Even though women today are more empowered, confident and bold than they ever were, this didn’t happen overnight; it’s been a long list of advocates for women’s rights throughout history that is responsible for where we are today. These champions have fought long and hard for equality, and they continue the fight today. And that fight is far from being over, even after 100 years of suffrage. UK based writer, broadcaster and award-winning activist, Caroline Criado Perez, is one such powerful feminist who has been actively campaigning for women’s rights. Perez has made many significant contributions to the cause and has support from high-profile women like Emma Watson and JK Rowling. Perez is responsible for placing the statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. This important symbol of women’s rights depicts Fawcett standing her ground in a group of men. Among her many other achievements, Caroline has also ensured women are represented on UK banknotes – that’s why we now have UK £10 notes featuring Jane Austen.
I had the honour of not only meeting this amazing lady but also canvassing with her to support the Women’s Equality Party. Meeting Caroline filled me with hope. Just like statues and currency notes, we are capable of achieving so much more when we fight for what we believe in. I know it seems like a far-fetched idea and that we have a long way to go, but there is always a first time for everything. Women have enormous power. We are voters. We are consumers. Did you know that women make a large percentage of every country’s consumer decisions? And with this power, we can exert real pressure to push for a change in course for those issues we care about.
The very tenor of most work environments underscores a dichotomy of opportunities and ensuing success between men and women. The culture and system keeps the role of a career professional and mother mutually exclusive when in reality it’s not. Yes, personal choices are often influenced by social binds, peer pressure and familial expectations. But most career women who have cited powerful reasons to opt out can be retained if only the infrastructure (inclusive policies) was more favourable.
A woman’s role as the primary care giver for her children is not just a cultural expectation, but it also built in our laws. The US Census Bureau considers the mother to be the designated parent, even if both parents are present in the home. When it’s a mother caring for her children it’s called parenting, and when a father takes care of children, it’s called child arrangement. UK public policy also reinforces that the mother is a child’s primary carer. Child benefits are paid to mothers while men still use the term ‘babysitting’ to look after their own children. Women try their best to overcome these challenges, but as someone rightly noted: ‘The world has a way of reminding women that they are women and the girls that they are girls’.”
In the last few weeks, the devastating coronavirus has beleaguered the world, wreaking havoc our lives, pushing us down to the most basic level of Maslow’s Hierarchy and subordinating all other needs and concerns. Many equality champions have called out how this catastrophe will magnify existing inequalities. People who face multiple disadvantages and have fewer financial and social resources to support them are most vulnerable to any crises, and women definitely top this list.
UN Women recommends a multi-stakeholder engagement which ensures a gender-sensitive response to the coronavirus guided by women politicians, key influencers, and decision makers. Women's voices and interests need to be reflected in the decision-making processes and outcomes predominantly led by men. Employers and trade unions representing female-dominated labor market sectors must have a say, as should women’s organizations and shelters, lest we sacrifice the significant progress we’ve made as a global community to advance gender equality.
The Womens' Equalities Committee UK has been concerned and pointed out how the UK Government’s priorities for recovery are heavily gendered in nature. Investment plans that are skewed towards male-dominated sectors have the potential to create unequal outcomes for men and women, exacerbating existing inequalities. They have also highlighted the need for schemes to support employees and the self-employed to be informed by an Equality Impact Assessment, drawing on evidence of existing inequalities.
My work over the past many areas and several research reports have evidenced that if you need women to be more empowered, Government Policies, Laws and Regulations will play the most powerful role in ensuring this. Moreover, if you want to build a more equal country, you definitely need to push equality for women into the political space and elect more women in politics. This essentially means supporting political agendas that prioritise women’s equality. Over the last century, global governments have introduced many progressive laws that support gender equality. Women can now own property on the same terms as men, serve on a jury, open a bank account and apply for a loan. In the UK, today we can sit in the House of Lords, work on the London Stock Exchange, secure a court order against an abusive spouse, get a legal abortion and report marital rape. Thanks to Gina Martin’s powerful rallies and support, ‘up skirting’ is now officially a criminal offense.
If these rights are now possible, other rights can be too. However, we still need to pass additional laws that protect rape victims’, rights and laws that make women feel safe and equal. Some antiquated laws need to be repealed as they no longer represent ‘modern society.’ For example, an employer can still legally require female employees to wear high heels because the government rejected a law that would have banned this type of sexist behaviour in the workplace. Men, on the other hand, must dress with an ‘equivalent level of smartness.’ In 2020, a group of female MPs from the UK’s Liberal Democrat Party were seeking to drive change by tabling bills that would establish laws against inequality. In her article, author Catriona Harvey-Jenner reveals how we can replace antiquated existing laws with relevant ones for today’s society. Some of these include:
• A bill that requires schools to let pupils use the toilet during lesson time.
