Where Are We on Gender Balance?
There are as many definitions and interpretations of gender balance as the people and organizations that care about it. My definition is relatively straightforward — men and women should be present in approximately equal proportions in all sectors of society.
One of the biggest hurdles to achieving equal representation has been, and still is, the trend of looking at female presence as a matter of “diversity”. Women represent half of mankind, so their inclusion should not be about making an organization or a parliament more diverse. It’s about fixing the disturbing anomaly of the under-representation of women. Diversity makes sense within each group, men and women, not with the female population as a whole. This widespread misunderstanding is one of the causes of the very unambitious targets that characterize the many laws and many initiatives from the private sector—achieving 30% women in leadership or in Parliament, for instance, is not a satisfactory goal.
Another common mistake is to conflate family policies such as childcare support with measures to increase women’s presence. Obviously, better childcare should also help women deal with high-commitment jobs and favor women’s decisions to work altogether. But, increasing the number of women at every layer of an organization – particularly at the top – is first and foremost about doing just that. Once enough women are in decision-making positions, they will naturally establish rules and policies that reflect their priorities. Countries that are strong welfare states do have more female participation, but the impact is rather indirect— better functioning states provide better work and life conditions to everybody, men and women, which in turn results in a more equal distribution of housework and childcare.
In 1995, world leaders gathered in Beijing for what is considered to be a landmark conference for women – it was in Beijing that Hillary Rodham Clinton, then First Lady of the United States, famously stated that “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights”. Twenty-six years later, UN Women, along with the French and Mexican governments, convened the Generation Equality Forum, which concluded with the allocation of 40 billion US dollars to advancing six action areas in the gender equality sphere last week. The Forum followed by a few days the Women Political Leaders’ 2021 Summit. At both the Forum and the Summit, numerous government heads committed to fighting gender inequalities at national and multilateral level.
The pandemic has dramatically contributed to highlighting inequalities and has unfortunately also exacerbated them. As a result, a new impetus has come to building back our societies such that we do not go back to where we were before, but rather to seize the opportunity to address longest-standing issues, of which gender equality is the oldest and most severe one. One of the effects of the pandemic is that women have reached the tipping point. They have come to understand that what they had felt all along – that it takes more fatigue, more work, and more sacrifice to achieve what they want in life compared to men – should not be accepted. Furthermore, powerful female and male voices worldwide now support them by spelling out much more definitively that gender balance is necessary for growth, competitiveness, society, and the future readiness of businesses and economies. In other words, women’s self-determination is everything but a selfish endeavour. Perhaps we could now hope that the fact that, in 2021, not a single country in the world has achieved full gender equality, is finally becoming a reason for embarrassment.
Many organizations have produced fundamental data about gender inequalities worldwide, including the OECD, the European Commission and the Council of Europe, the World Bank, and a wealth of other national, regional, and international bodies. Their analyses and resulting recommendations converge on some key points:
- Women’s representation in political and business leadership has approximately doubled in the last two decades, but remains below 20% overall,
- Pay gaps between men and women for the same work remains high,
- Women are severely underrepresented in STEM-related education and in the technology industries that are shaping our future,
- A vast majority of countries in the world do not grant women the same legal and economic rights that men enjoy,
- In addition to equal access to legal rights, “equity” measures addressing historical and social disadvantages are needed, such as female “quotas” in politics and in the private sector,
- Overcoming a rigid view of what men and women are meant to be and do is key to reducing violence directed at women, as well as to creating the conditions for women to freely make their own life choices.
The full participation of men in the construction of gender-balanced companies, political parties, and ultimately societies is not optional. Pursuing fair representation of women in all sectors is finally gaining space in the agendas of many political leaders, particularly in the EU, US, and Canada. However, the rise of populism and so-called “authoritarian democracies” represents a real threat not just to achieving further progress but also to lose what has been acquired. Women can also play a significant role by choosing leaders based on the extent of their commitment to representing the interests of women. This is, I believe, the right way of thinking about the concept of “women’s empowerment”. It’s not about men “conceding” power to women. Instead, it’s about women fully owning conscience of their ability, due to their numbers, of hugely influencing who gets that power, including putting themselves forward for posts of influence in the political sphere as in the business world.
The list of necessary actions is so long and so different depending on the situation in each country that there is ample space for every organization and every individual to play a role. Contemporary feminism is different from the feminist movements of the past in that it should serve a broader agenda where the promotion of social, political, and economic gender equality is an enabler of more just and more equal societies overall. It’s not about excluding men at all, it’s actually quite the opposite. It’s not about privileging the interests of women over other groups either, rather it’s about putting all human needs and rights at the centre of our systems. And it’s definitely not about different feminist movements competing with each other, because the female universe is too vast that no single organization or individual can claim to speak for all womankind, nor can they aspire to address all issues women face. Instead, real change is likely to result from the combination of the many concrete actions feminist leaders and organizations have been and will continue to be able to put forth.
Women in Action, the initiative I founded earlier this year, seeks to amplify the examples of brilliant women around the world that, through their actions, have contributed to advancing gender-balanced leadership in the political and business worlds. It also looks to promote policy and legislative changes that can break the institutional and cultural barriers hindering gender balance. Ultimately, Women in Action aims at inspiring one global movement of changing politics and business by connecting with other advocacy groups that view gender balance as the beginning, not the end, of a profound reformation of our societies.