Dear millennials: Take the invisibility cloak off gender bias
Young people across the world, I address my letter to you as implementers of the Sustainable Development Agenda and as the current and upcoming movers and shakers of the 21st century.
Sustainable Development Goal 5 is about gender equality and empowering all women and girls. Can you imagine a world where all individuals, regardless of gender, unleash their full potential? How do you think that would affect the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals?
Let’s see what the data tells us.
If women and men are given an equal footing in the labor market, up to $26 trillion can be added to the global gross domestic product on an annual basis. Higher representation of women in the parliament results in lower level of armed conflict within a country. Also, countries with lower participation of women tend to use military violence for resolving international disputes.
Higher participation of women in forest management and its decision-making result in better conservation of forests. Furthermore, more women inside the energy value chain would magnify opportunities for emission reduction. If women get access to the tools and credit available to men, 15 million more people would get food.
Now, a reality check.
Worldwide, for every dollar earned by a man, a woman earns between 70 to 90 cents and the unemployment rates of women are higher than that of men. More women than men are employed in vulnerable and undervalued jobs.
What else? As of 2016, womens’ participation in parliament is 23 percent. One out of every three girls is likely to experience violence in her lifetime. For the last 20 years, women form about two-thirds of the illiterate adults in the world. Even today, chances of girls being enrolled in secondary school are much lower when compared to boys. And since 1901, only 49 women have won the Nobel Prize, compared to 825 men.
Why are the global systems failing half of the world’s population? When and where do the lines of discrimination start and end?
Even today, our behavior and actions are deeply biased by the age-old societal norms and traditions that do not belong to the 21st century. This is where the invisibility cloak comes in. Many times, this bias is invisible to us and affects choices that we make daily.
Studies have shown that both men and women are biased against women. Let me illustrate this by an example. A study conducted in the United States found that both male and female faculty members rate male applicants as more competent and are more inclined to spend additional time mentoring men.
The historical and cultural norms have given rise to the reality of today. If we observe, we can see how the biases transform into tangible barriers and behaviors: In London or Mumbai, Cairo or Rio, the invisible shackles of gender stereotyping, street harassment and other forms of sexual violence are present almost universally. Even in the United States, women are the CEOs of only 4 percent of the 500 biggest companies.
How can a child go out to manifest her potential when the cultural, psychological, legal, economic and other biases are all prohibiting her to do so, directly or indirectly?
What does she have to do differently to be safe and treated as an equal? And why? Remember, these are the seeds of potential that we crush by our conscious and subconscious choices and prejudices.
Once we throw light on our gender biases and confront them, then we begin to understand the multidimensional and multi-layered challenges that women face. Once we understand these challenges, only then can we begin to address them.
These preconceptions manifest in myriad challenges of different forms throughout a woman’s life. Her challenges start early. One of them is staying in school, for which she might encounter barriers linked to personal safety, cultural norms, school fees, lack of sanitary amenities and negative classroom environments.
As the next step when she moves towards economic empowerment, she again faces multiple hurdles because of her gender: type of employment; ownership of property and assets; access to finance and technology; larger share of unpaid care; wage discrimination; and other obstacles.
There are some common challenges across countries, such as the skewed ratio of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In the U.S, the labs of Nobel Prize winners employ over 75 percent males; this number is higher in Europe. Studies show that women in these labs report that they are often mistaken for administrative staff and experience sexual harassment.
Millennials, we have the choice to recognize the real and complex gender biases that we carry and choose to begin a new chapter in history.
This is a non-linear issue and cannot be solved by linear solutions. Even in a country like Rwanda, where there are more women in the parliament than men, there is still an unequal power dynamic between men and women in rural areas. The environment at home, school, work and on the streets plays a very important role in reinforcing the stereotypes. If this environment changes, girls would grow up to be women whoage are self-assured to be who they are. Exercises related to affirmation of values have been successful in closing the gap between males and females.
Institutions, businesses, governments, cities, systems and societies have to be redesigned to create an equal playing field. As a beginning, some universities, corporations and governments are taking concrete steps towards equality through the IMPACT 10X10X10 initiative of U.N. Women. There are also inspiring cases from around the world where girls are forging a new future for themselves.
Girl activists in Malawi successfully campaigned for raising the legal age to marry from 15 years to 18 years. In Afghanistan, where up to 85 percent of women have had no formal education, young women are learning how to code and creating employment opportunities. This is the beginning and a fundamental step for the transformation of the world that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims for.
I always take inspiration from the words of Wangari Maathai, founder of the environmental organization Green Belt Movement and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner. She said, "Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven't done a thing. You are only talking."
To all young citizens who stand for human rights and gender equality, I would say: Unless we recognize gender bias, observe its impact, transform it into a conscious shift and act differently, we haven't done a thing. We are only talking.