The theme of International Women’s Day 2019 was building a gender-balanced world. In a way, we are living through a time of great hope for equality. It’s now very clear that the world expects balance. Its presence - and its absence - are evident in our media headlines and conversations every day.
Yet it will take another 108 years to close the global gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2018, and almost double that - 202 years - for us to see true parity in the workplace.
I say "us", but based on these timelines, and in the absence of any shock developments, it will most likely be our great-grandchildren and their descendants who finally experience a world in which both halves of the talent pool are treated equally.
As a lifelong advocate for the essential rightness and genuine business advantage of embracing diversity and inclusion, I find these figures more than a little depressing. It has taken so many years of campaigning and hard toil just to reach the stage where inequality between the sexes is recognized as unacceptable, at least in some parts of the world. Yet we are not creating the change we need quickly enough.
With female gender issues highlighted most prominently in recent years by the #LeanIn and #MeToo movements, mechanisms including workforce quotas and flexible working legislation have increasingly been adopted as the developed world balances the scales for male and female employees.
But do these mechanisms reflect a genuine commitment to change? Or are organizations continuing to tolerate - even actively promote - deeply entrenched prejudices, behind a smokescreen of attractive equality targets? Looking at the Gender Gap Report, and reading about high-profile cases such as those at broadcaster CBS, the United States Coast Guard Academy and the UK retailer Ted Baker, it would be easy to assume the latter.
It remains a fact that when we engage women fully in the workforce, and increase their access to education, economies grow. This is the case in both the developed and developing world. So why has the pace of change been so glacial? In the hundred-odd years since the modern emancipation of women began, we have made huge strides on so many other issues, such as infant mortality, access to energy, and technological development.
In truth, there’s a part of me starting to wonder whether we need to rethink our entire approach, and start to address equality in a more comprehensive way. With efforts to tackle diversity and inclusion topics notoriously fragmented, I’m asking myself whether the cumulative effect of these divisions is an overall dilution of what we can practically measure, or realistically achieve.
Can we really make progress towards a truly equal society while we continue to divide and conquer in our efforts to support marginalized groups? My instinct says no. So how do we go about creating a world where differences are respected and honoured to the extent that they really don’t matter anymore?
One thing we do have in our favour is the attitude of younger generations. According to a report by American Express, a greater proportion of millennials believe that career progression should be based on meritocracy, compared to their Generation X counterparts. In other words, they think that factors such as gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation should be disregarded.
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But there is still a big role for education to play. What do we need to teach our children so they embrace a more inclusive set of cultural norms and values? Right now, I don’t have the answer. But I often return to the words of my company’s founder Tom Kearney: “The true strength of our firm, as in any organization, lies in the fact that we are all different”. I encourage everyone to start the conversation in their homes, schools and workplaces.
Following International Women’s Day, it’s my hope that we can stand together, broaden our aspirations, build a society on the principle of full inclusion for all - and accelerate change while doing so.