We need 100 years of gender progress in 10 years. And 2020 proved we can do it

We need 100 years of gender progress in 10 years. And 2020 proved we can do it

We'll be waiting 99.5 years for the first generation to achieve gender parity. UN Women Australia advisor Sunita Gloster says 2020 proved just how fast we can move, if we do so like our lives depend on it.

How do you explain to your teenage daughter that she will never see a world of gender equality in her lifetime? Neither will her daughter. Nor her daughter’s daughter.

How do you explain that, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) – who, sweetheart, are as good as it gets on this stuff – the first generation of women to experience global gender parity will be your great granddaughter’s, some 99.5 years from today?

You try telling that to a teenager, and see if you get the same bewildered face that I did.

But, you say, surely taking a century to achieve parity is just because a few die-hard patriarchies in shadowy corners of the planet will be dragging the chain? Here in Australia, we’re blazing the trail on gender equality, aren’t we?

According to the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report. Of 153 countries tracked Australia came in a dismal 44th, a drop of five places from 2018. (And in case you are wondering, our friends across the Tasman are 38 places higher than us at 6th.)

Australia’s gender equality agenda is wading through treacle. According to WGEA, almost half of the employers who undertook a pay gap analysis last year took no actions to address the inequities it uncovered. Chief Executive Women reported that of the 25 ASX CEO appointments last year, only one was female. As of 2021, the handbrakes of virtue-signaling, complacency, and gender equality fatigue are well and truly on.

The list of some of today’s biggest gender issues reads like it could have been written in the middle ages: over 200 million girls are subject to female genital mutilation; around 250 million women and girls experience sexual and physical violence by a partner; women spend three times as many hours on unpaid care work; only one in fifteen leaders of countries are women. A full 76 years after equality between men and women was enshrined in the UN Charter, not a single country has achieved gender parity. How long must we wait for the enlightenment. Oh yes, I forgot another 99.5 years.

Last year was supposed to be a year of reflection and celebration for women and girls around the world. UN Women had planned to recognise the anniversaries of key policy instruments central to the realisation of gender equality not least that 2020 was the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, the most visionary agenda for the empowerment of women and girls in history.

COVID-19 not only put paid to any celebratory events, it surfaced new crimes of gender inequity, exposing more women to domestic violence, financial hardship and reversing some hard-won gains of the previous two decades.

At the same time, the pandemic ironically also gave everyone who believes in gender equality (shouldn’t that just read ‘everyone’?) new reason for hope. The world’s response to the pandemic demonstrated that fundamental change on a global scale is not only possible, it can be achieved faster than anyone could ever have previously imagined.

How quickly did we unlearn deeply-entrenched habits in every corner of our societies and find new ways to live and work? We reimagined, restructured, innovated, adapted, repurposed systems we’d built, to become systems we need.

We changed. We aligned behind a crisis to create a different world at speeds never thought possible.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t comfortable. Most of the time it wasn’t fun. But we did it. The whole world did it. Because we had to. Lives, livelihoods and prosperity depended on it.

Author, academic, entrepreneur and market commentator Professor Scott Galloway described what happened in the corporate world with elegant simplicity: “Ten years progress in ten weeks”. Think about that for a second. What’s stopping us doing the same for the most pressing human rights issue on the planet – just on a slightly different time line? Why can’t gender equality progress 100 years in ten years?

Like the pandemic, gender inequalities are a global humanitarian crisis; one that affects every person on the planet. Like the pandemic, there are financial imperatives to rapid, significant change. According to McKinsey Global Research Institute, advancing women’s equality in the public, private and social sectors could add somewhere in the region of $12 trillion to Global GDP by 2025. If that number is too mind-bending, other studies consistently express it at a company level: c.15% growth. What board wouldn’t give you a hearing if you said you knew a way to grow their business at that rate?

Last year, Executive Director UN Women, Phumzile Miambo-Ngcuka, implored white people and men not to waste their privilege but to use it to bring about change. Not at some point in the future, but now.

Salesforce Founder and CEO Marc Benioff has spoken of the role corporates need to play. “Business is the greatest platform for change. We can have an enormous impact on improving the state of the world. As business leaders we are in a position of influence, and responsible for more than just shareholders. We are accountable for the wellbeing of an extended community of employees, customers and partners, as well as our fellow beings on the planet we inhabit.”

Here, here. So how are we doing?

To its credit, corporate Australia has done the easy stuff. Pledges have been signed, champions assigned, HR policies updated, training films uploaded, stirring speeches delivered. There are some amongst us who have been cynically buying green ticks for the Diversity page of the annual report, but most are in the tent with sincere hearts. That’s good news and bad news. Good news because it’s progress; bad news if you think what you’ve done is enough or enough for now.

On International Women’s Day this year, United Nations Women Australia is issuing a challenge. If achieving gender equality matters to you and your organisation, you need to commit not just to change but to accelerating change.

Realising the birthright of every second person on the planet and addressing the life-limiting consequences of inaction is the most pressing human rights issue of our generation – and several generations to come if we stay on our current trajectory.

We need to accelerate everything that’s being done and accelerate everything that still needs to be done. The slow lane of progress is clogged with good intentions. We can’t let gender equality languish as a peacetime issue that we platform when everything else is hunky dory. Gender equality 99.5 years from now is not an option.

Can we do a hundred years’ work in ten? Think of the humanitarian progress our generation will own if we achieve it. Think of the discrimination, repression and violence we’ll be accepting if we don’t. Don’t overlook the economic benefits – for everyone. Look at how miraculously we accelerated and accepted rapid change in the face of COVID.

2020 proved we can accelerate when our lives depend on it. How about the lives of women and girls?  It’s time to arrest that your gender at birth does not define the opportunities of your life.

On International Women’s Day we stop and reaffirm our pledge that gender equality matters, for ourselves, our families, our companies, our communities, our world. But when?  Does gender equality matter enough to improve the result before 2120?

Time will tell, it has a way of showing us what really matters.

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