We need a gender revolution, not an evolution
March saw the conclusion of the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. This year, the commission put the spotlight on empowering women and girls living in rural areas who face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and marginalization. Women and girls in rural areas lack equal access to resources and assets, public services such as education and healthcare, and infrastructure, including water and sanitation.
Recognizing that the realization of women’s human rights, in particular in rural areas, has been held back over the years, the commission emphasized the mutually reinforcing relationship between achieving gender equality and the full, effective, accelerated and gender responsive implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The 2030 agenda holds particular significance now, because despite important progress on gender, studies show that the gender gap is in fact widening for the first time in over a decade. Earlier this year, a new report (PDF) estimated that it will take 100 years to close the gender gap, compared to 83 years previously.
Two steps back?
This discouraging information would appear to be answering a question I have asked for three years in a row: "Are we in a Sisyphus or snowball moment for gender equality?" In other words, are we taking two steps back for every step forward?
In a year that’s seen the voice of women rise to the forefront, news of a widening gender gap only highlights how much work we still need to do.
Over the past year, women have been increasingly outspoken about the inequalities they face in the workplace — from sexual harassment to pay inequality, demonstrating that the work is far from over. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements quickly became global phenomena and led to a fundamental cultural shift in the conversation around the obstacles women face across their personal and professional lives.
I hope that all business leaders are paying careful attention and are prepared to take the actions necessary to create an environment for women and girls that is free of discrimination and harassment. Today’s responsible businesses also should provide equal recognition and opportunity at all levels, from the boardroom to the factory floor.
Business holds the key
Business can unlock vast amounts of economic potential by supporting gender equality, while at the same time changing the norms and biases that are standing in the way of empowering women and girls. The challenge lies in how, exactly, business can practically advance gender equality and address unconscious biases.
A recent report found that while many businesses may have gender equality programs and policies, they are often ad hoc and isolated from business operations. To fully realize the positive impacts of empowering women, the private sector must advance gender equality not only in the workplace and on leadership teams, where most businesses have their current focus, but also in the marketplace and in the community.
Fighting for a better world
Empowerment and equal opportunities are not a zero-sum game. Rather, they represent a fight for a better world, where one is left behind. Empowering girls and women is the single biggest opportunity for human development and economic growth.
Studies show that corporations with more women offer more goods and services to communities with limited or no access to financial products. They also tend to prioritize environmental issues and are likely to invest in renewable power, low-carbon products and energy efficiency. Clearly, if a business is looking to become more sustainable and future fit, empowering women to help run it just makes business sense.
As a proud International Gender Champion, and also, of course, as a woman leading the U.N. Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, the cause of creating a work environment where women can thrive is a priority. I want business leaders around the world to know that beyond being the right thing to do, or even the smart thing to do, gender equality in the workplace is possible today — not 100 years from now, not 83 — but right here and right now.
If the current trajectory bears witness to one thing, it is that gender equality is not an evolutionary process. Unless we make decisive steps to empower women and proactively close the gender gap across all touchpoints in society, we will at best be at a standstill and, at worst, move backwards.
We need to spark a gender revolution and change the rules of the game, and business has to lead.