Empowering Women: 90 years of ILO action

Just how far gender equality has advanced in the world of work, and how far it has to go, can be measured by progress in the ILO itself. Maria Angelica Ducci is the highest ranking woman in the ILO’s 90 year history. Ms. Ducci talked about the ILO’s past, present and future.


The celebration of the 90th anniversary of the International Labour Organization is also an opportunity to reflect on the progress made, the challenges overcome, and what still remains to be done to empower women in the world of work. It is also a chance to recognize the leadership of women, who stood up for rights of women in the workplace, and of the men who supported their cause.

Maria Angelica Ducci, Executive Director, Office of the Director-General It started at the very beginning, in 1919, with the founding of the ILO, with the conventions to protect women. One of the major contributions of the ILO throughout these 90 years has been the conventions that it has agreed to. This has been an enormous contribution, to the advance of the women as the conventions have been ratified by many countries. …that was the protection on maternity, quite visionary for the time, So I think the ILO made a tremendous breakthrough in adopting these conventions that have marked a real path for women to advance in the world of work.

In 1944, the International Labour Conference affirmed the Declaration of Philadelphia, stating that “All human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity.”

Maria Angelica Ducci In the 50s there was a strong emphasis on new conventions related to women in the world of work.

A number of conventions were adopted at that time, not least of which were…workers with family responsibilities, equal pay, and non-discrimination in the world of work. They remain the most ratified conventions to date, and they came out of the recognition that women were not enjoying equality of opportunity and treatment in the world of work, and maybe the most blatant was the differences in wages and salaries at that time. And still there is a significant gap we are trying to address every day.

In the 1950s and 60s, as the membership of the ILO started to expand, technical cooperation programs were established to address the needs of the growing number of members from developing countries.

Specific attention was directed to the needs of women, and in 1964 the ILC adopted a resolution on the problems of women in developing countries and the participation of women in the ILO’s policy making bodies steadily increased in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1981, the ILO Convention on Workers with Family Responsibilities recognized the rights of both men and women to find a balance between caring for their families and keeping good jobs

Gender equality received a major boost from the highest levels of the ILO in 1999, when Director General Juan Somavia launched the Policy on Gender Equality and Mainstreaming, and established the Bureau on Gender Equality.

In recent years, prominent women from the world’s political stage have addressed the ILC, further boosting women’s visibility in leadership roles.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of For us, employment is synonymous with peace; it is rooted in the central role of work in the lives and well- being of women and men, their families, their communities and their societies.

Maria Angelica Ducci I would say that women’s empowerment is also the empowerment of societies and communities. We need new ideas; we need thinking out of the box. We need to invent something to get us out of the mess we are in. It is not only about women, it is women and men working together. But women might feel a little less tied up in the conventionalities that lead us to where we are.