• A bill that gives women offender’s community sentences unless they have committed a serious or violent offence and pose a threat to the public.
• A bill requiring the government to report on the impact of UK aid in tackling period poverty.
• A bill to prohibit the gender price gap/pink tax.
• A bill to make misogyny a hate crime.
• A bill to make support services for victims of sexual, violent and domestic abuse a right.
Here are some areas which also need attention:
Gender Data Gap
The gender data gap is a persistent problem. “The lack of data makes it difficult to set policies and gauge progress, preventing governments and organisations from taking measurable steps to empower women and improve lives,” says Mayra Buvinic, a UN Foundation senior fellow working on Data2X, an initiative aimed at closing the gender data gap. “Not having data on a certain area, behaviour or society means that you cannot design the right policies, you cannot track progress, you cannot evaluate,” she says. “You are basically not accountable.”
“Data alone, however, doesn’t set policy,” says Buvinic of Data2X. “We have to get politicians and countries designing programs based on data,” she says. “There’s no point in generating all this new data if it’s not going to be used.” In her book Invisible Women, author and activist Caroline Criado Perez recognises how important it is to close the gender data gap. She notes, ‘The human history is comprised of a pervasive gender data gap that effectively ‘silences’ and erases women’s accomplishments, experiences, needs and daily lives.’ Her book reveals that there is frightening amount we don’t know about women. She writes, ‘..from medical research to car safety to economic statistics, the vast majority of the world’s data is based on men—male bodies and male lives. The result is that medication is less likely to work for women and is more likely to cause (more severe) adverse reactions.’ Transportation systems, medical devices and treatments, tax structures, consumer products, even the smartphones and voice-recognition technologies we use every day have been designed with less consideration for women. All of this is a consequence of a global mentality that considers humanity as almost exclusively male.
We can address this data gap by creating a more integrated approach to inclusive, evidence-based decision-making and ensuring data collection is sex-disaggregated to identify the discrimination.
The Womens Equalities Committee recommends that data not only be collected and published disaggregated by sex but also other protected characteristics in a way that ‘facilitates reporting and analysis on how, for example, gender, ethnicity, disability, age and socio-economic status interact, and can compound disadvantage.’ Policies need to collects this type of data, press for data parity and ask the right questions to bring diversity into the process
In addition, we need to work together to reduce bias in collection algorithms. Artificial Intelligence systems learn to make decisions based on training data, which can include biased human decisions or reflect historical or social inequities, even if sensitive variables such as gender, race, or sexual orientation are removed.
Gender Pay Gap
The Equal Pay Act was enacted in 1983 in UK, but equal pay is still an issue; women lose out on nearly £140 billion a year given the gender pay gap. Recent pay gap reports indicate that women are also paid less than half of the salaries paid to men working for some of the UK’s biggest companies.
The gender pay gap has rightfully sparked rage in the recent years. It is measured by hourly wages, but the gap in overall earnings is actually about twice as big as the gap in hourly earnings, because women are more likely to work part-time. 41% of the women in UK work part-time as compared to 13% of men, as highlighted in Vicky Pryce's book Women vs. Capitalism. Similarly, women experience a pension deficit that later affects their retirement. Health authorities identify women over 60, single moms, and women of color as the most vulnerable groups, and the lower pension works against them, augmenting their economic dependence on men.
Perhaps one of the most striking reason for this wage disparity is that pay gap looks at pay but doesn’t take into consideration unpaid household chores. These kinds of tasks are the behind-the-scenes functions that keep people alive and healthy while enabling society to function, but are grossly undervalued or entirely unpaid.
Overall, the real gender gap is much more than is even evidenced by the pay gap. While research has shown that the gender pay gap is narrowing for young workers, it is widening among working mothers, as they are effectively suffering a pay penalty for taking time off or working fewer hours than men. Technology that facilitates answering e-mails at all hours in the evening puts working moms at disadvantage, as they already bear the disproportionate burden of domestic responsibilities. Organizations need to stop valuing presentism and on-call availability if they wish to level the playing field for women with children.
