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Women’s Equality—When?

Current prediction: gender parity in 132 years

This week brought another International Women’s Day, an event that is traced back to socialist rallies in 1908 and 1909 in Chicago and New York to support political and economic equality for women. Among the rituals that caught my eye this year were those (like last year and the year before that) calling for equal pay for women. As the speeches droned on, I could not help but wonder whether demanding gender parity by lobbying institutions and private enterprise is ever likely to produce actual pay parity.

Let me explain by providing an example from the latest World Economic Forum (WEF) “Global Gender Gap Report.” The WEF—looking at disparities in economic opportunity, education, health, and political empowerment—calculates that it will take another 132 years to close the global gender gap. The alarming figure created some commotion because it reflected lost ground: before the Covid-19 pandemic, the pre-2020 trends suggested it would only take about one hundred years to close the gap.

After doling out this dismal statistic in their report, one would have expected that the WEF would have made this statistic front and center at their annual conference at Davos in January 2023. This was not so. As the rich and powerful huddled over their gourmet repast, there were more than a hundred panels over five days—devoted to such topics as monetary policy, the metaverse, artificial intelligence, and “Finding the Right Balance for Crypto.” There was only one event, “Women’s Leadership,” devoted to women’s political power, with a couple others related to women’s economic prospects.

Ignored by the agenda-makers at the Davos meeting—almost two-thirds of whom happen to be men—UN Women tried to compensate by setting up a Gender Equality Hub on the sidelines of the conference. The idea was to urge the powerful and wealthy to use the “gender lens” in their other discussions at the conference. I mention this event in particular not because the WEF is to be blamed or because Davos is representative of the world at large (because it’s not). I mention this event because the contrast between reporting a staggering gender gap and then devoting so few public resources to discussions of gender reflects a wider misconception: the belief that to get to gender parity, women need to make nice with powerful men.

In the aftermath of this International Women’s Day, it’s time for women to put aside asking men to help and turn instead to demanding action. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. In the follow-up to this International Women’s Day, it’s time for women to put aside asking men to help and turn instead to demanding action. In 2023, when gender equality has been demoted to a near-impossibility, the idea that the route to gender equality lies in raising awareness and persuading men to do the bare minimum must be discarded. There are (or at least should be) no men alive, least of all among the powerful at Davos, who are not aware of inequality. The question is: What will they do?

If gender parity is to be maintained as a goal beyond a talking point on International Women’s Day and other similar occasions, then feminist organizations and other women’s organizations must brainstorm about how they create consequences not only for the men who discriminate against women but also those men who pay lip service or shrug and look the other way. Collusion, silent or otherwise, in inequity requires moral accountability. So it must be with the resistant men who deny women their due and the men who talk the talk only because it is so very easy not to have to walk the walk.

Another change-from-below tactic that would work well against global corporations is to target their consumers. These tactics have already been deployed using the social media space when companies are shamed because they continue to purchase advertising or otherwise support racist and sexist public figures. If it has worked in those cases, it makes sense to see how it can be deployed against products produced by companies that are not visibly and substantively committed to ensuring that women are treated and paid the same as their male counterparts.

Taking aim at the world’s worst corporate offenders in terms of gender parity will also make the issue more prominent on the agenda of various political parties. This will encourage political parties, and ultimately governments, to present policies that can help achieve it. The promotion of programs that provide child care assistance is one way. Another is the promotion of legislation that fines companies for how far their numbers veer from the goal of gender parity. Corporate hearts are located in corporate coffers and the road to gender parity passes through the bottom line, not through the sidelines of Davos.

We have already seen the success of these sorts of public shaming during the #MeToo movement, when television networks and film companies had to cut ties with men who had assaulted and harassed women with impunity. Women had to turn to the court of public opinion at that time because the men in question had inveigled themselves so deeply into the power machinery that removing them by following procedures was not a realistic option.

The 132 years to gender parity is also a statistical nowhere. It marks gender parity not as an urgent goal but rather as something that would be nice to have in the distant future—and thus very low priority. In this forgotten position, gender parity is unlikely to be reached even in 1,320 years. International Women’s Day—a convenient and singular moment for a head nod to women—will likely be celebrated all the while just as it is now.

Some may think it is too strident and radical for women to take such a confrontational approach toward achieving the goal of parity in pay, health, education, and political power. Naming, shaming, and deploying the politics of protest could make people uncomfortable. But continuing to keep gender parity on the agenda without a more radical pursuit of progress suggests that even some women themselves do not believe that it is a realistic and achievable goal. If women are unable to stand up for equality now, it’s unlikely that those born in the next one hundred years will have any chance at inhabiting a just world.