More power to women, they deserve it

2015-03-09 13:09

It has taken thousands of years, but finally women are starting to take their place in the sun. An increasing number of women are entering the work place and rising to become captains of industry. More women are getting involved in politics and are becoming world leaders. Not just are most women better off than they have ever been, we are all richer for it. However, more needs to be done to address remaining inequalities and fight discrimination and oppression of women where it still remains. With International Women’s Day just passed, now is a good time to reflect on what we can do to help.

As little as a century ago, there were only 8 countries in the world that allowed women to vote. These did not include the USA, the UK, Germany, France (only in 1944), India (1947), Botswana (1965) Switzerland (1971) and Iraq (1980) or Oman (2003). Today, most countries that allow their citizens to vote, also allow women to vote with Saudi Arabia being one of the last, promising suffrage for women in 2015.

One of the leading causes of death for young women a century ago was childbirth. Even in developed countries in 1900 around 500 women were dying for every 100 000 live child births (in the USA it was over 800). Today, maternal deaths in developed countries has plummeted to below 20 per 100 000 live births. Most developing countries have maternal mortality rates below 200 (e.g. China 32, Egypt 45, Brazil 69, South Africa 140, India 190) and the trend is downwards. The exceptions are war torn areas (Afghanistan 400, DRC 730, South Sudan 730) and under-developed sub-Saharan African countries (Burundi 740, Chad 980, Sierra Leone 1100).

Women have increasingly become active in the workforce. In 1900 fewer than 20% of American women were employed, increasing to almost 60% today. In the UK, the increase was even more pronounced to 67% today. Globally, the average adult female labour participation is still low at 54% with sub-Saharan Africa (72%) and East Asia (68%) scoring the highest.

Even though women have become more economically active, significant wage gaps remain when comparing them to men. The latest average OECD (developed countries) gender wage gap is 15%, with countries such as New Zealand (5.6%) and Belgium (6.4%) being the lowest and South Korea (37%) and Japan (27%) being the highest. In the USA, the gender gap has taken front stage and is likely to be a key theme for Hillary Clinton in her likely 2016 presidential bid.

Although this process has been slow, an increasing number of women are becoming captains of industry. South Korea leads the pack with 30% of company’s employing female CEOs, followed by China (19%). Much of the Western world lags with only 9% of EU CEOs being women and only 5% in the USA. Nordic countries lead the way when it comes to female board members with Norway tops at 36% . In the USA, the number is 17% and in the UK 14%.

Women have made a meaningful impact on the political front over recent decades, including Indira Ghandi (India), Golda Meir (Israel) and Margaret Thatcher (UK). During 2014, there was a record 22 female leaders of countries in the world, including in Germany, Liberia, Argentina, Poland, Switzerland and Croatia. Of them, 15 were democratically elected and none of them gained power as a result of a coup. Chances are that the USA will be added to that list in 2016.

There has been some interesting research that shows that female leaders (whether of countries of companies) perform better than their male counterparts when either the country or company is going through a transformation process or is exposed to internal conflict. It appears as if women’s typically more collaborative and inclusive management style is more successful during such periods. With so many countries in the world still struggling from internal strife, I think we need even more female world leaders.

Unfortunately, it is not all good news for women with many issues that still need to be addressed. Violence against women remains a serious problem globally and in SA in particular. According to the US State Department, 600 000 to 800 000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, of which around 80% are women. Many countries enforce institutionalised discrimination against women or does not actively combat discrimination that exists, including child marriages, arranged marriages, honour killings, genital mutilation, not allow property ownership, not allowing women to testify in court, not allowing women to drive, and many more.

In addition the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq; the influence of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan; as well as Boko Haram in Nigeria, threatens to roll-back any progress made on the front of women’s rights by decades.

So where does SA stand when it comes to women’s rights and gender gap? In the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report of 2014, SA ranks 18 out of 142 countries where all factors are considered (Iceland ranks first and Yemen ranks last). As far as economic participation goes, our ranking is middle of the pack at 83 out of 142 with gap of 35% between women and men. In educational attainment, the gap is just under 2% and positions us 85th on the list – most other sub-Saharan countries have a wider gap (including Zambia at 15%, Nigeria at 22% and Angola at 28%). As far as health and survival goes, we rank jointly first with 35 other countries and the gap is 2%. In political empowerment we rank 11th, placing us ahead of countries such as New Zealand, India, France and Argentina. We can therefore be proud of what we have achieved in SA thus far, but much more needs to be done. We fare very poorly when it comes to violence against women and rape and these are serious issues that need to be addressed!

What can we do to help improve the situation for women in SA and the world over coming years? We can start at home by avoiding the promotion of gender stereotypes. Girls should be encouraged to work hard at school and to pursue the same opportunities as the boys in their class. In the workplace, we should fight against gender bias, offer women the same opportunities for promotion as men and the same level of pay for the same work done.

We should make a concerted effort to reduce violence against women. If this happens in your circle, make sure you speak out against the perpetrators and support the women involved – societal pressure can be a much stronger deterrent than the criminal justice system, but on the flip side, can also be a negative deterrent to women reporting abuse. At the same time, more needs to be done to empower the criminal justice system to encourage reporting, apprehend perpetrators and punishing criminals.

In our public discourse, it is also important that we stand up of women’s rights, avoid negative stereotyping and discrimination. Speak out against discrimination or at least avoid being a part of it. You can get involved with women’s rights movements such as POWA, Women’s Legal Centre, Progressive Women’s Movement, etc.

When it comes to fighting inequality and discrimination internationally, you can use your wallets to try and effect change. Many people take part in boycotts against retailers when it comes to issues close to their hearts (e.g. Palestine). Why not get involved in similar actions when it comes to women’s issues?

Did you give some thought to women’s rights during International Women’s Day yesterday? Did you treat the women in your life differently? Do you think more needs to be done to promote equality for women? What are you doing? I would love to see your feedback.

In the mean time, keep your talking straight!

Marius Strydom is the owner of MLAX Consulting

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