International Women’S Day

Examine social security programmes through the lens of gender equality

International Women’S Day

Examine social security programmes through the lens of gender equality

Interview with Assia Billig, Chief Actuary, Office of the Chief Actuary – Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions, Canada, in connection with International Women's Day on 8 March 2024.

Assia Billig

What are in your view the most important barriers to gender equality today?

Gender equality affects women throughout their entire lives. Gender equality starts with the equal access to education, then continues with equal access to any gainful occupations, security of work, equal renumeration, and, finally, equal pensions. Significant barriers that affect all of the above are conscious and unconscious biases and myths such as girls aren’t good at maths, hiring women is a bad idea since they will go on maternity leave, women are less productive since they need to take care of children, and so on. Such barriers are often hard to overcome. However, societies that debunk these myths enjoy higher labour force participation of women, diversity of perspectives brought to the table and more empathetic and agile styles of leadership.

When you hear the theme of this year “investing in women,” what possible measures come to your mind to accelerate progress?

Investing in women is empowering women. We need to start empowering young girls all around the world by giving them equal access to education. Supporting women in areas where women are underrepresented such as science, entrepreneurship, and leadership is another area where investment is needed. This could be done through targeted programmes, grants, mentorship, and so on.

The issue that is close to my heart, as the mother of two children, is ensuring that one of the most life changing events in a woman’s life – giving birth to a child – does not translate into the crushing of professional dreams. Societies need to invest in supporting women when they are caring for children, as well as when they decide to pursue their careers.

Finally, as the population ages, women provide the majority of the care to their ageing relatives. Societies need to consider what kind of support could be provided to these mostly unpaid caregivers.

How can the social security system of your country strengthen its enabling role for gender equality?

In Canada, social security systems support women in many ways. For example, the employment insurance programme provides paid parental leave for up to 18 months. This type of leave can be shared by both parents. This ensures that women remain attached to the labour force during the period of caring for infants. The recent initiatives put forward by the federal-provincial governments to provide universal affordable childcare supports efforts to keep women in the labour force after caring for young children. The Canada Pension Plan protects women’s pension entitlements during child caring periods using both drop-out and drop-in of earnings techniques.

Of course, there are some challenges, such as equal pay. However, it should be noted that not all barriers to gender equality could be removed through social security systems. Societies and their leaders need to deliver messages and model behaviours aimed at removing barriers to gender equality. Social security systems are the way to codify gender equality and to ensure that the proper behaviours are enforced.

What is your message to all ISSA members on International Women’s Day?

I have two messages to ISSA members. The first message is to ensure that all policies and programmes are examined on a regular basis through the lens of gender equality. This is especially important since seemingly innocuous measures can disproportionately affect women in a negative way.

The second message is to look to your own organizations from the point of view of gender equality. Are you removing or installing barriers? Make sure that you’re providing support to women leaders.