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Equality for women? Nope. Not even close.

Lina AbiRafeh

“Women in much of the world lack support for fundamental functions of a human life.”

That’s what Martha Nussbaum said in her 2000 book Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.

Meanwhile, 22 years later… where are those “fundamental functions”?!

Women are still less likely to live a free and full life — and we are more vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. You’ve heard me howl about the gender gap and how it is getting worse.

And here goes yet another reality check.

Women at work still enter at lower levels, stay at lower levels, and are paid less — even if we reach higher levels. Women in politics have even more hurdles to jump through. The law still doesn’t see women as equal in too many countries — including right here in the US. Women are still expected to take on the bulk of domestic and childcare burdens. And, worst of all, women still suffer from violence that deliberately targets us — because we are women.

So, no wonder women are not able to reach their full potential — the world actively keeps us from it! Meaning our freedoms and capabilities are actively, and deliberately, constrained. This is the stuff that dictates human development. What is that, really?

Well, human development can be anything from basic stuff like access to clean water to more strategic stuff like better laws, representing different levels of empowerment. When our freedoms and capabilities are restricted, we lose out on human development. And when that happens, we fuel gender inequality. We know this to be true — and increasing — from just about every single report in recent years.

The 2020 UNDP Human Development Perspectives Report is yet another case in point. Focusing on the concept of social norms, it shows us that progress toward gender equality is slowing. In areas that are considered basic, progress towards equality is present. But not so in the so-called strategic stuff.

What does that mean?!

Basic needs are about subsistence, the stuff we need to make everyday life easier like access to water and health and so on. Strategic stuff is what we need to move towards more equitable gender roles and relations, for instance laws that protect women from violence, ensuring women have access to credit, and those types of critical things.

Strategic stuff alters gender power relations — for the better. These are about agency, power, change. Basic needs do not challenge power relations (although in the long term they may make microscopic changes — but these aren’t good enough or fast enough).

Already disadvantaged groups, like women, catch up in the basic needs and fall behind in the strategic needs. The gap widens where it really matters. The higher the power and responsibility, the wider the gap. Our basic needs are closer to being met, but our strategic needs are a long way off. Meaning progress is uneven, and the trap of the unequal distribution of power continues.

Areas such as politics, the economy, leadership, and decision making all remain vastly unequal. So, yes women can vote, but are they heads of state? Yes women have gainful employment, but are they on the CEOs and billionaires lists?! Although women’s overall employment might be close to parity in some countries, women are underrepresented in more senior positions.

The glass ceiling is more like a concrete roof.

If we want gender equality (ohhellyes FFS it’s about time!), we need the strategic stuff because that’s going to expand women’s agency and empowerment.

Gender inequality is inherently tied up in discriminatory social norms, traditional roles, and unequal power dynamics. Social norms are the values, behaviors, and attitudes held by society which in turn influence and uphold power relations between individuals, communities, and institutions. (In short, CisHet white men have power over women and marginalized folk.)

Social norms heavily influence someone’s identity — things like age, gender, ability, ethnicity, religion, and so on. We are multidimensional beings, and therefore our lives are layered. Meaning that our roles, expectations, obligations are layered too. Meaning also, that the norms and stereotypes that define our layers are, well… layered.

All this stuff determines power relations — who has it, who doesn’t, how they use it, and how they abuse it.

When these social norms and stereotypes are discriminatory, they can reinforce and perpetuate inequality and unequal power dynamics. For example, norms dictating strict expectations for masculine and feminine behavior will impact individual choice, freedom, and capability — and not in good ways. Those who share a common identity are required to abide by these ideals, even if they don’t necessarily agree with them.

If you want to belong, you’ve got to behave… or you’re out. That’s what society says, anyway.

So, norms determine the extent of our autonomy and freedom. And they also determine the price we pay if we transgress. That’s why the Gender Social Norms Index is so important — because it measures the beliefs, biases, and prejudices that are keeping us from equality. They were first introduced in the 2019 Human Development Report, inspired by the World Values Survey, global research examining how our values and beliefs impact societies over time.

The survey found 91% of men and 86% of women show at least one bias against gender equality across politics, the economy, education, intimate partner violence and women’s reproductive rights. Approximately 50% of men and women from 75 countries believe men make better political leaders than women and over 40% of those surveyed felt men made better business executives. Nearly 30% agreed it is justifiable for a man to beat his partner. Nearly 30% of men and women agreed.

Only 14% women and 10% men have NO gender social norms biases — yup, that’s all.

It comes as no surprise that women have less bias against gender equality and empowerment. But… bias is on the rise globally, despite decades of progress in women’s rights. Instances of backlash and regressive attitudes are evident — in both men and women.

But there’s good news! Norms can change! It’s just like that pesky word “culture” — it’s not static. Stop using it as an excuse to oppress.

