The past six months must have come as a bit of a shock to anyone labouring under the misapprehension that we were living in a world where gender no longer matters.
Not too many years ago, some at the more colourful ends of pop sociology were forecasting “the end of men” as women ostensibly surged through the ranks of academia, business and the professions, rendering clunking males obsolete as they snapped up jobs in the new knowledge economy.
It’s certainly true that women are better represented in the labour market than at any previous time in history. But the illusion that mere representation would automatically translate into genuine equality has been shattered of late by a number of separate scandals.
The sexually predatory behaviour of the Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein has prompted an astonishing outpouring of anger and calls for change. Following US film and TV star Alyssa Milano’s exhortation to expose harassment using the #MeToo slogan on social media, hundreds of actresses – and millions of ordinary women – have added their personal account of the widespread, pervasive, inappropriate and discriminatory behaviour towards women in workplaces worldwide.
And where I live and work in the United Kingdom, complaints of sexual harassment in Parliament by MPs and staff have become a major issue, leading to investigations by the main political parties and even the resignation of the defence secretary Michael Fallon. Just this week we've witnessed the anti-sleaze campaign move on to the City of London, where a men-only fundraiser, the Presidents' Club, was exposed in an undercover report for the Financial Times newspaper. Young female "hostesses" working at the event were subjected to horrifying sexualised touching and comments, leading to widespread outrage and the club's closure.
Separately, the respected British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), our publicly owned media company, has been embroiled in its own furore. Following a report last October that identified a nine per cent gender pay gap between men and women, female stars have finally started to voice their long-suppressed irritation at being paid less than men for equivalent work. Just a few weeks ago, this culminated in the BBC's China editor, the highly capable fluent Mandarin speaker Carrie Gracie, resigning from her post in protest (although staying on as an employee). While perhaps a symbolic gesture, her move has put huge political pressure on the BBC to increase transparency and improve the gender pay balance.
Of course, the gender gap manifests itself in different ways in workplaces, sectors and countries around the world. The ultimate causes are extremely long-standing; the legacy of cultural norms stretching back centuries that mean even today, women and men are pushed – consciously or not – towards certain roles and away from others. It’s what sociologists refer to as "occupational segregation" and, despite progress in some areas, it’s not going away.
For instance, while the World Economic Forum (WEF) has made much of the fact that its annual gathering of the global business elite in the Swiss resort of Davos will for the first time be chaired entirely by women this year, female delegates will still make up just 21 per cent of the total. And the WEF's most recent Global Gender Gap report warned that male dominance of high-value industries such as IT, biotech and finance was set to further entrench pay inequality, as women suffer disproportionately from job automation.
Coupled with the continued expectation in most parts of the world that women will still perform the bulk of unpaid caring for children and domestic chores – often sacrificing career progression in the process – and it’s not hard to see how power structures develop that favour men at the expense of women and can create working environments where sexually coercive behaviour becomes part of the culture.
So has the fight for gender equality been lost? Well, despite the retrograde signs above, I think there are reasons to be optimistic as well.
One of the big surprises from last year's Global Gender Gap report was seeing that among the usual suspects in the top 10 nations that are closing the gap – the Scandinavian nations well known for their commitment to gender equality in law, for instance – at fourth place came Rwanda, a country which is still trying to shake off the legacy of its terrible genocide 24 years ago.
Now of course, Rwanda remains a low-income country where many people live in deep poverty. But its progress in closing the gender gap has been nothing short of remarkable. Its commitment to equality, enshrined in the constitution and later legislation, has seen the proportion of women in parliament surge to 61 per cent, the highest in the world.
And following sweeping changes to land ownership, start-up laws and access to finance, women have prospered in business too. Rwandan women now earn 88 per cent as much as men for equivalent work which, while not quite equal, leaves the United States’ 73 per cent in the shade. Even Iceland, which this year became the first country to make it illegal to pay men more than women for the same work, only managed 81 per cent in this area.
Indeed, while the genocide nearly a generation ago was an unmitigated tragedy that tore the country apart and saw 800,000 people slaughtered in just 100 days, it might have influenced Rwanda’s subsequent course. In the wake of the killings, 70 per cent of the remaining population were women, who shouldered the responsibility of rebuilding their lives and their country. Young Rwandan women today refer to their mothers’ generation as “queens” in reverence to their fortitude in steering the country towards a better future.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed in 2015, place a responsibility on all countries to work towards gender equality as a key aim. To quote former UN secretary general Kofi Annan: “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance”.
Around the world, the denial of women’s rights has economic as well as social consequences. It’s estimated that India’s economy, for instance, would be 27 per cent larger if women’s labour market participation was as high as men’s. And that’s before factoring in the type of work women could be doing if they could only break through the myriad glass ceilings put in their way.
But as the Weinstein scandal has highlighted, even when women achieve success and status, equal respect isn’t always forthcoming. A recent report by the charity Plan International uncovered disturbing findings, which revealed that even in countries like Australia, Germany and Denmark – with supposedly high regard for equality – more than 50 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence.
So even as women achieve ever more in economies globally, we’ll still need to see this accompanied by a much deeper cultural and social change before we can truly claim that gender inequalities are a thing of the past.
Professor Henrietta Moore is director of the Institute for Global Prosperity at University College London, where she is chair of culture, philosophy and design