Gender parity will take 81-years – what can we do?

As the BBC hosts its 100 Women season, which brings together women from around the world, a new report has shown that it will take 81 years for global gender equality.

The ‘Global gender gap report 2014‘ from the World Economic Forum (WEF) claims that 2095 will be the year of gender equality in the workplace, if we’re lucky.

This isn’t to say we haven’t made strides in the right direction. The gender gap for economic participation and opportunity now stands at 60 per cent worldwide – a fall of four per cent from the 56 per cent noted in 2006 when data was first collated by WEF. However, with the stories coming out of the 100 Women conference, we have to ask if this enough and what can be done to effect change?

The gender issue as it stands

No country in the world has gender parity. The Nordic nations continue to perform the best, with Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden taking the top four places respectively. Denmark has now slid into fifth place, moving up from eighth position.

There has been considerable movement in the top ten over the year and Nicaragua has climbed four places to sixth, Rwanda has hit seventh place, Ireland has dropped to eighth, the Philippines has fallen four places to ninth and Belgium has climbed to tenth.

Many developed countries aren’t faring so well. The US, while climbing three places, is still only at 20, while the UK is 26th.

Among the BRICS nations, South Africa placed 18th, but Brazil was at 71, Russia was at 75, China was at 87 and India stood at 114.

More broadly, according to WEF analysis, overall gains have been offset by reversals in a small number of countries.

When broken down by category, the gender gap is narrowest for health and survival, standing at 96 per cent globally. In fact, the gap is closed entirely in 35 countries. Educational attainment is also converging between the genders. Globally the gap is now at 94 per cent, with 25 countries boasting gender parity.

However, the gap is still wide when it comes to economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment (21 per cent).

Saadia Zahidi, head of the gender parity programme at the World Economic Forum and lead author of the report, said: “Much of the progress on gender equality over the last ten years has come from more women entering politics and the workforce. While more women and more men have joined the workforce over the last decade, more women than men entered the labour force in 49 countries. And in the case of politics, globally, there are now 26 per cent more female parliamentarians and 50 per cent more female ministers than nine years ago. These are far-reaching changes – for economies and national cultures – however it is clear that much work still remains to be done, and that the pace of change must in some areas be accelerated.”

It’s also important to note that progress isn’t currently being made across the four pillars of measurement by WEF (economy, politics, health and education). For instance, while there is gender parity in some parts of the world for education, health and survival, in other places the trend is actually reversing. Nearly 30 per cent of countries now have wider education gaps than they did nine years ago and 40 per cent have wider health and survival gaps than they did in 2006.

This has negative ramifications not just for women, but for economies too. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the WEF, said: “Only those economies who have full access to all their talent will remain competitive and will prosper.”

However, organisations across the globe are still creating barriers for women, causing many to leave the workforce or find another path.

At the 100 Women conference, Niki Mendonca, a scientist from Bracknell, UK, explained that when she was pregnant she was discriminated against by employers and potential employers. Mendonca has two science degrees and is now studying for a third to show that even though she has two children, she can still dedicate time and effort to her career.

Unfortunately, this woman isn’t alone and when we spoke to Pauline Yau, director for central government at Microsoft UK, we discovered that she had also encountered issues when it came to having children. “I remember having a small baby and thinking ‘I want to work’ but being unable to negotiate flexible working,” she said. “That’s when I set up my own business and just did contract work for various organisations.”

Moving forward

All too often, when thinking about gender inequality, people are of the opinion that “it’s not my problem”. However, recent campaigns like HeforShe are trying to make people realise that it is an issue for both men and women.

Consensus is growing that until each of the sexes takes up the fight for equality, parity will not be achieved.

One of the main battlegrounds for this is childcare. Women are often locked out of the workforce once they decide to have children, preventing them from advancing to leadership positions in many cases due to an inability to negotiate flexible working. About 70 per cent of the 100 Women conference said motherhood is a barrier to equality.

Simon Allistone, proposition and content developer at Primeast, explained: “We need to stop linking having children to just women. It’s a natural part of life and people are going to want to have children. So by realising it’s fathers as well who’ll want to be involved in this, you’re spreading the load across your workforce and avoiding marginalising one gender and closing down any options for the other.”

However, there are also financial barriers for women. Speaking at 100 women, Cherie Blair, British barrister and philanthropist, explained: “I think we need to help women by stretching out our hands to help them gain financial independence. Across the world women are running businesses but are facing disadvantages – there is a huge problem with women being taken seriously in business, and they don’t get the same skills, education.”

A tweet from Judith Webb, the first female commander of an all-male British Army squadron, illustrated the double standards when it comes to finance. As a single woman, she was first refused a mortgage when she applied, but reapplied as Captain Griggs and was instantly granted a mortgage.

To create greater equality, part of the issue centres around recognising the talents of women, enabling them to use them, and giving them access to the support they need.

Primeast recognises that all talent needs to be liberated in order for an organisation to reach prime performance. This means harnessing the abilities of women and giving them access to equal opportunities in doing so.

We live in a diverse world and organisations need to reflect this in their composition if they want to meet the needs of their audience and innovate.

Sigridur Maria Egilsdottir, Iceland’s champion debater, said it well when she stated: “Our world is ruled by little else than thoughts and ideas, and therefore it is within our power to change it.”

To find out more, read ‘Supporting women into leadership‘ and ‘The flexible working challenge for external candidates‘.