The question of equality has been at the heart of the political debate for centuries. For many people the gender debate took form with the campaign for women’s suffrage in the 19th and 20th centuries across the globe, but often this was part of a much broader debate about equality. In some countries the issue was not about gender but class, so men or women could vote provided that they were of sufficient social and financial standing.
But having the vote alone does not make for equality. The number of women working outside the home has increased markedly over the past half-century, with the debate shifting from the right to work to the right to equal pay. And on the education front, at least in OECD countries, efforts to improve the educational attainment of girls have been so successful that they are now doing better than boys in school.
So why do we still need an international women’s day every March 8? For one thing, gender equality is not universal. While international efforts such as the Millennium Development Goals have succeeded in raising the number of girls who complete at least primary education in the developing world, there are still places where the right of girls to an education is not universally accepted.
And opposition to gender equality is often linked to fears of violence. The UN’s theme for this March 8 is “Time for action to end violence against women”. If a girl can be shot on the school bus to stop her from attending class, or a young woman can be raped and murdered on her way home from the cinema with her boyfriend, ending violence is clearly an issue for gender equality.
In countries where women are as well educated as men, they still earn less and find it harder to reach the top of the career ladder or start their own business, and may well live with the fear of physical violence regardless of their age or social status.
All of these issues concern men as well as women, and perhaps international women’s day is also a good moment to look at why we need to remain vigilant about equality of opportunity and ensuring that the financial and regulatory systems that frame our lives keep pace with the times.
If both men and women are expected to work for a living, the system for parental leave and childcare arrangements should reflect that reality; likewise the pension savings systems, to ensure that tomorrow’s retired men and women will not be dependent on their spouse’s entitlements?
If our high-tech economies need more people with science-based skills, the challenge is to make science more interesting for all pupils. But the number of boys choosing science studies after school increased faster than that of girls in the first decade of the 21st century in OECD countries, with the proportion of girls studying computer science falling from 23% to 19%.
If only 5% of 15-year-old girls in OECD countries, on average, expect a career in engineering and computing does it have something to do with how science is presented in school, or how the scientific work culture operates? Are girls put off by the prospect of high levels of on-the-job training, long working hours and a sense that this is a field where time taken out of work (for example to have a child) can be very costly? If we are really serious about greater gender balance in the sciences, what needs to change in that picture?
And if much of the gender equality discussion has focussed on women, we should not forget that they are only half of the story. International Men’s Day may be far younger than International Women’s Day, having become an annual event on 19 November just over a decade ago in 1999, but it provides a salutary reminder of real issues of concern. How do you define a good man and a good father in the 21st century, when the 20th century role of breadwinner for the household has gone? How to deal with boys’ lagging performance in school? Why are men not living as long as women?
The lesson from all this is that there is no simple, or permanent, solution to the gender debate. Women in craft guilds in Sweden won the right to vote in the early part of the 18th century, a full century ahead of their time, only to lose it again 50 years later. A timely reminder that rights can be lost as well as won, and that we all need to be vigilant in safeguarding progress if we are to create better policies that can deliver better lives for all of us, men or women.
“Closing the gender gap is a key priority, not only for achieving sustainable economic growth, but also because it is about fairness and equity. We cannot wait any longer; further action is needed, particularly in face of the ageing of the population and the global economic crisis which are putting additional pressures to the gender equality agenda.”
OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 2013