Back in 1918: what would the English women queuing to cast their first vote have thought of the gender-pay rows storming through the BBC’s corridors 100 years later? Do parents of young girls around the world today really accept that it will at least take two more centuries until their daughter’s intellectual and economic worth is deemed equal to their sons? And can any of us endorse that females today –from toddlers in nurseries to seasoned professionals in boardrooms – will have their ambitions stymied by a society that has missed the point? No. As best said by former-US President Barack Obama: “Empowering women is not just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.” It is the necessary thing to do.
And yet, signs that we are going backwards are emerging. For the first time since records began in 2006, the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report finds the parity gap across health, education, politics and the workplace widening. The WEF expects it to be a staggering 217-years before economic parity between the sexes is the norm, despite the clear correlation between economic growth and working women. It will be the year 2235 before men and women have an even footing in the workplace – a shocking 28% rise from the 170-years noted in the WEF’s 2016 report. Consider how nonsensical the imbalance is when the world is on the verge of growing replacement organs and the idea of downloading our brains onto a computer no longer remains locked in the realm of science fiction.
Against this backdrop of extraordinary human achievement, we’re slipping up on the basics. Carrie Gracie, a veteran journalist fluent in Mandarin, resigned from her role as the BBC’s China Editor in January after discovering male counterparts were being paid at least 50% more. And Twitter confirmed to CBS News that over 1.7 million tweets included the hashtag "#MeToo," with 85 countries that had at least 1,000 such tweets in relation to women publicly sharing their stories of sexual harassment.
Plus, the economic hammering caused by inequality is felt deeply in the global GDP. Gender inequality costs sub-Saharan Africa up to $95 billion a year, the UN said last May – 6% of the region's GDP. Canada could add $150 billion in incremental GDP by 2026, or see a 0.6% increase of annual GDP growth, if it advances its gender equality, according to McKinsey Global Institute (MGI). At 6% higher than business-as-usual GDP growth forecasts over the next decade, this equates to adding a new financial-services sector to Canada’s economy. Such opportunity is hard to ignore.
Success stories break through the dark cloud of disappointing headlines – each a beacon for us to follow. UK companies with 250 or more employees will be legally required to publish their gender pay gaps within the next year, women co-chaired the WEF Annual Meeting in the third week of January in Davos, Switzerland and it is now illegal in Iceland to pay men more than women in a company of 25+ employees. The Nordic country has topped the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Index as the world’s most gender-equal country for nine years and plans to eradicate the gender pay gap by 2022. A laudable goal – how can others follow suit?
Amidst changes spurred by the 4th Industrial Revolution, a shift detailed by Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF, it is more important than ever that females are as digitally fluent as males. The same applies to offering incentives and encouragement to pursue critical thinking and science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) skills. These provide an intellectual bedrock that will enable girls to stand tall personally and professionally as they mature into working women.
Access to digital media and the abundance of forward-looking ideas it facilitates is crucial. Unicef estimates in its ‘Children in a Digital World’ report that only 29% of all internet users in India are female. Take a moment to think about what you learned and communicated via the internet in the last month and what opportunities you would have missed without it. Now question how young and ambitious females in India, the world’s fastest growing large economy, can leverage their potential if they are operating on an uneven digital playing field. Regarding STEM, only 35% of all students enrolled in such fields in higher education worldwide are female and only 28% of the world’s researchers are women, according to Unesco. Girls’ perception that they are less suited to job roles historically dominated by men – engineering and sciences, for example –needs reversing. Quickly. Negative sentiment by those with a public platform must be challenged. Human Rights Watch highlights comments written last October on social media by Feng Gang, a prominent sociologist and professor at Zhejiang University: “History has proved that women don’t belong in academia.”
Again, leveraging tales of progress will help incentivise all – men and women – to keep pushing for positive change. For example, in the world of innovative thinking, the World Intellectual Property Organization said female inventors nearly tripled their share of patent applications between 2002 and 2016, to 62,400. Among the top 20 origins, the Republic of Korea and China were the most gender-equal, at 46.9% and 46.8%, respectively.
“We are moving from the era of capitalism into the era of ‘talentism’. Competitiveness on a national and on a business level will be decided more than ever before by the innovative capacity of a country or a company. Those will succeed best will be those who understand to integrate women as an important force into their talent pool,” said Schwab.
Efforts like the UN Women’s launch of the Global Innovation Coalition for Change (GICC) in New York City last September must only magnify. The 22 partners in the UN alliance – from private sector, non-profit organisations and academic institutions – will work over a two-year period to spur industry-wide action to make innovation and technology work better for young women and girls.
While Excel spreadsheets, predictive analysis and surveys are useful tools to monitor progress, the real driver behind gender equality happens in our homes, amongst our families and friends. We are emotional and social beings and we all play an integral role in encouraging the females in our lives – mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, cousins, friends and others – to break out of the oft-sexist expectations prescribed by archaic sections of society.
Females account for half of the world’s 7.6 billion people and every one of us – along with billions of men – represents a warrior in the battle for equality that stretches over millennia. Leaders in government, industry, academia and all walks of life must ensure that calls for gender inequality to be reassigned to the history books are not buried by the plethora of other pressing issues in what is a very busy world. Women’s voices must not just be heard in 2018 – they must boom.