It starts with the family — they lay the foundation for any unconscious (or entirely conscious) gender bias, meaning there is opportunity to learn and unlearn traditional attitudes. Adolescence is an arena of socialization also, especially for boys. This is where they come to understand how society defines what it means to be male or female — although I’d say that happens even earlier. But during this period, beliefs crystallize into behaviors and more rigid expectations and pressures are placed on them.

It is especially important to intercept the fixed social and cultural expectations related to masculinity that are placed on boys as they will then go on to reproduce and perpetuate the patriarchy.

Challenging these stigmas and stereotypes are difficult, especially by individuals who have the most to gain from complying with norms and the most to lose from defying norms. But it must be done — otherwise women are kept from claiming rights due to the power of social expectations.

We need to change. Universal policies help to provide a basic floor — but they aren’t enough. They specify that we all should get the same things. And yes, we should. But inequalities built from social norms and resulting in social exclusion are harder to tackle. Social exclusion actively keeps people from participating in a full rich life because of the bazillion ways we discriminate against each other.

In these cases, targeted or affirmative action policies can help — when a group has been historically disadvantaged and things won’t “equal out” on their own. When we speak about historic disadvantage, gender is one of the most prevalent. And no, it’s not progressing just fine without our help. We need to do more. And do it better. And faster.

Is there a positive in all of this? A glimmer.

There are new social movements — particularly in the online space — to raise awareness, assert independence, agitate for equality, and ultimately help shift norms. Hashtags and movements like #IWillGoOut in India and #NiUnaMenos in Latin America are good examples. #IWillGoOut is a movement asserting women’s right to public space — to safe public space. To go out at any time, anywhere, without fear. It’s a pretty radical idea considering that fear exists just about everywhere.

#NiUnaMenos — or, Not One Woman Less — advocates for bringing “our bodies, our abortions, and our desires out of hiding” — and not going back. “We will not let ourselves be burned,” they say, “because this time the fire is ours.”

This time the fire is ours.

Read full post here.

Breaking the bias – it’s not just a slogan.

Lucy Gaffney Maguire

March 8th is International Women’s Day (IWD), and this year the theme is #breakthebias. Of course, this hashtag is rousing – it’s easy to say and remember. But, what does it mean? If bias is an unbalanced, prejudiced leaning towards a particular point of view, person, or group of people, then in the context of IWD, the focus is on gender bias and how tackling it can help gender equality. 

Over the last 20 years, there has been some progress toward gender equality. However, in 2020, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released disturbing findings from 80 countries that revealed 90% of men and women hold some sort of bias against women. They wrote that this provided “clues” to the invisible barriers women face as they try to achieve gender parity. According to the index, about half of those surveyed feel men make better political leaders, and over 40% think men are better business executives and have a greater right to a job when jobs are scarce. So when we talk about gender bias, these results show it is present in both men and women. 

Breaking bias is difficult. It is often unconscious and in the background.  But if we look, we can see the pervasive consequences of gender bias in invisible, internalised, and structural ways. It can seem like an enormous mountain to climb. But we should break the hashtag – #breakthebias – into small steps and, to paraphrase Indira Gandhi, we should take the first step now.

Some of the more invisible and insidious forms of bias are taken for granted in our everyday lives. In 2019, Caroline Criado Perez wrote Invisible Women, which exposed data bias in a world designed by, and for, men. She wrote in painstaking detail about the myriad ways the world we live in places men as the gendered default and women as “invisible” or “atypical”. She cites case studies and examples of how women are discriminated against and forgotten about from technology to the workplace. 

Take cars. While men are more likely to be involved in a car crash, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 17% more likely to die. Why is this? Perez explains that  “it is all to do with how the car is designed and for whom.” It turns out that only in 2011 did the US start using a female crash-test dummy. Before that, dummies were based on the average height and weight of a male, and even with the introduction of a female dummy form in 2011, it was scaled to be that of a small man. But, as she points out, women are not scaled-down men. We have lower bone density and different muscle mass distribution, all crucial and potentially dangerous for a car collision.

When we are designing a world meant to work for everyone, Perez highlights that women and men need to be in the room. So, where were the women engineers developing safety features for cars? Were there just no female engineers? Or, if they were in the room, were they consulted? Or, did they not speak up? A possible answer is that women’s biases are internalised and absorbed through living in a patriarchal culture.  

A Hewlett Packard internal research study found that when going for a new job, men typically felt they needed to have 60% of a job’s requirements while women thought they needed to have 100%. So, not only do women lack confidence, but they also feel that they have to be better than men.  Then even when a woman succeeds, often she feels “imposter syndrome”, the phrase coined in 1978 initially observed in highly successful women. According to the authors, its origins were in the gender attribution bias process. Simply put, women attribute their success to temporary reasons such as luck and explain failure with their lack of ability.

