Here are the summaries of my perspectives on how the five candidates for ILO Director-General addressed the issue of gender equality in their January 2022 interviews.
On gender equity, I was especially attentive to the nuances – or their absence. In the case of Mr. Houngbo, the issue came up primarily in terms of internal management. Although there is no reference to any specific work on gender equity in his biography or platform, he did respond to a question from the Barbados representative that he recognized that there are gender-related senior management problems in all four regions. He specifically cited the overall statistic that only 28% of P5 and above at the ILO are women, that at IFAD he has ensured gender parity at the senior levels and that he is committed to a parity goal for the ILO. He also specifically mentioned the importance of implementing the UN-wide policies against sexual exploitation. So fair enough. Other than that, he did make specific reference in his platform about decent work and social justice deficits affecting “Women and girls, especially in the rural sector”. And he spoke about the specific plight of women and child labor in the rural sector in his work at IFAD. One could hope for more, but OK.
Ms. Kang’s record and commitment to gender equality are solid. Interestingly, this issue was not raised by any of the Governing Body questioners in the public interview. Nor did Ms. Kang choose to bring it up herself, except in the context of a question about her lack of any direct labor experience. In her reply, she argued that she would come to the ILO as an impartial player but with a proven record on her ability to reform, including on gender and diversity more generally. In her written platform, however, she highlights “life-long experience and involvement” in gender equality and women’s empowerment and rights, both at the UN and in her home country. And she also includes a comprehensive strategy on pandemic recovery to address how the pandemic has been especially devastating on women in the world of work.
In both his interview and his written statement, gender was among the array of issues that Mr. Mdwaba listed for the ILO to be addressing. And, in both settings, he specifically mentioned his role in drafting both the Centenary Declaration and Convention 190 on Violence and Harassment at Work, both of which were adopted at the 2019 International Labor Conference. In fact, when asked about this regarding his record on gender, he made a point of saying that he had been directly involved in the drafting of Convention 190 and that “he had a dance with the Worker” representative when it was formally adopted. He also described his support for women in his company needing the same benefits – “consciously” – as men and his having served on the board of the Business Women’s Association in South Africa. He went on to say, and I quote, we “can’t have world peace if our women are not happy”. And he concluded that he participated at a recent event at the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation to promote the importance of a “three-legged pot” and that he opted to cook with a three-legged pot at this event in order to feature this image. (It is, by the way, a phrase that he uses mostly to describe the importance of tripartism, not necessarily the importance of gender equality.)
As with Ms. Kang, Ms. Pénicaud has a record of action to advance gender equity/equality. In Ms. Pénicaud’s case, this was illustrated by her having established a uniform new methodology for a gender equality index during her tenure as the French labor minister. This was a government regulation covering both pay and career development applicable to businesses in France. At the ILO, she specifically mentioned that she had participated in the negotiation of the new standard on sexual harassment. And at the European level, she described being active in the promotion of equal pay for equal work. Globally, she supported President Macron in G7 initiatives, and she also worked on the planning committee for the Global Summit of Women that was held in 2021. While at Danone earlier in her career, she worked with opening up opportunities for women’s leadership in business. So she has a solid record on advancing gender equality. Looking to the future, in her written statement, she describes herself “As a woman,” who is “determined to lead the fight for equal opportunities and the prohibition of all discrimination”. She brought this up again in her closing remarks – seeking to be the first female director of the ILO to prove that “Women can do it”. While this specific identification of her gender as the basis for her personal commitment to gender equality can backfire on her, I can understand the difficulties we all face in getting past all of the social, cultural and psychological barriers to achieving gender equity.
There is no question that Mr. Vines is competing with two other candidates (Ms. Kang and Ms. Pénicaud) with very strong credentials on advancing gender equity. While no candidate could be described as being against gender equality, it is encouraging that Mr. Vines made a point of highlighting his commitments to gender parity, including bringing the ILO Gender Bureau into his cabinet but also ensuring gender balance in general, including in the field. Oddly enough, the subject of gender as a priority issue did not come up during the interview, and he himself did not bring it up as a separate issue in his remarks. In his written statement, though, there are references both to the Covid-19 impact on gender and a broader commitment to having a “transformative approach to gender equality across the activities of the ILO”. It is noteworthy, too, that he includes the idea that the “caring” responsibilities that have been highlighted by the pandemic should be “shared” responsibilities. I wish that he had displayed evidence of this “transformative approach” during the interview – that is to say, that gender sensitivities were indeed permeating his approach across all of his ILO-related activities. And one can also observe that no specific initiative on gender is featured in his professional record. But OK. He has a strong platform on gender and has said all the right things.