Every March 8th the international community honours women for their many and various achievements in the struggle for gender equality. For centuries women’s movements have fought for the rights and freedoms of women and girls – but not in a zero-sum game. Already in 1792 British author and activist Mary Wollstonecraft wrote: “I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”
The movement has seen many successes, even in the last few months. In December 2015, Saudi Arabia became the last of the UN’s 193 Member States to grant women the right to vote. Now this year a campaign is under way to appoint the first female UN Secretary-General: the ultimate goal in a global effort to empower women. Yet at grassroots level, women face structural obstacles on all sides: from domestic violence to pay gaps to access to education and healthcare. So while marking our achievements, we should also consider the struggles that lie ahead.
Economic empowerment is key at all levels – but especially so in poor families where women play a vital role in household survival and the escape from poverty. Nonetheless, women continue to have limited access to loans and other credit. While most countries recognise women’s property rights, much more needs to be done to ensure access to these rights, particularly in rural areas. The World Bank’s ‘Women, Business and the Law’ report (2016) found that women in 35 out of 173 countries have fewer rights than men to inheriting property. In turn, this hinders access to credit, house / land ownership and impacts other human development factors, including education for girls.
In most developing countries, women are overrepresented in the informal economy. This is often not a choice but stems from patriarchal social norms and lack of access to formal employment. Yet by working in the informal market they also lack access to social security and official employment contracts, thus making them even more vulnerable to exploitation. Such restrictions are not, however, limited to developing countries. The same WB report found that “155 of the 173 economies covered have at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities”.
Sticky floors and glass ceilings
In developed countries one of the largest discrepancies between men and women can be seen in the formal employment sector. In the Netherlands, for example, only 17% of professors are female, which puts it 24th out of 27 European countries; according to some estimates it will take until 2055 to reach parity. Beyond academia, studies reveal a ‘leaky pipeline’ for women in most parts of the private sector, as while there appears to be a roughly equal number of men and women at entry, the higher the role, the fewer the women are employed. Meanwhile, several countries have established quotas for top positions in large companies. The result of this effort remains to be seen.
Even if women reach top-level positions, they earn on average 21% less than men for the same position. In some countries, such as Germany and Austria this gap is wider among lower earners, where they suffer from the ‘sticky floor’ effect (the opposite of the ‘glass ceiling’), and the pay gap only grows wider with age, as part of the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’. So in various countries on all levels and in all sectors: women are paid less than men.
To address these issues changes in policies are needed and these can only be achieved if women are adequately represented in the political sphere. Indeed, women’s participation in politics has been shown to have large and positive effects on the development of countries and fair gender policies. Unfortunately, the number of women in public office remains low.
Although the number of female parliamentarians has doubled over the last 20 years, still only 22% globally are women. Low female political participation is not unique to any part of the world or to any socio-economic level, and in only very few countries women find themselves proportionately represented in parliament. Take for example the Canadian elections of 2015, where it was still newsworthy that the new cabinet was half-female. The lack of female representation is present at all levels of decision-making, from municipalities to national parliaments to the UN, where only 7 out of the 44 UN Special and Personal Representatives and Envoys of the Secretary-General (SRSGs) are currently women.
The 2011 UN Resolution on women’s political participation states that, “Women in every part of the world continue to be largely marginalized from the political sphere, often as a result of discriminatory laws, practices, attitudes and gender stereotypes, low levels of education, lack of access to health care and the disproportionate effect of poverty on women.” Yet we are still far from achieving this goal, because politics is still considered a ‘male business’ with multiple social and cultural barriers preventing women from taking part; from old boys’ networks favouring male party candidates, to meeting schedules that are tough for working mothers.
Over the last few decades we have seen many great achievements in empowering women to participate in society at large; yet to truly achieve the potential of men and women equally, many more steps need to be taken. Inequality in the economic and the political sphere both at home and on an international level must be addressed. We need to create an environment where more women take the lead. In the words of Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile: “When one woman is a leader, it changes her. When more women are leaders, it changes politics and policies.”
UN Photo / P.Gorriz