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How can we make equal pay for women and men a reality?

It is an absurd reality: women around the globe have been earning less than men for work of equal value for decades. On average, women in the UNECE region earn only 81.8 cents for every euro men make. This gender pay gap persists despite the recognition of the principle of equal remuneration. At the current rate, over 100 years will be needed to close the gap.

What approaches can help to eliminate this inequality at a faster pace?  This was at the heart of discussions this week as UNECE and the UN Library at Geneva brought together experts from UN Women, governments and the private sector to explore key issues, trends and solutions.

UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova made a strong case for tackling unequal pay.  As a committed International Gender Champion, she emphasized “the most difficult change needs to take place at the individual level. Only if we, men and women, are willing to challenge norms and cultures, we will make equal pay a reality.”

Surprisingly, in most countries there is a solid legal basis for equal pay. As Christine Löw, UN Women, confirmed, 90% of ILO members ratified the Equal Remuneration Convention. Despite existing legislation, the gender pay gap stands at 23 per cent globally. Ms. Löw identified occupational segregation as one of the key contributors to unequal earnings, highlighting that societies tend to value sectors dominated by women less than those dominated by men. In response to these challenges, UN Women, together with the ILO and OECD, are engaged in movement building, through the launch of the Equal Pay International Coalition (EPIC).

Iceland is at the forefront of tackling this inequality, as made famous with the recent introduction of equal pay legislation aiming to separate the job from the person doing it when defining salaries. The Equal Pay Standard compels companies with 25 employees or more to analyse their salary structures to ensure that men and women are being paid the same amount for doing the same job. The Ambassador of Iceland, Harald Aspelund, stressed that social norms can be barriers to progress, and that changing these norms can contribute to equal pay and gender equality. He was among the first diplomats to take paternity leave, making the point “How would I explain to my children that I had the right to take paternity leave but decided not to?”.

Ms. Sylvie Durrer, Swiss Federal Office for Gender Equality, confirmed the difficulty of challenging social values and habits, quoting Albert Einstein: “It’s harder to break an atom than to break a stereotype”. Switzerland is taking action by holding employers, from both public and private sectors, accountable for ensuring equal pay. Ms. Durrer reiterated the importance of data and presented the “LOGIB”, an online tool which allows Swiss companies with 50 and more employees to self-assess their gender pay gap.

The private sector has an interest in closing the gender pay gap, emphasised Sue Johnson of PwC. She pointed out the business case for equal pay, highlighting increased engagement and motivation of all workers as well as improved company image. Key factors which could contributing to closing the gap are affordable childcare, feasible parental leave as well as transparency in reporting on the gender pay gap.

The exchanges underscored that gender stereotyping already starts at an early age. Gender imprinting during childhood can later translate into educational choices. A shift in mind-sets is necessary: from attitudes to flexible working arrangements, to tackling stigmas around parental responsibilities and to encouraging new gender role models, for both women and men.