How can International Labour Conventions and other instruments of the ILO be used to support  efforts to promote gender equality





            More information about how the international labour movement and the ILO are supporting gender equality can be found at:


The International Trade Union Confederation


The ILO’s Bureau for Gender Equality


Gender and Non-Discrimination Programme of the ILO’s International Training Centre