5 Things We Need to Tip the Balance for Gender Equality
March 8th is International Woman’s Day and this year’s theme is Make It Happen.
So what did we make happen in 2014?
There’s good news from the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Gender Gap Report which since 2006 has been measuring gender disparities worldwide in four areas: educational attainment, health, economic participation, and political empowerment.
According to The Global Gender Gap Report 2013, of the 110 countries measured since 2006, 86 percent have improved their performance every year, while 14 percent have widened gaps.
While the WEF reports large gains in closing the gaps in health and education for women, only 60 percent of economic gaps and only 21 percent of gaps in political representation have been closed.
Despite a “banner year” for women in U.S. Congressional elections in 2014 (they now make up 20% of both the House and Senate) the U.S. ranking for “high income” countries is 83rd in the world. While most Americans tend to think of the U.S. as an egalitarian culture, women in 63 other countries have been elected as heads of state in the past 50 years. India ranks first having had a female prime minister and president for 21 of the past 50 years.
But attitudes are changing. A new Pew Research report found that the majority of Americans now think that women are just as capable of being good political and business leaders as men. In areas like honesty, fairness, compassion and willingness to compromise – many actually judge women as superior.
In the U.S. there’s no question that high-profile business women like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In “movement” have raised awareness levels and created media buzz. But Sandberg’s philosophy has also generated serious questions about the broader issues women face in dealing with social and economic policies that impede progress.
Dissecting the Lean In ethos in her excellent article in Dissent, author Kate Losse writes, “Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster. The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept career demands.”
While cultural icons like Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton garner most of the media attention, it’s important to remember that the average American woman earned $37,791 annually (compare to men’s $49,398) in 2012.
The problem with much of the analysis on women’s empowerment or “equalization” is that much of it is focused on a narrow demographic of wealthier, well-educated women whose daily livelihood, rights and safety are often taken for granted.
Mainstream discussions about work are mostly defined by opinion-making elites with emphasis on “glass ceilings” and male dominated boardrooms. There is little recognition that the majority of female jobs: domestic, home care, retail services and other “contingent” work are “undervalued, virtually unregulated and precarious.”
As Laurie Penny of the New Statesman writes, “While we all worry about the glass ceiling there are millions of women standing in the basement – and the basement is flooding”
We’re not all in the “same boat?”
On this anniversary of International Women’s Day, I’m urging that we all start thinking about the broader challenges most women are facing today. Truth is we’re all not in the same boat. Our economic and cultural divides are enormous.
Women’s struggles and aspirations in 2015 and beyond should not simply be geared to reaching parity with men in professional life, but to raise the bar for all women. Our understanding of the issues all women face has to deepen if we’re going to move forward together.
Western media continues to dominate the discussion, provide the role models and define the meaning. This has to shift. This is a global effort. There’s still a significant division between women whose focus is on equal opportunity and pay and those who struggle daily with unsafe domestic relationships and violence on college campuses. Blatant sexual harassment and physical abuse are shockingly common.
The unacceptable treatment of women in the workplace globally should be the cause of all women. Not simply because too many women toil for pitiful wages but because all work is worthy and women with access to any power need to stand in for those with less.
While class divides have always separated workers, the author of Trickle Down Feminism, Sarah Jaffe notes that traditional women’s work – cleaning, cooking and caring – has been devalued by the society over time. And as Ai-Jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance states, “All work is gendered.”
It’s important to remind ourselves that the prevailing emphasis in today’s discussion of women’s status is measured by the collective belief that everyone should aspire to achievements in corporate life. While corporate role-models like Sandberg coach us to work – longer, harder and smarter – to reach the pinnacle of patriarchal success, women at the “bottom” continue to lose ground without their help.
According to Jaffe, “As we debate the travails of some of the world’s most privileged women, most women are up against the wall.”
What Will It Take?
Every inch of ground women gain has value. But as women’s rights pioneer Gloria Steinem famously said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
Here are 5 Tipping Point Issues Essential for Women’s Rights
- Pay Equity. The Good News. The gender pay gap for women in the U.S. working in technology is closing; the pay gap for Millennial women is narrowing: more U.S. states have increased their minimum wage and the trend continues (this is critical for women who are the majority of low-wage workers). The Bad News. Across G20 countries and beyond, women are paid less than men, are over-represented in part-time work and are discriminated against in the household, industries and many institutions. At our current rate of growth in women’s wages it will take 75 years for the principle of equal pay for equal work to be realized
- Reproductive Freedom. Regardless of one’s personal or religious beliefs, women cannot advance without having full domain over their bodies. An intensely volatile issue, women’s reproductive choice is still not guaranteed and regressing in places like the U.S. In some states, even contraceptive rights have been challenged.
- Ending Violence against Women. The global data on violence against women is chilling. In fact a report in Time. com called it an “epidemic.” Women cannot be full social and economic partners under the threat of rape, assault and harassment. According to the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim speaking on gender equality, the most common form of violence against women globally is in the hands of their husbands. Worldwide, almost one-third of women who have been in a relationship have experienced violence. In a stunning report, half of all women in the EU, report being the victims of sexual and physical violence since they were 15 years old. The majority did not report the crime.
- Eliminating Sexist Images in Media. Let’s face it, the media reeks of sexism. Most media images and stories seem obsessed with women’s wardrobe malfunctions, weight gains and losses, facial surgery and celebrity wardrobes. Videos capturing routine street harassment of women have even gone viral.
- Establishing Real Work-Life Balance. It’s become fashionable to scoff at the idea of work-life balance. It’s not possible, some say. The message from the Lean In movement seems to encourage spending more, not less, time at work. For women working several part-time jobs or juggling child care with their life partners, the idea of work-life balance seems fanciful. But balancing work and life – for both genders – in all types of work – may be our greatest calling in cultures that suffer from sleep deprivation, chronic anxiety and a range of stress-related diseases. Low wages, inflexible hours, poor or no workplace policies to guarantee sick pay or maternal leave (especially in the U.S.) are part of the equation. Mindsets are another. Harvard Business Review reported that no matter how much power female executives accrue or how much lip service male executives publicly pay family issues are still seen as a female problem.
So on this International Women’s Day, we can declare that we’re making progress in the long climb towards more social, economic freedom and safety for all women..
But the progress is painfully slow; too many women are still suffering and left behind. In the 21st century, every boardroom, factory and day-care center is local and global. Our frame of mind about women’s progress must get bigger and more inclusive.
We must believe, as author Virginia Wolff did, that, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”
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Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants