Five reasons we need to keep working on gender equality

Melinda S. Smith

Image courtesy of Amber Bracken

With few exceptions, the pace of advancing gender equality worldwide is slow, if not stalled. A recent World Economic Forum report suggests it will take a century for women to achieve gender parity. Women, especially racialized and Indigenous women, remain underrepresented or absent from leadership positions and governance bodies — including parliaments, corporate boards, universities, sports and culture, among others. Yet, we have so much to gain here: it is my view that gender equality is essential to achieving every other objective within the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Given these circumstances, here are five reasons why gender equality remains critical — five challenges, and five huge opportunities for the years ahead:

1) Gender equality remains an unfinished business

The UN’s SDG #5: Gender Equality recognizes that across the world’s 195-plus countries, women and men face different life chances by virtue of gender. Gender Equality is not only a fundamental goal in its own right; I argue that we cannot expect to fully achieve the other sustainable development goals without it.

In truth, we do not yet have the data to adequately understand the varied factors that impact girls and women. For instance: only 13% of the world’s countries have dedicated budgets for gender statistics; only 41% of countries track data on violence against women. Given the gender data gap, we need to make sure girls and women count.

2) We have not achieved gender equality before the law

CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, is the second most ratified treaty in the world — it’s been ratified in 189 countries. Despite this fact, discrimination against girls and women persists in laws and policies, social norms and practices, and through gender-based discrimination. Exacerbating these persistent challenges is political representation and unequal power: worldwide, women make up only 24% of parliaments.

Here intersectionality also matters greatly. In Canada, for instance, whereas women in the Prairie Provinces obtained their right to vote in 1916, women in Quebec had to wait until 1940, Asian women until 1948, Inuit women until 1950 and First Nations Women until the 1960s.

3) The global glass ceiling persists

The glass ceiling is a metaphor that draws attention to the persistent barriers and obstacles women face as they try to advance. The Glass Ceiling Index examines ten indicators such as educational attainment, labour-force participation, income inequality, representation in managerial positions, and so forth. The latest data suggests that we have stalled in efforts to shatter the glass ceiling.

Women’s participation in the labour force remains 16% lower than men’s participation in OECD countries, and the gender pay gap is largely unchanged at about 14%. A mere 4% of Fortune 500 company CEOs are women. Additionally much of the data we have are binary, meaning we understand little about how nonbinary people and diverse family forms are impacted.

4) Diverse women don’t have a seat at the table

Unequal power persists across sectors. Diverse women continue to be missing or underrepresented in leadership and management and from the major decision-making tables in the public and especially private sector. A 2020 Statistics Canada study of 10,108 public, private and government corporations found that:

  • 61.2% of such boards had no women in 2017 (down from 61.7% in 2016)
  • 18.1% of board director seats were held by women (up slightly from 17.8% in 2016)

Representation of women decreases the further up the institutional ladder one looks, and Black women, women of colour and Indigenous women, are notable for their virtual absence.

5) The gender gap’s impacts span lifetimes

Perhaps most importantly, we must keep in mind that gender gaps have an impact not only at a particular moment in time, but over the course of whole lifetimes for girls and women. For instance, consider education — which we know greatly impacts women’s present and future opportunities and prospects. The life course approach helps us to track and better understand the representation and participation of girls and women from pre-primary school through primary and secondary school, on to tertiary education, and post-graduation including in specific fields, like STEM, to offer one example.

We have made some progress to close the gender gap worldwide, particularly in education. As the data above shows, however, we are unlikely to achieve SDG #5 — and many other SDGs — by the 2030 target without much greater attention to closing the global gender gap. With so much to gain, it’s essential that we keep working to gender parity, to break the glass ceiling, and to advance gender equality globally.

This article is adapted from the public lecture, “Five Reasons Gender Equality Matters Globally,” presented at the University of Alberta’s 2020 International Week.

Melinda S. Smith

About Melinda

Malinda S. Smith is a professor of Political Science in the Faculty of Arts, a 2018 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Fellow, and the university’s Provost Fellow in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Policy.