Introducing non-transferable rights for each parent to take leave in the first year of their child’s birth has been regarded as an important measure in gender equality and has also improved father-child relationships. Many European countries, recently joined by Finland give all parents the same parental leave, in a push to get fathers to spend more time with their children. This is also a fantastic move for supporting women back in their career after child birth. In 2009, UK granted paternity leave for the first time. But the take-up of paternity leave has been poor in its first decade, because until the employer also pays paternity leave at a rate that compensates men for the loss of their generally higher salary, the prospect will not seem that attractive. We also need to do better by mothers who would rather take more time off. They shouldn’t feel pressure to get back to work to avoid being penalized.
The pandemic has exacerbated the issues. Women compose a large chunk of part-time and informal workers around the world. Such jobs are most vulnerable in times of economic uncertainty. The workers who lose these jobs do not have the skills, nor the technology, to enable them to work from home or to retrain for other employment. Furthermore, following outbreaks, women experience more irreconcilable work breaks than men do and, while both genders face lower wages, women have found it harder to realize their pre-break earnings.
Similarly, women experience a pension deficit that later affects their retirement. UN Women highlights how women that are over-represented in low-paid food production work - including agriculture and grocery store service - need additional protections for their working conditions, salaries, and access to land.
Flexible work hours, work from home opportunities, job sharing, and part-time jobs (when appropriate) can ensure companies retain talented mothers during their child-rearing years. We need to actively push for these policy adjustments. The Womens Equalities Committee recommend that the Government amend the Flexible Working Regulations 2014, to remove the 26-weeks’ service threshold for employees to request flexible working arrangements. It is also recommended the GEO and EHRC explore the feasibility of reporting on parental leave policies in addition to gender gaps in furlough and redundancies for 2020/21 to supplement the information on pay and bonuses
Those organisations that do plan to return to physical workspaces should incorporate on-site childcare facilities wherever possible. This might not be easy to implement, but many companies have successfully done so already. Moreover, studies indicate that employee performance is higher and absenteeism lower among employees using on-site versus offsite childcare. On-site crèche facilities offer convenience and peace of mind. Employees feel valued and work harder to exceed expectations. In addition, on-site childcare also helps reduce tardiness and stress while alleviating separation anxiety. Plus, children in the workplace can add much-needed energy and cheer, and help employees be more mindful of aggressive, disruptive conflict.
Offering Free Universal Childcare
One of the most significant hurdles that prevents women from reaching the top of their career is the lack of available childcare support. The pandemic has forced people to pay attention to this overlooked benefit. According to a Trade Union Congress survey, two in every five working mothers with children under the age of 10 in the UK are struggling to find childcare, as breakfast and after-school clubs remain shut and care amongst friends and family remains limited. I was recently mentoring a woman who had moved closer to her mother to help care for her during the pandemic. The move negatively impacted her career opportunities. This is a women’s issue—not just an issue for working mothers.
‘Lack of childcare access risks turning the clock back on decades of labour market progress,’ warns Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress. And CEO of Working Families, Jane van Zyl, notes parents were expected to return to work in a similar way to pre-COVID times but without vital childcare infrastructure, ‘Caring responsibilities have been absent from the government’s economic recovery plans, and they now need to be centre stage.’ Caroline Nokes, chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, recognises the government has failed to heed months of warnings about the ‘real crisis looming. ‘We want women to come out of this pandemic in as good an employment position as men, and without some proactive policy to bring that about, it will simply not happen.’
The government needs to invest in childcare providers. According to the Women’s Budget Group, investing 2% of the GDP in caring industry would generate up to one and a half million jobs in the UK, compared to $750,000 for an equivalent investment in construction. The Women’s Equalities Committee recommends that ‘the Government publish, by June 2021, an early year’s strategy which sets out how childcare provision can best support not only working parents, but also those who are job-seeking and re-training. The review must also consider the feasibility of extending eligibility for free childcare provision for children under the age of three years.’
Giving girls access to quality education is crucial to realise a more equal world. Per UNICEF, most countries have achieved gender parity in primary enrolment, but in many countries, disparities persist. The government needs to set aside funds towards girl’s education. Another way to impact education is to ensure a diverse curriculum.
COVID-19 has forced nearly one billion students out of school, which includes 743 million girls in 185 countries. UNESCO fears that the rising drop-out rates will disproportionately affect adolescent girls. Girls may also find themselves caring for families while boys continue to study. This will only intensify gender gaps in education and lead to increased risk of sexual exploitation, early and unintended pregnancy, and early and forced child marriage. For most of these children, school closures are temporary — but many girls in developing countries may never go back to the classroom, reversing tireless efforts that made their education possible in the first place.
Last year, a research study examined whether global health policies during previous outbreaks had considered gender impact: “Across the board, gender issues were ignored.” The gender roles women have traditionally assumed expose them to the virus more than their male counterparts, as evident from SARS cases as well as Ebola outbreaks across Africa. The World Health Organization also noted this in an earlier report, which indicated the influence of these gender roles.
