rosie-riveterBy Paola Salwan, Programme Assistant for Africa, Middle East and Europe at the World YWCA and Co-Founder of the blog Café Thawra

Everyone remembers Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, wearing her sharp suit, trading sneakers for high heels as she enters her office, struggling to reach the top in the corporate jungle.

With her determination to defend her idea and her position, she became the symbol of women, women that dared to venture in the male-dominated area of the workplace, and even fight back when attacked by abusive bosses.

Oh, how bad we all wanted to become high-powered women, women passionate about their work, who are not belittled, whose ideas are take into account. Women paid as much as men, and who do not have fits pf panic if they get pregnant, for fear of being fired or “replaced”.

I guess my generation grew up being spoilt by all the statements we heard while growing. All this Spice Girls thing and Girl Power could not be good for us. It mislead us into thinking that women, and what’s more, young women, were the newly appointed darlings of the workplace, and that the only thing we had to do was to study and work hard to be able to be competitive on the work market and be hired and promoted based on our merits.

Allow me here to quote one of my favourite author, Irish author Marian Keyes, when speaking on the subject of feminism and women in the workplace:

“It took a mortifyingly long time for it to dawn on me that actually all the hard work had not been done, and that now everyone was not lovely and equal. Not even slightly. It happened one afternoon when I was fighting through a throng of grey suits in the business-class section of a plane. Suddenly I wondered: where are all the women in their red lipstick and sheer tights? Nowhere to be seen. (Because they were stuck in the office, providing secretarial back up, drinking cup-a-soup, painting the run in their sheer tights with nail varnish because they couldn’t afford to buy new ones.”


The message Keyes conveys with such wit and humour is that no, sadly, women are still not equal in the workplace to their male counterparts. According to the observer of the Organisation for the Economical Cooperation and Development, inequalities happen both in terms of salary ranges, but also in terms of opportunities of work. This means that, all other things being equal (experience, studies etc), a male will still earn more than a female worker. This also means that some work fields are completely male-oriented, with no or little room made for women. Women, however much qualified, seem to still be confined to certain areas, with little perspective of crossing bridges.

In its publication Global Employment Trends for Women, the International Labour Organisation looks at the impact of the economic and financial crisis on the situation of women with regards to access to jobs and gender inequalities. The study explains the difference in wages between men and women by the overcrowding of women in low paying industries, differences in skills and competences, but also, discrimination. The study also emphasizes the unemployment gender gap, with women enduring a higher unemployment rate than men, and having more difficulties to access the work market. The female adult employment-to-population rate is the lowest (below 30%) in the Middle East North Africa region, even though it is worth mentioning that it has been increasing over the last 10 years or so. Women are also more prone to having vulnerable employment, meaning low-wage employment, with no job security or guarantees of any kind.

An important thing to keep in mind is that this is a global trend: from the overqualified underpaid secretary in France, to the vulnerable agricultural worker in Africa, to the underpaid female worker in the Bangladesh, women from all over the world have to face discrimination.

For decades, men have come up with excuses not to promote or even let women have access to jobs they’d like: women are less competitive than men, they prompt the company the lose money because of their pregnancies, they’re less qualified, they’re more likely to quit because of family life, their place is at home anyway, etc etc…Nothing new under the sun, discrimination rears its ugly head beneath the most distinguished excuses and pretext.

Men executives should start looking at the reality: studies have shown that girls do better at school than boys, women are more resilient, more patient, have better communications skills than men and are used to multitasking (what with juggling with babies, partners, friends, family, housework and work). They are as competitive and as much of assets to the workplace than men, and they deserve to be paid as much, simply because the principle of non-discrimination is enshrined in both international and national laws.

If only women were let in more often.

But it is not our job as women to wait for people to come and save us. Our fate belongs to us. We have to speak up to force government to vote for gender friendly working laws, to give job security to women who still want to have children while working (May I remind male readers that we’re just keeping our species alive by doing so?) and most important of all, to change mentalities towards women in the workplace.

Advocacy is a weapon we should dare to use for ourselves, if we’re to change anything to our situation.