Skip to main content

11 October 2019

Gender equality is everyone's struggle – but also everyone's gain

Helen Clark

HELEN CLARK: The fight for gender equality is a tide that lifts all boats

Women working in office

This piece was originally written for the Global Institute for Women's Leadership's new Essays on Equality publication, which features contributions on a range of different issues by leading researchers and figures working on gender equality.

Read the full collection of essays

The struggle for women’s rights has been the subject of the written word for at least 500 years. Yet progress towards equality is breathtakingly slow. The World Economic Forum estimates that it will take 202 years to achieve parity in the workplace – measured in wages, seniority and participation. Progress is hampered by entrenched social and cultural norms that perpetuate discrimination against women, and by pockets of active resistance to gender equality that persist in many countries, communities and families. Indeed, woven through the rise of authoritarian nationalism in diverse countries around the world is a common thread – an effort to roll back the rights of women.

Nonetheless, the fight for gender equality appears to be gaining momentum, spurred on not only by the rise of more interconnected generations of feminists (both women and men) who argue against the immorality of inequality and mobilise around universal harms, such as violence against women and sexual harassment, but also by an increasing body of evidence showing that gender equality delivers major economic and social returns.

Gender equality in the corporate workplace, for instance, brings financial benefits to companies. When boards are more gender-equal, companies are more likely to be attuned to the attitudes and behaviours of whole populations, rather than of just one half of them. When women participate at a critical mass in politics, women’s perspectives are better reflected in legislation and decision-making, with measurable consequences on political agendas. International evidence suggests that when there are significant numbers of women parliamentarians, issues previously unaddressed will come to the fore – not least those dealing with access to healthcare, education and other public services, pay equity and violence against women.

Despite decades of struggle and empirical evidence on the shared benefits of gender equality, however, the march towards equality faces deeply entrenched challenges. In 2018 the New York Times Glass Ceiling Index found more US Republican senators and Democratic governors named John (14 per cent and 19 per cent respectively) than the total number of women occupying these positions (12 per cent and 13 per cent respectively). A similar story can be told of business leadership: the index noted that there were as many men named James as women heading Fortune 500 companies – 5 per cent in both cases. We need a faster rate of change – ensuring that not only John, but also Jane, Jameela and Jasmin are equitably represented in these seats of power and decision-making in every country and community around the globe.

How do we achieve faster progress towards gender equality, including at the level of leadership? How do we ensure that women have equitable opportunities to fulfil their potential – both inside and outside the workplace? We need to significantly shift the needle in three areas.

First, we need to frame gender equality as a good that benefits everyone in society. The fight for equality is a tide that lifts all boats. Redefining family-caring roles as shared rather than the principal responsibility of women promotes women’s retention and progression in the workforce and, as evidence increasingly shows, contributes to improved relationships between fathers and their children, reduced risk of divorce, improved outcomes for children and greater family economic security.

For too long the struggle for gender equality has polarised people, created unnecessary divisions and fears, and most damagingly, been viewed as solely the responsibility of women. When a new gender equality initiative, Global Health 50/50, sent out a call for volunteers, 60 people came forward – 59 of whom were women. The idea that it is predominantly the duty of women to further the cause not only perpetuates the false idea that they alone reap the benefits, but also puts the onus on women to challenge and change entrenched power structures. By repositioning gender equality as an issue that benefits everyone, we can dismiss the notion that one group’s equality comes at the cost of another. Gender equality is not a zero-sum game, but a shared responsibility for creating societies that work for everyone.

Second, we need workplaces that allow people to meet their personal and family responsibilities without penalty. We need employers to demonstrate commitment to supporting diversity – including gender diversity – and foster environments that transcend traditional gender norms that keep both men and women from realising their potential. Creating conditions for fair and equitable workplaces requires committed leadership, but employees, staff associations and unions have a role to play too. At a minimum, there should be robust policies and programmes that ensure zero tolerance for sexual harassment, promote flexible working hours, mandate paid parental leave and provide support for caregivers. 

Recent data shows how far we are from this reality. In a sector collectively committed to achieving gender equality as a Sustainable Development Goal, global organisations active in health should be considered standard-bearers in promoting gender-equitable workplaces. Yet in its review of 200 such organisations, Global Health 50/50 found that only 30 per cent reported having flexible work policies. Meanwhile, just a quarter of organisations publish their sexual harassment policies – an important workplace transparency measure overall.

Third, we need to create structural change. Women cannot achieve equality in the workplace or in positions of leadership unless they have comprehensive equality in all aspects of their lives, underpinned by supportive legal environments. A 2019 report by the World Bank reported that only six countries out of 187 gave women and men equal rights in relation to laws affecting access to employment and entrepreneurial activity. In some regions of the world, women had less than half the legal rights of men.

To know whether our efforts are shifting the needle, we can, of course, keep counting the Johns and Janes, but more fundamentally we need rigorous and independent monitoring systems and initiatives that hold policymakers, employers and workplaces to account. We need initiatives like Global Health 50/50, which is showing how evidence, coupled with smart, political advocacy can shine a light on inadequate gender equality practices and drive rapid organisational change. We need more places to follow in the steps of countries like Britain and Iceland in mandating gender pay gap reporting. But gender equality is not simply about putting women in seats of power that have traditionally been held by men – it means rewiring power structures that dictate who can access opportunity and who cannot, whether they be women or any other underrepresented group. In short, we need shifts in three areas – mindsets, institutions and the law. These can be driven by feminist leadership – from both women and men.

Helen Clark is a former Prime Minister of New Zealand, former head of the United Nations Development Programme, and member of the Global Health 50/50 Advisory Council.