Globally, a majority of health care workers are women - nearly 70% according to some estimates - and most of them occupy nursing roles on the front lines. Some of these other roles include caring for the sick, birth attendants, cleaners, laundry workers, and morticians. In these careers, risk of exposure is higher and protections are not on par with other professions. Compounding the vast PPE shortages, standard protection gear that is available often has a unisex design that doesn't always fit women properly and thus makes it extremely uncomfortable. Many women even lack basic feminine hygiene products like pads and tampons; according to some accounts, female nurses in China had difficulty finding these products.
Even before the pandemic, period poverty has been a looming and grave challenge. Scotland has become the first country in the world to make period products free for all and tackle period poverty. Period poverty is when those on low incomes can't afford, or access, suitable period products. With average periods lasting about five days, it can cost up to £8 a month for tampons and pads, and some women struggle to afford the cost. MSPs unanimously approved the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill on Tuesday. There is now a legal duty on local authorities to ensure that free items such as tampons and sanitary pads are available to "anyone who needs them". The bill was introduced by Labour MSP Monica Lennon. She has been campaigning to end period poverty since 2016.She said it was a "practical and progressive" piece of legislation made all the more vital because of the coronavirus pandemic. "Periods don't stop for pandemics and the work to improve access to essential tampons, pads and reusable has never been more important," she added.
Furthermore, pregnant women have had less access to antenatal care as healthcare facilities are inundated with COVID-19 patients. There is also concern that a lack of systematic and consistent inclusion of women in NIH-supported clinical research could result in clinical decisions made for women based on findings from studies of men—without evidence that they were applicable to women. The need to reclassify pregnant women as a complex population was recognized as late in the 1994 IOM report. This reclassification is an important step toward engaging more scientific and ethical dialogue on pregnancy research.
Lastly, in many countries, fewer women than men have health insurance, and thus uninsured women have inadequate access to quality care, which produces inferior health outcomes.
Isolation has also led to a frightening escalation in domestic violence, with calls to the UK’s national abuse hotline rising by an appalling 65%. In Asian and African countries, thousands of women often lack access to resources, hotlines, and shelters in the best of times; during the current pandemic, these shortages are exacerbated by an increasing number of assaults, and thus victims are now living in fear of when the next terrifying blow will be dealt.
Policy makers have failed to identify this link when implementing quarantine measures. The Women’s Equality Party has pushed to immediately unlock emergency funding and introduce legislation to ensure that no one seeking help is turned away from the services they need. The pandemic also poses a high risk to the homeless, and homeless women face an even greater risk of sexual assault and violence.
Another area which needs intervention and regulation is media. Media is perhaps the most pervasive and powerful influence amongst the plethora of influences that shape our gender views. Media is ever-present, ingrained in the very fabric of our society. It is nearly impossible to avoid and its never-ending stream of messages permeates our consciousness at every turn.
Through television, newspapers and magazines, music videos, video games and every other form of entertainment, the media bombards us with gender stereotyping that has helped form our societal norms. The Influence of Media on Views of Gender by Julia T. Wood highlights how all forms of media communicate images of the sexes, many of which perpetuate unrealistic, stereotypical, and limiting perceptions. There are predominantly three themes that represent gender in media. First and foremost, is the underrepresentation of women, which connects to the broader historical and cultural narrative where men are the universal norm and thus women are less visible and insignificant. Secondly, men and women are depicted in stereotypical ways that reflect and reinforce socially endorsed views of gender. Thirdly, the portrayal of male and female relationships highlight traditional roles that only help normalise gender violence against women. The report notes:
‘Typically, men are portrayed as active, adventurous, powerful, sexually aggressive and largely uninvolved in human relationships. Just as consistent with cultural views of gender are depictions of women as sex objects who are usually young, thin, beautiful, passive, dependent, and often incompetent and dumb. Female characters devote their primary energies to improving their appearances and taking care of homes and people. Because media pervade our lives, the ways they misrepresent genders may distort how we see ourselves and what we perceive as normal and desirable for men and women.’
In the two years since I called attention to this issue in my first book Her Way To The Top: A guide to smashing the glass ceiling, the UK's advertising watchdog group introduced a ban on adverts featuring ‘harmful gender stereotypes’ or those which are likely to cause ‘serious or widespread offence.’ The group discovered that some portrayals could play a part in ‘limiting people's potential.’ The new rule follows a review of gender stereotyping in adverts by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)—the organisation that administers the UK Advertising Codes which covers both broadcast and non-broadcast adverts, including online and social media. The review revealed that harmful stereotypes could ‘restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults and these stereotypes can be reinforced by some advertising, which plays a part in unequal gender outcomes.’
