• UN report "The World’s Women: Trends and Statistics" shows disappointing progress on gender equality.
  • Women need to have a more prominent role in power and decision-making, it finds.
  • Gender parity is fundamental to the success of economies and societies, according to the World Economic Forum’s "Global Gender Gap Report."

No country has achieved gender equality, and the glass ceiling remains intact. This is the warning from the United Nations in its 2020 edition of "The World’s Women: Trends and Statistics."

“Women are far from having an equal voice to men,” says Liu Zhenmin, chief of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), although attitudes of discrimination are “slowly changing”.

It has been 25 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, when 189 governments committed to the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights.

Called the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, it made comprehensive commitments under 12 critical areas of concern, including women in power and decision-making, women and the economy and women and poverty.

Twenty-five years on, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: “Progress towards equal power and equal rights for women remains elusive.”

In power and decision-making, women need to have a more prominent role, the report finds.

Here are some key statistics on the leadership gender gap:

28% – The proportion of managerial positions globally held by women in 2019. This is almost the same proportion as in 1995. In countries in Northern Africa, Western Asia and Central and Southern Asia the proportion barely reached 13%, a statistic that has not changed significantly over the past 20 years.

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Less than a third of women hold management positions.
Image: The World’s Women 2020: Trends and Statistics

18% – The proportion of chief executive officers who are women, according to a survey of enterprises by the World Bank. Among Fortune 500 corporations, only 7.4%, or 37 out of 500 chief executives, were women (compared to one out of 500 in 1998).

20 – The number of heads of state or government who are women. This is a “slight improvement over the 12 countries with female heads of state in 1995,” the report says. Women’s representation among cabinet ministers has increased almost four-fold over the last 25 years. Although in 2020, gender parity (around 50%) among cabinet ministers has been reached or surpassed in only 14 countries.

36% – The share of elected seats in local government held by women. In most cases, high levels of women’s representation have been reached by legislated quotas. While women’s representation at the local level was higher than in national parliaments (25%), it was not yet close to parity.

47% – As of 2020, 47% of women of working age participated in the labour market, compared to 74% of men. Globally, this results in a gender gap of 27 percentage points. This is similar to the gap observed in 1995, despite a slight decline in participation for both women and men over the past 25 years.

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There are 20 heads of state or government who are women.
Image: The World’s Women 2020: Trends and Statistics

Why is gender parity important?

Gender parity matters because it has a fundamental bearing on whether or not economies and societies thrive, according to the World Economic Forum.

“Developing and deploying one-half of the world’s available talent has a huge bearing on the growth, competitiveness and future-readiness of economies and businesses worldwide,” the Forum says in its "Global Gender Gap Report 2020", published in December 2019.

The report benchmarks 153 countries on their progress towards gender parity and, like the UN study, found positives and negatives.

The education sector is estimated to be just 12 years away from gender parity, with 40 of the 153 countries ranked already having reached this goal. Political representation, on the other hand, is 95 years away from closing the gender gap, with women in 2019 holding 25.2% of parliamentary (lower-house) seats and 21.2% of ministerial positions, the report found.

Work to be done

Economic participation and opportunity is one of the most worrying areas. This is the only dimension where progress has regressed, with gender parity 257 years away, according to the report.

Three primary reasons for this are highlighted in the Forum’s report.

“Women have greater representation in roles that are being automated,” the Forum finds. “Not enough women are entering professions where wage growth is the most pronounced (most obviously, but not exclusively, technology), and women face the perennial problem of insufficient care infrastructure and access to capital.”

It remains to be seen the full impact COVID-19 will have on gender equality, but it’s already hit women hardest.

As Guterres said: “The COVID-19 crisis threatens to erode the limited gains that have been made. The Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals and efforts to recover better from the pandemic offer a chance to transform the lives of women and girls, today and tomorrow.”