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Preparatory Meeting Concludes Panel Discussion on Women and the Economy - Debate Focuses on Eliminating Discrimination, Balancing Work and Child Care, Ensuring Equal Pay, Aiding Transition Economies

Published:19 January 2000

Geneva

A regional preparatory meeting for the United Nations 2000 Review of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action on gender equality carried on this afternoon with a panel discussion entitled "women and the economy". Participants from the podium and the floor said repeatedly that cultural and social barriers blocking women's full participation in economic activities had to be ended if not only women but European national economies were to realize their full potentials. And they urged greater efforts to enable women to balance working and child-rearing responsibilities.

Also mentioned repeatedly were the problems faced by women in "economies in transition" in Eastern Europe and the territory of the former Soviet Union. It was noted that women there were suffering disproportionately from layoffs and declining social protections.

The panellists, all of whom provided their opening remarks at the end of the morning meeting, were Sheila Regehr, Economic Policy Coordinator for the Status of Women of Canada; Eva Zimny, Associate Professor at the Warsaw School of Economics, of Poland; and Oksana Kisselyova, of the non-governmental organization (NGO) "Mama '86", of Ukraine.

Those offering comments and asking questions from the floor included members of national delegations, representatives of NGOs, and officials of international agencies.

Among other issues raised were access to employment; equal employment opportunities and equal treatment; the situation of women migrant workers; social measures to enhance the ability of women to cope with work and family responsibilities; the role of the State in anti-poverty schemes for women and in the provision of social benefits; and access to resources and encouragement of women's entrepreneurship.

The preparatory conference, sponsored by the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), the United Nations Development Programme, UNIFEM, the Council of Europe, and the European Commission, will continue through Friday. Its purpose is to provide European input for a special session of the United Nations General Assembly entitled "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-First Century" to be held in June in New York. The General Assembly will focus on progress made in the wake of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing five years ago.

Participating in the debate this afternoon were representatives of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); Finland; Turkey; Public Services International; Italy; Belgium; Netherlands; Hungary; Switzerland; Centre for Women's Global Leadership; Kazakhstan; Georgia; Norway; Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; Armenia; Israel; Azerbaijan; Kyrgyzstan; Romania; International Confederation of Free Trade Unions; Spain; NGO Caucus; Uzbekistan; Denmark; Croatia; United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); Ukraine; Women's International News Gathering Service; Moldavia; International Federation of University Women; and European Women's Lobby.

The preparatory session will reconvene at 10 a.m. Thursday, 20 January, for a panel discussion entitled "women and violence".

Discussion

The situation of women in "transition countries" was mentioned frequently by national representatives; others explained national policies to promote women's economic equality. A spokesperson for Finland described Government efforts to avoid labour-market "segregation" and subsequent disparities in pay between men and women, and programmes to provide day-care and other services to help working mothers. Labour-market segregation was termed by the Centre for Women's Global Leadership a method often used to set up and maintain pools of low-paid, competent workers; liveable wages should therefore be guaranteed to all women whatever their type of employment, the organization said. It was noted by others that broad-based Government gender-equality programmes frequently were undermined by "micro-climates" of traditional discrimination within private businesses.

A representative of Public Services International, speaking on behalf of NGOs, said the gap between men's and women's pay was a source of great inequality and that such pay gaps were found in all industries and occupations and lasted through women's lifetimes; Governments needed to implement strategies to close these gaps and to ensure that women's minimum wages were above the poverty line; merit-based salaries were suggested, although it was remarked that such salary scales had drawbacks and that the officials who set such salary scales could act in discriminatory ways. The representative also said child care was the area that most blocked women's full participation in the workplace; national child-care strategies were needed to confront these difficulties.

It was noted that informal-sector, temporary, and insecure jobs were disproportionately held by women, and several participants in the debate said steps should be taken to provide greater rights and security to such workers. Similarly it was noted that sufficient credit often was not given to such traditional women's work as housekeeping and the role played by spouses in helping with their husbands' shops and businesses. International or bilateral economic aid should emphasize gender-equality, it was urged, and there should be better statistics on the workplace situations of women in European countries. Encouragement of women's entrepreneurship required better access to credit and expert advice, a representative of Kazakhstan said, who outlined a Government programme to bolster the country's small-business climate; this official urged the ECE to develop programmes that would help such entrepreneurs, saying that the small-scale firms that could result could be an effective and sustainable way of spurring growth in transition economies.

A representative of Armenia said 70 per cent of those registered as "unemployed" in the country were women, but that in fact only one out of every four unemployed persons was officially registered; and that men were more likely to hear about jobs through informal networks. It was necessary to make women's labour more "competitive" and more highly valued, this representative said. A delegate of Israel said men -- particularly men in high positions in Government and business -- should be more fully involved in efforts to advance women's equality.

A spokesperson for the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions told the meeting that unionized women in the United States earned 35 per cent more than non-unionized women workers, and that the figure in Canada was 31 per cent more.

Panellist SHEILA REGEHR, Economic Policy Coordinator for the Status of Women, of Canada, responding to the debate, said, among other things, that the good practices and examples provided from the floor were valuable and she hoped others could take advantage of them and that the meeting could find a way to include them in its agreed conclusions; that she agreed that it was important to capitalize on the advantages that changing economies and situations presented; that cross-regional cooperation should be enhanced -- countries with different experiences might be able to help each other that way; that attention should be paid to infrastructure and education and to decision-makers in those fields, as decisions made about these matters would greatly affect the situation of women; and that work and family balance was indeed a vital issue that deserved constant monitoring and review.

Panellist OKSANA KISSELYOVA, of "Mama '86", an NGO, of Ukraine, said, among other things, that salary gaps often existed not because of unequal pay for unequal labour, but because men so often occupied higher level positions and also had greater seniority -- women, as was well known, often left the work world and then returned to it; she thought psychological matters also came into play -- women were more "complicated" than men; in fact discriminatory stereotypes about women often existed not only in society but in women's own heads. In addition, women tended to worry more about the environment, about society, about equality -- about matters that enhanced what was known as sustainable development. It was unfortunately true that in the transition economies, women not only had been pushed from the labour market but from decision-making positions. Ms. Kisselyova said she agreed with a statement from the floor that it wasn't enough to educate women -- it also was necessary to create a legislative basis for the equality of women in business and for the development of entrepreneurship among women.

And panellist EVA ZIMNY, Associate Professor at the Warsaw School of Economics, of Poland, said, among other things, that it was useful to hear from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, since their situations often weren't communicated to the rest of the world; that she did not agree with a statement by the representative of UNICEF that data from transition countries was sufficient to reach conclusions and devise programmes -- information divided by gender was lacking from a number of countries; that statistics she had from eight transition countries indicated that women progressively had been pushed out of the most "dynamic" economic sectors, such as banking and financial services, where salaries had grown most rapidly, and had found work, where they found it at all, in public-sector jobs such as education, where salaries had risen very slowly, if at all. In transition countries, it was mainly NGOs that were putting gender issues onto the agendas of Governments, she said -- it was going to be interesting to see how new arrangements of power and advocacy in those countries played out.

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