On the other hand, men are more likely to attribute success to their ability and failure to luck or task difficulty. Only last month, Dame Helen Mirren said she still feels she will be “found out”, 56 years into her career. It’s great that we have a word for how some of us think – myself included – and it’s great we can feel better about ourselves when we read that talented and successful women like Dame Mirren experience it. But that concept in the ’70s took a personal, internal feeling of doubt and anxiety and turned it into a pathological condition for women. This concept became its own bias, as now women had a label focussed on self-bias and not on the structural constraints within which they operated. 

Addressing these self-biases informed much of Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In. At the time, it was heralded as an empowering rallying cry for women, and while much of the advice made sense, it unfairly laid the responsibility for success in the workplace at the woman’s feet. This certainly very accomplished, immaculately coiffed, wealthy woman told me to sit at the table and lean in – to have more confidence, learn to say no. However, I was leaning in at that stage, as were most of my friends, so far as to be keeling over. We struggled with the burden of managing both work and home. We struggled with being a working mother, and we struggled with not working outside the home. If we had children, we felt guilty for working. What troubled me was that this book ignored the many structural issues women face by laying all the responsibility on women to “lean in”. Rather than looking to women to “improve” the way they behave at work, i.e., to become more like a man in behaviours and attitudes, the focus should have been on workplace culture and structures.

And this is where the third bias lies. The bias within organisations. These biases are deeply embedded within workplace structures that fail to retain women as they get older and have children. They exist within a hyper-masculine culture that values working 12-hour days rather than a work/life balance. Ivan Jablonka points out that men who had a wife at home created the original professional workplace and that today’s business culture favours men (or penalises women) by, for example, early morning and late evening meetings. Gender conventions, he writes, largely discharge men from family responsibilities, and because of that, the mental strain of a male employee is “never weighed down by his other role – that of a father.”

I worked at a senior level for many years. Despite a supportive partner and a flexible employer, I remember collecting my daughters before the creche closed at 6 pm, making dinner, playing, and then sitting down at the kitchen table at 9 pm to dial-up a bad internet connection (in the late 1990s) and catch up on emails. I still remember the pit of anxiety in my stomach, feeling I was neither good enough as an employee and would be overtaken by men who could work late nor good enough as the full-time mothers I met at school gates.

Despite some progress towards structural gender equality in power and decision-making since I sat at that kitchen table, change has been neither fast enough nor deep enough. There is neither management nor income parity. A UN Report stated that women held only 28% of managerial positions globally in 2019, and shockingly this was almost the same proportion as in 1995. Only 18% of companies studied had a female Chief Executive Officer in 2020. Among Fortune 500 corporations, only 7.4% of those CEOs were women. These inequitable structures also illustrate a gender pay bias. Statistics of income differences in the US show that in 2012 the wage rate for men was 23% higher than that for women, attributable to culturally-based gender biases that inhibit women’s opportunities to explore their potential. This disparity has been attributed to career interruptions because of maternity leave, a reluctance by women to negotiate higher salaries, and a gender-based resistance to shouting about achievements. Back to imposter syndrome?

And what has been the impact of Covid-19 on all of this? Those most marginalised are hit the hardest. An Insights report published last year by McKinsey & Company, revealed that during COVID, as many as 2 million women had been driven to leave the workplace or step back. The report cited reasons such as the “second shift” where women take on more caring responsibilities, the pressure to be “always-on”, a lack of flexibility in the workplace, and a reluctance to share their anxieties with colleagues lest they be perceived as less professional. The outcome revealed in the report was that post-COVID, one in four women are considering leaving the workforce compared to one in five men. 

What could I have done? I wish I had known that what I struggled with when I was younger had a name. I did not challenge my working structure because who was I? I was already doing a job I did not feel qualified for. I wish I had had the confidence to see that I was good enough. I wish that the structure of organisational inequalities I worked in needed calling out rather than criticising myself. I wish that when I was a Manager, I had had the bandwidth to look strategically at the working conditions my co-workers navigated to make them more equitable.

So, when we look back at the data biases, it is not quite as simple as Sheryl would have had it. Yes, let us lean in, but before that, let us look at what we are leaning into. Let us not limit ourselves. Let us work in companies that value fairness and diversity. Let us drive the change to foster a culture and structure where women are decision-makers. Let each of us do something small today that challenges and breaks the many biases we experience. That way, perhaps we will have a safer car to drive and the confidence to help create our future. By the way, I was good enough at my job, and my daughters are my best friends. And each day, I tell them that they can be whoever they want to be – #breakthebias.

Lucy was Chair of Communicorp Media before its purchase in 2021 by Bauer Media Group. She was also Chair of the Irish Government’s National Action Plan against Racism from 2005 to 2009 and she has served on several Boards as a Director. Lucy completed her MPhil in International Peace Studies from Trinity College Dublin and is currently a Board member of Digicel Group Limited. 

Find Lucy on Twitter: @lucy28maguire