The World Economic Forum predicts that we’ll have to wait another 80 years for the global gender gap to close. That’s an entire lifetime spent missing out on the full potential of billions of women. It also means that unless there are huge advances in medical science, the vast majority of us won’t ever know what equality looks and feels like.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is Make It Happen. And the good news is that the WEF prediction is based on the current pace of change, and there is certainly room for us to pull our socks up. The UK in particular isn’t keeping up, having dropped from ninth to 26 place in the rankings since the WEF started its reporting in 2006, beaten by countries including Rwanda, Latvia, and the Philippines.
To get into the “Make It Happen” mindset, I spoke to four women I admire for their achievements in creating change. Together we came up with 10 ideas to speed up equality.
Take a good look at society
“The patriarchy is like the Matrix,” says Caroline Criado-Perez, writer and activist of women-on-banknotes-fame. “You have to have it shown to you, before you see it, and then you see it everywhere!”
Awareness is always the first step towards change. Stereotypes form part of our habitually flawed logic, and they perpetuate inequality. For example, the assumption that men are more rational than women. “The majority of violent crime is committed by one sex, and somehow it’s the other sex that we think of as irrational, over-emotional and unstable,” says Caroline.
It’s not only women who suffer the consequences of stereotypes, says Dr Sam Collins, female leadership expert. “Men are meant to be superman, and that’s a huge amount of pressure.” She believes a more realistic view of the genders would benefit everyone. “I think men are going to breathe a sigh of relief and say: I can be myself too, I can be nurturing.”
The best way to break the mould is by starting young. One little girl set a brilliant example by telling Lego that their “boy toys have all the fun,” leading to the first female scientist set.
Be open to a different way
Even with awareness, change can seem daunting, especially when times are tough (say, hypothetically speaking, during a financial crisis). “You want to go with what you know,” says Caroline. “What people know is the old way of doing things, with men running things in their male way.” Possibly no coincidence then, that three times as many women as men became long-term unemployed in recent austere times.
“It doesn’t make any sense, logically, because the reason we keep having these crashes is because we don’t change the way we’re doing things,” believes Caroline.
Is there a different way? Sam’s answer is a resounding yes. She remembers a conversation she had with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who told her that in talks about military budgets, she’s the one asking how the interventions will affect the soldiers’ families and the local communities. “She strongly believes that if she wasn’t at that table, that conversation would never be happening.”
Companies with women on their boards outperform their rivals to an impressive degree. Despite this, the UK has a gaping 79 per cent gender gap in political empowerment. Quotas have to be the answer, and no one makes a better case for them than cartoonist Jacky Fleming.
Check who's doing the dishes
Phoebe Rison, programme manager at Christian Aid, has encountered a stumbling block during programs designed to increase women’s economic independence in the Middle East. “Some of the women I’ve spoken to are going into the workforce and still have the majority of the caregiving role and the household responsibility.”
This is not a problem specific to that region. Caroline shares findings published by the OECD, which show that among couples where both partners work, women spend more than two hours per day extra in unpaid work. Only when the main earner is female does her partner do the same amount of housework as she does.
“The economy as it’s set up now doesn’t work for women,” believes Caroline. “It’s structured around this idea of the autonomous economic man and he has this hidden invisible caring economy that supports him and enables him to go off and do everything he wants to do. While we continue to expect women to do that, women will never be able to be equal.”
Tell women’s stories
Of the eight Oscar nominated movies for Best Picture, not a single one told a woman’s story. As an actor, I despair at how many times a day I read a casting breakdown where the female role has no name and is instead referred to as “Brian’s wife”, “The girlfriend”, or “Mother”.
This isn’t just a problem for the careers of female actors and writers, but it also reinforces our belief that women don’t do much worth telling on a world stage. It leaves us all with a lack of inspiring female heroes, and specifically leaves girls and women without role models. That’s a huge shame, because role models have a powerful effect on women’s achievements, according to Caroline (and science). “Having pictures of Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton hung at the back of a room where women are giving speeches makes them give longer and better speeches”.
