Education and Skills

It will take 217 years to close the gender gap at this rate. How can we change that?

Madeline E. Burgoyne, an undergraduate student from MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering, competes in the annual 2.007, "Star Wars" themed, robot competition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., May 11, 2017.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RC1EC400D4A0

Outdated attitudes towards women persist in the world of work, despite legislative progress Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen
Chief Executive Officer, The LEGO Foundation
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

It’s often thought that, at least in the Western world, gender equality is a fait accompli. Women lead some of the richest nations, they’re outpacing men in earning bachelor’s degrees and three-quarters of chief executives see gender diversity in the workplace as a priority.

So I’m going to let you in to a little secret: not a single country in the world is truly gender equal. Nor are any of them even on track to achieve full gender parity in the next decade.

Here’s a list we put together at Plan International of 10 of the most gender-equal countries globally: Norway, Belgium, Australia, Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Canada and the US.

We chose these countries because we operate in each of them – as well as in more than 50 countries across the developing world – and are deeply familiar with their exceptionally good anti-discrimination laws and policies and high female labour-force participation.

So far so equal, right? Well, no.

Even in these countries, true gender equality may be just a pipe dream, because harmful attitudes and behaviours towards girls and women are still worryingly pervasive.

That’s where the private sector has a vital role to play. A growing number of companies are tackling the gender gap in digital literacy by investing in initiatives that provide girls with the skills they so badly need. In Vietnam, Mojang, the makers of the Minecraft computer game, teamed up with UN Habitat and Plan International Vietnam to teach girls to how to use computer gaming technology to make their community a safer space. While in Delhi, India, a partnership between Plan India and Ericsson created digital learning centres to bring maths, science and other subjects into marginalised communities.

Other corporates, meanwhile, are using technological innovations to raise awareness of gender stereotyping. Working with Plan International Finland, Samsung has created the Sheboard – a predictive text app which questions the way people talk to and about girls, and seeks to raise awareness of the impacts of gendered speech.

And in the US, our corporate partner Nickelodeon launched Together We Rock – an online game that teaches girls about video gaming technology by involving them in game design as well as reminding them that anyone can be a leader, regardless of gender. This message was also strongly apparent in the amazing Women of Nasa set launched in 2017 by Lego to celebrate female scientists.

The private sector is also making promising strides towards removing gender bias from its promotion and recruitment processes – and again, technology plays a part. As Simona Scarpaleggia, chief executive of Ikea Switzerland, the first company to reach the highest level of gender equality certification, says: “It is certainly not enough to just hire women. It is important to address explicit and implicit bias to recruitment and promotions.”

A powerful way companies can do this is through artificial intelligence. A growing number of digital platforms and applications are helping them to remove unconscious bias from their hiring processes. SAP Success Factors system, for instance, has built decision-interrupting nudges into its technology to make managers more aware of where unconscious bias may be affecting decisions around hiring and promotions.

While these companies are in the vanguard, there’s so much more that needs to be done in the world’s most gender-equal countries, let alone in the poorer countries where Plan focuses most of its resources. That is because gender norms define what it means to be a girl or a woman and set expectations for how women should behave and the actions they should take.

Take Germany. Though the country’s female leader, Chancellor Merkel, holds one of the most powerful positions on the global stage, damaging gender norms persist. A fifth of German men still believe that when jobs are scarce, they have more right to a job than women.

Such attitudes can’t be allowed to go unchallenged. In countries where it is assumed that men have more right to a job than women, there are greater gender gaps in employment rates. While this isn’t currently the case in Germany, it would be naïve to think such views won’t have a detrimental impact on recruitment processes or on young girls’ ambitions while still at school.

Another gender norm prevalent everywhere is the belief that domestic and care work are the responsibility of women alone. In Belgium, the second most gender-equal country in the world, 81% of women do cooking or other household chores on a daily basis – compared to just 33% of men.

Overall, the more time women spend on unpaid domestic work, the less time they spend on paid work, which means the unequal domestic burden presents a great financial cost to families and the wider economy. It also perpetuates the stereotype of girls and women as second-class citizens.

And in one key area that’s exactly what they’re at risk of becoming. Harmful stereotypes around women’s abilities and roles have meant that they are woefully underprepared for the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will see a rise in digital jobs and artificial intelligence. In almost every country in the world, girls lag behind boys in digital fluency and they’re also less likely to study science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM).

In Finland, only 23% of STEM students are women and in Sweden, women occupy less than a quarter of roles in the information technology, telecoms and STEM sectors.

All images via Plan International (World Values Survey, European Institute for Gender equality, Deloitte Global, OECD)

Of course, all top 10 countries should be praised for efforts which have made them dominate the gender equality leader board. But it’s clear that an approach limited to strengthening laws and policies and increasing women’s economic participation is not enough. Closing these gender gaps relies on every country challenging deeply entrenched ideas of what women can and should do. If these attitudes and behaviours are not tackled, gender equality cannot possibly be achieved anywhere.

So much more still needs to be done. The World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Gap Report predicted it will take 217 years to close the gender gap at the current rate of progress. Without addressing gender norms, I believe it’ll actually take far longer.

To achieve true gender equality in any country, we need efforts on the scale of a revolution. I invite you to be a trailblazer for your industry and join Plan International, governments, civil society and the media in tackling the norms which hold girls and women back. Together we can close the gender gap sooner.

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Related topics:
Education and SkillsEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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