International Women’s Day

Strong social security systems to improve equality between women and men

International Women’s Day

Strong social security systems to improve equality between women and men

Interview with Sarah Scaillet, Director General, Federal Pension Service (Service fédéral des Pensions), Belgium, in connection with International Women’s Day on 8 March 2024.

Sarah Scaillet

In your view what are the most important barriers to gender equality today?

In Europe, I’d say the priority is still social expectations. Although ever more women have access to the job market in Europe, there are still many social barriers. Things like the burden of housework, bringing up children and caring for elderly people still mostly fall to women.

This is also reflected in the nature of training and employment. Women are more likely to be in “caring” professions — such as early years education — or administrative work with relatively fixed hours. We often talk about a glass ceiling when it comes to senior roles but even before that, there’s a “family responsibilities” ceiling to break through.

Prejudices and other assumptions about women’s skills or flexibility are also barriers to equality. They contribute to the persistence of a significant pay gap, a reluctance to entrust women with responsibilities and a failure to encourage women to pursue “male” careers, even if they have a high level of education. You need only look at the composition of management boards, the number of women, if any, and their roles. It’s unusual to find women CEOs, CFOs, CIOs…

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

We need to provide women with more opportunities for self-development and emancipation. Looking beyond education, research shows quite a significant gap in access to the labour market as soon as a woman has family responsibilities.

That means it is essential to develop an environment that supports a balance between work and family life. We should improve childcare provision (in terms of the hours available and affordability for both school and wraparound care) and provide flexible working times and financial support for women trying to reconcile work and family life — especially single parents. We should also encourage entrepreneurship with schemes supporting micro-businesses and by encouraging so‑called side jobs.

We must do more to promote a better gender mix at all levels. Too many jobs are still “gendered”, for example, in the care sector, early years education and human resources. We need some sort of incentive mechanism apart from quotas.

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

There are already lots of parental leave options supported by social security but they are not taken up equally by men and women. We need to encourage both parents to take leave by providing more generous benefits or a longer period of leave if the leave is shared.

More individualized social security entitlements would also help to promote women’s emancipation, giving them greater financial autonomy, as well as making women more aware of the need to accrue rights in their own name.

I also think this individualization should be accompanied by a mechanism for splitting pensions. The choice to reduce working hours, or even stop work altogether, in order to bring up children or care for an elderly person, is a family choice. So a redistribution of rights accrued during this period would also increase equality.

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

A plea to keep standing up for and promoting social security. The point being that if we want to have a fairer, more equitable and sustainable society then we need to promote, support and develop our social security systems because they are what improve quality of life for all the beneficiaries and help us to address poverty and insecurity.

Throughout the world, it is women who suffer the most from insecurity. A strong, well financed social security system, aligned with the specific needs of a society and its labour market, can improve equality between women and men. Many studies have shown that equality generates financial prosperity, leading to a virtuous circle of fulfilment and emancipation.

The COVID-19 crisis showed how important social security is, in terms of health care and keeping the economy afloat.  But in Europe, the importance of social security is increasingly being played down. It is regarded more as a budget cost than as a source of protection and emancipation. It’s important to keep standing up for social security, while bringing it up to date and ensuring it reflects the changing needs of society so that we can face the challenges of the future and maintain a well‑founded confidence in these systems.