There is a long-standing notion that the struggle for closing the gender gap is a women’s issue and that women are the sole protagonists of the cause. This view is a myopic one as the gender gap is a societal issue. Therefore, engaging women alone is not enough, and for substantial progress, we need to ensure that men are engaged as well.
The global gender gap has severe negative economic and social consequences. Closing the gap could accelerate progress toward gender parity. However, current rates of progress are slow. According to the United Nations, the average amount of time spent on unpaid domestic and care work is more than threefold higher for women than men and accounts for a large proportion of the gender gap in unpaid work. Globally, women’s participation in single or lower houses of national parliaments reached 23.4% in 2017, just 10 points higher than in 2000. In business, women are still underrepresented in managerial positions where less than a third of senior- and middle-management posts are held by women.
Why the gender gap prevails
The gender gap remains one of the most pressing challenges facing the world of work. A report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) states that the global labour force participation rate for women was just 49% in 2017, which is 27 points lower than the rate for men. Narrowing the existing gender gap down to rampant sexism is not enough. This gap is the result of a nuanced combination of economic, social, and educational factors—lack of education, the need to satisfy work-family balance, and marital status, among other things.
In recent years, there have been substantial discussions regarding the major challenges to bridging the gender gap. One factor in particular is being frequently discussed—the dominance of ‘unconscious biases’. Unconscious biases relate to a person’s feelings of work being “appropriate” for one sex or the other: Who should work outside the home? Who should care for the children? These biases are formed over time by social and cultural institutions to which people belong. So, in spite of considerable awareness-raising with regard to gender equality, we find that these biases still play a strong role in resisting efforts to expand opportunities for girls and women.
Bridging the gender gap
The process of bridging the gender gap is going to be a long one. To make substantial progress, there is need for transformation on three levels. First, the state should transform existing policy agenda by integrating a gender perspective into all policies and programming. This idea has been incorporated in Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which calls on governments to achieve, rather than just promote, gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Empowering women and bringing a gender perspective to all development activity not only contributes to bridging the gender gap but also accelerates a sustainable future for all. Although this a promising step, the results are yet to be realized.
Second, at the organizational level, comprehensive measures such as promoting equal pay for equal work, preventing discrimination and harassment, implementing work-family balance guidelines, and recognizing the value of unpaid care work need to be established. Similarly, there is the need to foster entrepreneurship among women as it provides opportunity for women to achieve a better work-life balance and contribute to household income and economic growth. In today’s context, there are two sectors to promote comprehensive support programmes targeting female-owned enterprises: the emerging high-tech sector and climate change adaptation initiatives. These represent opportunities to develop entrepreneurship skills that can both empower women and improve their resilience.
Finally, if we are to close the gender gap, there needs to be an understanding of why it exists in the first place. Therefore, at the individual level, we need to analyze the socio-cultural constructs of gender bias and become aware of how this process is ingrained in our daily lives. For example, in school, teachers should focus on the value of competency for both boys and girls to avoid having children believe that particular work roles are suited to one gender or the other. Practices like these can expand our view of gender and ability, which will go a long way toward addressing the gender gap.
Intern Livelihoods at ICIMOD