"Our evidence shows how harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us. Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people's potential," said ASA chief executive Guy Parker.
Other situations likely to fall foul of the new rule include:
• Adverts that show a man or a woman failing at a task because of their gender, like a man failing to change a nappy or a woman failing to park.
• Adverts aimed at new mothers which suggest that looking good or keeping a home tidy is more important than emotional wellbeing.
• Adverts which belittle a man for carrying out stereotypically female roles. However, the new rules do not preclude the use of all gender stereotypes. The ASA said the aim was to identify ‘specific harms’ that should be prevented.
Even though films and dramas now feature women in leading roles—even women as super heroes—that does not outweigh the more pervasive ‘women as eye candy’ casting, according to a new study that found ‘harmful stereotypes’ still dominate the big screen.
Oscar-winning star of Thelma and Louise, Geena Davis has also created the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media that aims to address harmful gender stereotypes. She believes that girls need to see themselves reflected on screen through ‘positive and authentic characters who inspire them.’ She adds, ‘Content creators and storytellers in entertainment and media have an opportunity to support and influence the aspirations of girls and women and stop reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes.’
Government policies can play a crucial role in highlighting these incongruities. Social media is a valuable tool to extend the impact and reach of our message; and what’s more, it’s free! Challenge and counteract media that intentionally or unintentionally undermines women’s rights; make your voice heard by raising your concerns and registering your complaints where appropriate. People are now actively engaging in open conversations across social media by challenging the status quo, questioning harmful norms, tweeting hashtags, writing articles, and sharing videos and podcasts to show their solidarity for equality campaigns. Men who make their voices heard are a welcome addition in spaces where women have been fighting on their own for a long time. They are now truly interested in becoming part of the solution, whether it is because of the women in their lives (partners, sisters and daughters) or given increased awareness of equality challenges and benefits. Many leading celebrities and politicians have joined the fight and are lobbying for change too. As women, we couldn’t be more grateful.
Overall, there is a dire need to build on-ramps to the highway of economic opportunity for women. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a virtuous cycle that encourages women to participate in our economy will in turn present them as leaders in their families, communities and neighbourhoods.
Pro-women laws ensure future economies will be dynamic and inclusive; offering equal opportunity to everyone. Even if you are not in a government position, you can still lobby for such laws, write letters and sign petitions just like other activists do. Even small actions count and can potentially make a huge difference. Your one step forward could possibly inspire several others to do the same. However, creating meaningful laws is as important as enforcing them. Otherwise, the battle for women’s rights is only half won.
The views expressed are solely of the author.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
An inspiring leadership trainer, author and career coach based in London, Hira Ali has been committed to helping others achieve their potential throughout her award-winning career. She is an Associate Certified Coach accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and a licensed Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) Practitioner. She is passionate about advancing women & ethnic minority leadership and closing the gender and ethnicity gap. Hira is also a successful entrepreneur who has launched several businesses to support her mission, including Advancing Your Potential, Career Excel, International Women Empowerment Events and most recently, The Grey Area, which focuses on decoding inclusion. Her work has been featured in Forbes, Huff Post, and Entrepreneur, The Gulf News, British Muslim Magazine among hundreds of other media outlets, and earned Hira several prestigious honours including the Top 100 Women-Lift Effects award, the Women in Media award, recognition as a top three finalist for The Baton Awards Entrepreneur of the Year and Top D&I voices to follow on LinkedIn. She has also made several TV and radio appearances including British Muslim TV, Islam TV and has been featured as Outstanding British Pakistani by The British Pakistani Foundation.
In 2019, Hira released her first book entitled Her Way to the Top: A Guide to Smashing the Glass Ceiling. The book was recently seen in the top 3 Amazon Best Sellers in Gender Studies. It has earned outstanding reviews from global influencers like Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, Cherie Blair, Valerie Young, Dr. Lois P Frankle, Chiara Condi, Dr. Yvonne Thompson, Carole Stone, Dr. Shola, Ziauddin Yousafzai (Malala’s dad) and many more and received a letter of appreciation from the London Mayor himself. Her Way to the Top has made it to the local newspapers such as Ham and High and international ones such as Europe Breaking News.
Hira's second companion book—Her Allies: A Practical Toolkit to Help Men Through Advocacy —invites men to join the gender equality movement. Contact her on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram or Facebook