Caroline’s book, Do It Like A Woman, is out in May and gives airtime to pioneering women from around the world. I’m also collecting stories for the show Bird With A Tale, inspired by the Everyday Sexism Project. Sam takes the need for role models a step further by matching women with female mentors across 80 different countries through her Aspire Foundation.
Subjectify me, baby!
We seem to have a problem with allowing women full ownership over their own bodies. 137,000 women and girls are affected by FGM in the UK, half of British women have been sexually or physically assaulted and the idea that women are responsible for their own rape is still widespread to varying degrees.
Although not all of these problems are rooted in popular culture, we can’t pretend that images we see daily aren’t shaping our attitude towards the female body and its need for improvement (vagacial, anyone?).The most prominent and widespread image of a woman in the press unfortunately remains a bra-less one. Innovations like the Lammily doll and campaigns such as #AskHerMore are sending the message that women are destined for more than just decorative purposes.
Make work work for women
The most easily quantifiable element of inequality globally is economic participation. Worldwide, that divide stands at 40 per cent; in the UK at 29 per cent. Because of the financial benefit of bridging this gap, it is a focal point for initiatives such as the G20 promise to get 100 million more women into work by 2025.
But there are benefits over and above boosting the economy. Phoebe has found consistently that in Christian Aid’s projects, women who are given the opportunity to go into the labour market are more confident. Sam agrees, but is worried that simply encouraging more women into the current structures “is potentially a disaster”. Research carried out by her company Aspire shows that 78 per cent of women in the corporate world are already considering leaving.
Caroline also doesn’t see how women copying the traditional male role makes sense. “It’s just not practical. Also, I don’t want to become a man. A lot of attributes that are classed as feminine are very positive attributes.”
So if we want to avoid going backwards in terms of labour force equality, the workplace is going to have to adapt, and flexibility is key. Unfortunately, this need is often misinterpreted as women being less dedicated to their jobs, especially when they become mothers. In reality many women overcompensate for this assumption, whilst men often get brownie points for leaving early to “babysit” their own children.
The COO of a law firm who would like to remain anonymous, tells me how she was made redundant during her first pregnancy leave. Because of this, she didn’t take any time off in her new job after giving birth to her second child. “Imagine my astonishment when in my appraisal one of the senior partners fed back that I 'hadn't been very visible this year’, and asked if ‘working from home really in the best interests of the business'".
Demystify the f-word
When Sam set up Aspire 14 years ago, she was warned people might think she was a feminist. In December, she came out publicly as one for the first time. “I think there are still some negative perceptions about feminism. The new feminism is all about world change.”
Caroline is one of the figureheads of this movement. “People often ask, should we change the name? The reality is that anything that we call the movement to liberate women from oppression is going to be unpopular whilst we still live in a sexist world. It’s a function of sexism that feminism is a dirty word.”
Laws can be a way of ensuring that we don’t fall into the trap of biased judgments. “Depending on whether you’re a man or a woman, the studies show your request for flexible hours is received very differently,” says Caroline. “We need to look at how to make [flexible work] a law.”
Similarly, she thinks men could be encouraged to take a greater caregiving role by following the Swedish example on parental leave, where sixty days are allocated specifically to each parent, and cannot be transferred to the other. “You use it or lose it.”
Fight the fear
Unsurprisingly, considering the barriers anyone faces when they go against their gender role, women suffer from lower self-esteem within the workplace than men do. This “confidence gap” means we let opportunities slide.
“Really move towards and through those fears,” encourages Sam, “and do that by connecting with likeminded people who are going to raise you higher.”
Gosia Gorna is a coach who helps people overcome “expansive fears”, such as “I’m not good enough”. “You learn how to turn it into success,” she explains. “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”
Be the change
“We need more people involved,” Caroline says. “That’s the only way to speed it up. We need people who are in every sector of society to be caring about [equality] and be doing something about it.”
This doesn’t mean that everyone has to start campaigning. According to Sam, every action you take that is countercultural is an activist move. “To go into your organisation and ask: How much are other people getting paid? Or if everyone stays until nine o’clock but you say at six: “I’m going to go home,” you’re leading organisational change. You have to be brave and assess the risk, but that’s how change starts to happen.”
To read more from the interviewees, visit the Bird With A Tale blog.
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