During this year’s Davos, World Economic Forum research stated it will take us 170 years to reach gender equality, based on the speed it’s currently developing. Having now got up from falling off my chair at such an obscene forecast, I reflected again on the session on “Disrupting the Status Quo of Gender Roles”. Even at the WEF, where progressive minds come together, only 21% of speakers were women. We, and by that I really mean everyone, need to take action to reduce the recent deceleration of gender equality and stimulate progress on what IMF’s MD Christine Lagarde called a “basic inequality”.
LIFE’S BALANCING ACT
The issue of gender equality doesn’t only affect the workplace, it also concerns the home and the grey space in-between. Women, for example, are often asked how they juggle a career and a family, which Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, award-winning documentary film-maker, points out isn’t asked of men. This is an everyday example of the gender inequality that seems inoffensive on the surface but actually perpetuates the social norms that keep women from progressing at the same rate as their male counterparts.
TECHNOLOGY, THE TOOL
Technology enables us to collect data on gender issues in the work place – but data is only as good as the input. Robert E. Moritz, the global chairman at PwC, gave the example of technology showing us what he describes as “an automatic deterioration” in performance level when women return to work from pregnancy leave, even when there’s actually no basis for this judgement or facts to prove this is the case. It seems that this “deterioration” is perception more than fact.
But technology also serves as a tool in the gender power struggle. Obaid-Chinoy argues that mobile phone technology has enabled women to access more information, start businesses and build communities online. She suggests technology empowers women to identify what they want and, more importantly, how to get it. Whereas Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado, Vice-President of Panama, reminds us that technology and information is still withheld in poorer regions to supress women.
BE GENDER SMART
The very notion of a gender quota is controversial as it poses the problem of hiring people based on their gender rather than their relevant attributes, which is precisely the type of behaviour that has led to the current gender imbalance. Nevertheless, many agree it is a necessary first step. Once we have more women in higher positions of power, we will all come to accept it as a norm and eventually expect it, indeed be surprised when there is imbalance rather than meet it with acceptance as it currently stands. But you cannot avoid the fact, gender quotas also enable people to gain the necessary experience in roles that they would have otherwise not been able to gain, as Obaid-Chinoy proposed. Cynthia Castro, Vice-President of RBA summarised, “you can’t be gender blind in 2017, you have to be gender smart”.
We must take further action if we are to not only reach gender equality, but surpass the 170-year estimate the WEF thinks it’ll take. But how?
Gender equality transparency
Sharing data, for example, would not only prove to prospective partners, clients and employees that companies are gender smart, but it would also provide examples for others to follow. Regulating that organisations need to demonstrate their gender equality would lead to demonstrating the economic benefits of gender equality too. But for initiatives to be effective they need leaders to cooperate.
Ownership of gender intelligence
Change won’t naturally happen; but it needn’t be dramatic or sudden. Simple measures would be to ensure everyone in the room is invited to share their view rather than perpetuating the same cycle of men taking centre stage. Certainly as Vice-President de Saint Malo de Alvarado does, women should be physically sat at the table alongside their peers in meetings. Whatever leaders do, they need to be held accountable. That’s where you, me and everyone else comes in.
If we take responsibility for our own gender intelligence, we can then start to share it and influence others too. Obaid-Chinoy, for example, says she refuses to answer the question “what it is like being a female filmmaker?” because her gender is irrelevant to her filmmaking abilities. She also notes that much of society’s gender inequality stems from the anxiety of what your community thinks of you. Will you be seen differently if you start to subvert gender inequality? Yes, but that’s exactly what you’re aiming for. People will start to see you, not for your gender, but as a person with a valid contribution to make and they will start to look at others in the same way.
Armed with constantly-developing technology, governments and businesses have the potential to transform gender intelligence. But gender roles stem from home and social environments as well as work ones, so we are all responsible for stimulating change there too.
Simply, each and every person has a part to play in being “gender smart”– we need to continue to talk, challenge and embrace change for the good of all – and to certainly eradicate any expectation of equality taking us 170 years to achieve! Lets’ keep the discussion going.