Observing the atmosphere in the World Economic Forum in 2014 one could notice a euphoria when the Forum concluded that “Yes, gender equality is indeed achievable”. This euphoria soon disappeared when the Forum added that it will take some time though to achieve that; just another 81 years. As Lauren Davidson (2014) points out “Since the Forum started tracking women in the world nine years ago the gender gap has closed by 4pc, from 56pc in 2006 to 60pc today. At this rate, women will not attain equal economic participation levels and opportunities until 2095. And that’s assuming that progression continues at its current pace.” Therefore, the question raised is both crucial and straightforward: where do we stand now? Is there any progress indeed and, if yes, can we identify it and measure it? Also, is the picture the same all over the world or one can indeed significant differences deriving from different political, cultural and legal systems? To understand the current state of play in gender equality it is equally important to refer to crucial concepts such as gender and patriarchy.
Starting with the big ideas, first it is important to understand, as Spike Peterson pointed out, that “we do not experience or know the world as abstract ‘humans’ but as embodied, gendered beings” (1992: 20). Hence, it follows that international politics and economics unravel in a social context that is structured by gendered identities and meanings. International politics, in other words, seem to be written by men, through men’s eyes, for men. One might ask at this point, but “why is that the case?”. The answer lies in the notion of patriarchy. Rich argues in her seminal work Of Women Born (1986: 57) that “Patriarchy is the power of the fathers: a familial-social, ideological political system in which men by force, direct pressure, or through ritual, tradition, law and language, customs, etiquette, education and the division of labour determine what part women shall or shall not play and in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male.” In this context, it is important to understand how masculinity and femininity are essentially socially constructed categories and it is the patriarchical structures that naturalize these categories and their hierarchy. From the business sector to politics and from arts to sports one can discern binaries of strong vs. weak; reason vs. emotion; mind vs. body where the feminine is portrayed as a weak, the sensitive and the emotional. As Shepherd suggests, popular culture is particularly influential in the reproduction of these meanings as “our cognitive frameworks are (re)produced in and through the stories we tell ourselves and others” (2013: 3). Specifically, the stories that we are told about gender and violence can shape our ideas and assumptions about the world and our place within it. Under these assumptions politics and business are understood as the province of man. Everyday politics and business seem to be based on a masculine bias where for women to succeed they to act and think like women. Thatcher became a successful prime minister by showing masculine values (hence, “The iron lady”), Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, did not take a maternity leave to show that she is in a position to act as a male CEO, and one can notice so many other examples that demonstrate the prevalence of masculine values.
Yet, beyond these theoretical and conceptual clarifications, what matters the most is the impact they have had. Historically, for women, there have been many sources of insecurity other than war such as economic, political and legal discrimination, rape as instrument of warfare, dominance and oppression, and last but definitely not least domestic violence. Does this mean, however, that the situation remains the same? Not exactly. According to the Global Gender Gap Report that focuses on equality in economy, politics, health and education six (i.e. Sri Lanka, Mali, Croatia, Macedonia, Jordan and Tunisia) out of the original 111 countries included in the original report seem to have worse opportunities for women than they did nine years ago, Furthermore, none of the countries under monitoring has eliminated either of these gender gaps, and just 14 nations have narrowed the economic disparity to 80pc. The global politics gap stands at 21pc, meaning the average woman has a fifth of the political empowerment that the average man has. According to the World Economic Forum (2014) “much of the progress on gender equality over the last 10 years has come from more women entering politics and the workforce … there are now 26% more female parliamentarians and 50% more female ministers than nine years ago”. True (2012), on the other hand, seems to be more pessimistic (2012) and argues, the global financial crisis in 2007, have in fact accentuated women’s poverty and inequality, further worsening sexual and gender-based violence.
To conclude, the picture is both mixed and complex. On the one hand according the Global Gender Gap Index and the UN Millenium Developments Goal there is progress indeed, albeit in some countries gender equality is prevalent, but at the same time observing more carefully our life in the West in different eras of human activity one can realise that this is a more complex problem. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, said that achieving gender equality is “obviously necessary for economic reasons …but even more important, gender equality is a matter of justice. As a humanity, we also have the obligation to ensure a balanced set of value” (2014). It is clear that much work still remains to be done, and it is also clear that the change needs to be both top down (i.e. from governments, international institutions, etc) but also bottom-up (i.e. from ourselves and our own beliefs).
Davidson, L. (2014), “Gender equality will happen – but not until 2095,” The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/11191348/Gender-equality-will-happen-but-not-until-2095.html
Shepherd, L. (2013) Gender, violence and popular culture (Routledge).
Spike Peterson, S.V. (2009). ‘How is the world organized economically?’ in Jenny Edkins and Maja Zehfuss (eds.) Global Politics: A New Introduction (Routledge) Chapter 7.
_________(1992) ‘Transgressing boundaries: Theories of knowledge, gender and international relations,’ Millennium, vol. 21, no. 2.
True, J. (2012) ‘Boom, Bust and Beating: International Financial Institutions, Crises and Violence Against Women’ in The Political Economy of Violence Against Women (Oxford University Press), pp. 95 –111
United Nations (2014). Millennium Development Goals – Gender Equality. Available at: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/
World Economic Forum (2014). The Global Gender Gap Report. Available at: http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2014/