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In March 2023, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women held its 67th Conference (UNCSW67). Representatives of Member States, UN entities, and Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)-accredited non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from all regions of the world participated in conversations around the theme of “Innovation and Technological Change and Education in the Digital Age.” As part of Canada’s Delegation and representing the Pay Equity Office of Ontario, I was able to contribute to the formation of Agreed upon Conclusions that will shape the way UN Member States approach achieving gender equality.
... the importance of “pushing back on the push back” to achieving gender equality, and second, the promise that technology holds with respect to increasing transparency and achieving pay equity globally.
As participants made their submissions throughout the first working week, two common themes began to emerge: first, the importance of “pushing back on the push back” to achieving gender equality, and second, the promise that technology holds with respect to increasing transparency and achieving pay equity globally. Let’s start with the latter and its impact on closing the gender wage gap (GWG).
The OECD’s Pay Transparency Tools to Close the Gender Wage Gap reports that across the OECD countries, the average annual gender wage gap sits at 12.8% (this number is down from 19% in 1996 when member countries first started reporting on the gap). While one of my earlier articles on the OECD Forum Network looks at potential causes for the gender wage gap decrease, one issue remains clear: what gets measured gets managed. Every OECD country leverages technology to collect and analyse gender-disaggregated pay data at the national level, and typically publishes them on their national statistics office’s (NSO) website. However, just less than half of OECD countries (47%) require private sector firms to report gender pay gaps to stakeholders including workers, their representatives, and the public. We know that data collection without analysis or accountability does not lead to progress and governments should be encouraged to take action on this.
At UNCSW67 I was invited to speak at the Czech Republic’s “New Opportunities to Reduce the Gender Pay Gap in the Digital Age” event. During the session panelists discussed pay equity initiatives in Canada, Costa Rica, and across the EU. Most notably we discussed the EU’s Pay Transparency Directive, which requires EU companies to share information about how much they pay women and men for work of equal value, and to take action if their gender pay gap exceeds 5%. Many jurisdictions including New York and California in the US and British Columbia in Canada are following suit – in fact, pay transparency laws could soon cover 20% of Americans.
We know that addressing gender wage gaps with policy and technology can take many forms. Both Ontario and the Government of Canada use pay equity legislation to close wage gaps. Fundamental to our legislative and regulatory framework is the concept of “equal pay for work of equal value” which recognises that work historically or traditionally done by women has been undervalued in the labour market primarily because it has been categorised as “women’s work”. This concept goes beyond traditional “equal pay for equal work” which seeks to redress the systemic devaluation of certain types of jobs because they are associated with women. Through a gender-neutral job evaluation process the policy framework necessarily requires transparency in pay in order to analyse the relationship between the value a job category delivers to a company and its corresponding compensation. This framework is put into practice by technology-enabled tools that support a company’s pay equity analysis. Agreed upon conventions for the UNCSW67 call upon governments to hasten the use of technology-enabled policy to close gender gaps.
Let’s now consider the other theme that emerged at UNCSW67: “pushing back on the pushback”. This theme challenges governments to consider how they can further leverage technology and digital platforms to protect and promote gender equality. A report launched by UN Women and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) highlights that, at the current pace of progress, Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG 5) —achieving gender equality—will not be met by 2030. Global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, violent conflict, climate change, and the backlash against women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are further exacerbating gender disparities. Consider the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and that it’s now illegal to have an abortion in 14 different US States, limiting access to critical healthcare. Or how, since the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in August 2021, women have been wholly excluded from public office and the judiciary and systematically excluded from public life, unable to attend school past sixth grade. Access to education and reproductive rights help women participate in the paid labour market, which allows for financial stability and in some cases, financial independence. Most importantly, access to education and reproductive healthcare have been cited as two baseline factors that support women’s attainment of equality.
So, what do these themes mean for policy makers? The UNCSW67 Agreed Upon Conclusions offer a host of recommendations, but fundamentally they point to the underlying need for policy makers to keep the most vulnerable in mind when they legislate. That is, creating legislation that will enable women to prosper and self-actualize in their local and national economies. Legislation that enables equal participation and equitably recognises the value of her participation.