Understanding Society

Final reflections on Gender Equality: How will we know when we get there?

It’s 2019, and women’s rights are in the spotlight. Perhaps the most visible expression of feminism’s resurgence has been the rise of the #MeToo movement. And there are signs that this goes beyond digital activism. Ipsos data from 27 countries shows that globally, two-thirds of people (65%) say that achieving equality between men and women is important to them personally. There is also a sense, among some at least, that conditions for women are improving; half of people (50%) say that young women will have a better life than women from their parents’ generation33 .

And yet, there’s a long way to go. To take two examples, ILO data shows that just 39% of the total labour force is female34 . The prevalence of violence against women and girls is often under-reported and under-represented, but even so, surveys show that one in three women will experience violence35 . Ipsos data shows that people across the globe identify sexual harassment (30%), sexual violence (27%) and physical violence (22%) as the top two or three important issues facing women in their country36 .

Where are we going?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a framework for change and highlight many of the current challenges – as well as signs of progress – for women globally. The SDGs were developed by the 193 Member States of the United Nations and are a call for action by all countries to deliver change that will lead to a more prosperous, peaceful and sustainable future for all by 203037 . They provide a lens through which we can analyse the multiple and interrelated areas of social, political and economic life where change must occur if we want to see a more equitable and just world.

Achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls is one of the seventeen SDGs. And whilst the transformative potential of this one goal for the lives of women and girls should be powerful enough to incite action, it is important to note that gender equality cuts across the entire Sustainable Development Agenda. The SDGs recognise that gender equality is important for the economy, for the health and wellbeing of families and to build stronger institutions. In short, ending all discrimination against women and girls is not only a basic human right for women, it is critical for driving progress toward a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world for all.

The scope and ambition of the SDGs is admirable, but achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment by 2030 will be no mean feat. There are millennia of patriarchal structures embedded into our cultures and institutions that need to be identified, contested, broken down and rebuilt. The concepts of gender, and what it means to be a woman, are also in flux.

As humans, we have a tendency to struggle to see the world beyond our own experiences. As researchers, we cannot afford to make this mistake, or we risk producing data and policies that reinforce inequalities, thereby falling foul to critiques that the SDGs are just a force for supporting existing power structures through other means. Our work needs to account for existing power inequalities in the world and the ways in which these manifest in gendered ways38 . Gender equality is not just about looking at gender; it is imperative that we also look at how gender intersects with race, disability, age, income and other social inequalities. The gender equality agenda needs to ensure that it gives voice to women – especially the most marginalised women – and leaves no one behind.

Charting the course with data

Data will help us chart our course and measure our progress. We need data on economic and political participation, particularly at leadership levels, data on the prevalence of violence against women and girls, data to demonstrate the economic value of unpaid care and domestic work and adequate legal frameworks at the national and international levels; data on every aspect of women’s lives.

But globally, there is a gender data gap. Data2x (part of UN foundation) who campaign to improve the quality, availability and use of gender data highlights that data across these domains is lacking39 . Caroline Criado Perez argues in her recently published book “Invisible Women” that the gender data gap is “both a cause and a consequence of the type of unthinking that conceives of humanity as almost exclusively male.40 ” These gender data gaps pose real challenges to understanding gender inequalities and identifying solutions.

And we need many different types of data too. We need administrative data, data from independent sources and data from social media, which give women platforms to voice their concerns and campaign for change, creating movements such as #MeToo and #EverydaySexism.

It’s also not just about disaggregating data by gender but also about looking at how this interacts with factors such as ethnicity, class and disability to better understand the structural and cultural barriers against equality. “And it’s important not just to look at the numbers: we must hear individual women’s voices too. In this edition of Understanding Society, Susan Huggins’ piece on the 2018 abortion referendum in Ireland shows us how women sharing their experiences can help drive change, while Fiona O’Connor’s interview with Megha Mohan reminds us of the power of women’s stories.

We need all of these different sources of data to challenge the way we do things, and especially to challenge institutions.

This isn’t just about women

We need women on leadership boards, but we also need men on board too. However, people are split on whether too much is being expected of men to help the fight for equality. Overall, 43% agree that men are being expected to do too much to support women’s equality in their country compared with 46% who disagree. Men (50%) are more likely than women (36%) to think too much is expected of men41 . So what can we do to encourage more willing support from men?

We need intersectional data to understand how gender, race, sexuality and age influence the different types of barriers and issues that women face so that we can design policies and interventions which move us towards equality for all women

One approach has been to show how gender equality benefits everyone, and this has often been presented in economic terms. When women are in paid employment, economies grow. Estimates show that if women and men have an equal role in labour markets, global GDP could grow by 26%42 . This increases productivity, diversifies economic activity and reduces income inequality43 . Given that unemployment (33%) and poverty / social inequality (34%) are two of the four major worries for global citizens44 this has to be a good thing. And as Caroline Criado Perez argues “when we exclude half of humanity from the production of knowledge we lose out on potentially transformative insights.”

Secondly, we can show men how masculinity itself confines men, as Nigina Abaszadeh argues in her article. Social constructions of gender identity (femininity and masculinity) are limiting for men and women and people who identify as non-binary. They create unconscious bias, which often becomes visible through acts and behaviours of stereotyping. For women, this can be seen in the scrutiny placed on female politicians, or female business leaders’ appearance and behaviour, as Kelly Beaver’s interview with Julia Gillard in this issue highlights. But also for men, deviations from the prescribed notion of gender identity can be met with aggression.

Encouragingly, there is evidence to suggest that attitudes towards gendered roles are changing for men as well as women. Three-quarters globally (75%) disagree that a man who stays at home to look after his children is less of man, with just one in five (18%) agreeing45 . And whilst this might go some way towards valuing unpaid care and domestic work and promoting shared responsibility within the household, a change in attitude does not always equate to a change in practice, particularly when legal frameworks and company policies disincentivise paternity leave. There are also differences in beliefs across countries. For example, agreement with this statement rises to 76% in South Korea, but only 39% in India. In the long run, these attitudes will continue to limit possibilities for the transformation of gender relations46 .

From data to change

Policies, initiatives and campaigns to achieve gender equality in the realms of home, work and wider society need to be grounded in the realities of women’s lives. We need intersectional data to understand how gender, race, sexuality and age influence the different types of barriers and issues that women face so that we can design policies and interventions which move us towards equality for all women. Kaitlin Love’s piece on empowering women in displacement highlights the importance of understanding the specific challenges faced by marginalised women.

We also need to understand how issues interact with each other and the different levers that can be pulled. Take economic participation as an example. Globally, equal pay for the same work is the top action that people feel would help to achieve gender equality (36%). Legislation is not enough, there needs to be transparency too. A study in the Harvard Business Review showed how compulsory company reporting of gender pay discrepancies resulted in improvements in women’s employment and promotion47 . But ending the gender pay gap is just one part of equality in economic participation. As Nata Duvvury and Stacey Scriver highlight in their piece, violence against women can act as a barrier to women’s participation in economic life. Kathrina Phan and Jessica Elgood discuss how gender discrimination and caring responsibilities can restrict women’s opportunities in the workplace.

We hope that this edition of Understanding Society will contribute to the debate by highlighting the diversity of women’s experiences across the globe and examples of how data is contributing to policies and programmes that can have a meaningful impact on women’s lives. There is so much more that needs to be done, particularly to give voice to the most vulnerable women. But we should be inspired to collaborate to provide a platform for women’s voices to be heard so we can achieve a more prosperous and equal society for all.

Jessica Bruce
Ipsos MORI

Olivia Ryan
Ipsos MORI