Women and the workplace
Women and the workplace

For more than a century,March 8 has marked Interna-tional Women’s Day —a global
bal day celebrating the achieve-ments of women and promotinggender equality worldwide. But aswe pause to celebrate our manyadvances, we must also acknow-ledge how much remains to bedone.

Interlinked issues

Two interconnected issues haveemerged as priorities over the pasttwo years: sexual harassment atthe workplace and obstacles towomen’s participation at all levelsof the workforce, including politi-cal representation. The 2017-18 ex-plosion of the #MeToo movementacross social media uncoveredcountless cases of unreported sex-ual harassment and assault, first inthe U.S. and then in India. In bothcountries, it led to the resignationsor firing of dozens of prominentmen, mostly politicians, actorsand journalists.
It also prompted a range of pu-blic and private organisations toexamine the internal institutional

cultures surrounding sexual ha-rassment, gender parity, and gen-der equity. Amongst them, the Un-ited Nations.
UN Secretary-General AntónioGuterreshas been a staunch sup-porter of women’s rights since hiselection in 2016, stating the needfor “benchmarks and time framesto achieve [gender] parity acrossthe system, well before the targetyear of 2030”. In September 2017,the UN released a System-wideStrategy on Gender Parity to trans-form the UN’s representation ofwomen at senior levels. Today theUN’s Senior Management Group,which has44 top UN employees,comprises 23 women and 21 men.

A mirror within

In response to the MeToo move-ment, the UN recently conductedasystem-wide survey to gauge theprevalence of sexual harassmentamong its more than 200,000 glo-bal staff. Though only 17%of UNstaff responded, what the surveyuncovered was sobering. One inthree UN women workers report-ed being sexually harassed in thepast two years, predominantly bymen. Clearly, the UN gender stra-tegy has much to improve, butthen the UN, like most other inter-national and national organisa-tions, has a decades-old culturalbacklog to tackle.
The inter-governmental UN is asaffected by prevalent national cul-

tures as are individual countries.Some might argue more, since theUN Secretary-General has to find away through contending blocs ofcountries that support or opposewomen’s rights’ goals. This iswhere UN research plays a signifi-cant role. As findings on the Mil-lennium Development Goals
(MDGs) indicate, many countries,including India, were able to sub-stantially increase their perfor-mance on issues such as sex ratiosand maternal mortality once theirleaders had signed on to theMDGs. Tracking performance onthe Sustainable DevelopmentGoals, a more comprehensive iter-ation of the MDGs, will again pro-vide useful pointers for policymak-ers and advocates going forward.

Efficacy of single window

At the same time, Mr.Guterres isto be commended for holding amirror to organisational practiceswhen it comes to sexual harass-ment or gender parity. Bringingthe issue of gender inside the or-ganisation, to reform its practices,

will enable the UN to stand as anexample of the rights it advocates.
How can organisations as largeas the UN improve their internalcultures surrounding sexual ha-rassment, gender parity, and gen-der equity? This issue has generat-ed considerable debate in India,where political parties have begunto ask how they are to apply therules of the Sexual Harassment ofWomen at Workplace (Prevention,Prohibition and Redressal) Act,2013 which lays down that everyoffice in the country must have aninternal complaints committee toinvestigate allegations of sexualharassment. With thousands of of-fices across the country, and bare-ly any employeetrained to handlesexual harassment, Indian politi-cal parties ask whether broaderstructures, such as district or re-gional complaints committees,could play the role ofoffice ones.In this context, does the UN Secre-tariat’s single window structurefor such complaints provide a bet-ter practice? One caveat is that itdoes not apply across the organi-sation, so UN agencies, includingthe multi-institute UN Universitythat aims to achieve gender parityat the director level by end 2019,still have to identify their organisa-tion-specific mechanisms.
Clearly, we need further re-search before we can arrive at ajudgment: perhaps a follow-up tothe UN’s sexual harassment survey

that looks at complaints receivedand action taken. In India, goingby past figures — since the currentgovernment has not released datafor the last two years— the impactof the 2013 Act, one of the mostcomprehensive in the world, hasbeen poor. Despite a large jump incomplaints recorded, convictionshave not shown a proportionaterise, largely due to poor policework. That is an obstacle whichthe UN, with its internal mechan-isms, may not suffer from as far asfirst responses are concerned, butwill certainly face as and whencases come to law.
Both the UN’s early successesand the Indian experience offerlessons to UN member-states, fewof which have gender parity or se-rious action against sexual harass-ment in the workplace. In the U.S.,companies such asGeneral Elec-tric, Accenture, Pinterest, Twitter,General Mills and Unilever are set-ting and achieving targets to in-crease female representation at alllevels of their workforce. ThisMarch 8, let us hope that compa-nies worldwide pledge to followthe examples in the U.S.And thatother institutions, whether univer-sities or political parties, followthe UN example. Gender reformsbegin at home, not only in the fa-mily but also in the workplace.

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