Global Challenge 11:

How can the changing status of women help improve the human condition?

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Empowerment of women has been one of the strongest drivers of social evolution over the past century and is acknowledged as essential for addressing all the global challenges facing humanity. Gender equity has entered the global consciousness and is guaranteed by the constitution of 84% of the world’s nations.  The “international women’s bill of rights” (CEDAW) has been ratified by all but seven countries. Women’s right to vote is virtually universal. Women account for 27.6% of the membership of national legislative bodies in 2024: an increase from 12.9% in 1997, and 52 nations have had a woman head of state in the past 50 years. Women in ministerial positions increased from 9.9% in 2006 to 16.1% in 2022, and women occupy 28% of business management positions. However, more than 50% of 10-year-olds live in countries with high levels of gender inequality, and COVID exacerbated the burden of unpaid care for women and worsens violence against women, unemployment, school dropout, and child marriage. As a result, the goal of gender equality by 2030 is still far from being achieved. The Global Gender Gap 2023 Index for 146 countries showed the gender gap closing by 68.6%, along with the Health and Survival gap closed by 96%, the Educational Attainment gap by 95.2%, Economic Participation and Opportunity gap by 60.1% and political empowerment gap by 22.1%.

Labor force participation rates for women aged 25-54 in 2022 was 61.4% compared to 90.6% for men. Women earn 23% less than man in 2022. Women compose about 15% of corporate board seats worldwide, an increase of 54% since 2010, yet they own less than 20% of the land while they are nearly half of the agricultural workforce. Persistent discriminatory social structures have to be challenged to make progress in the future. At current rate of progress, it would take another 75 years in the G20 countries to achieve equal pay for equal work. And COVID made it worse with lowered wages and increased workloads for women.

Women are more likely than men to be “solopreneurs” (1.47 women solopreneurs for every 1 man), creating new forms of work, although lack of adequate social safety net regimes put an extra burden on them. Creating equal opportunities for women would unleash creativity and foster entrepreneurship, mostly because the education gap has been generally closed. In some countries, women outnumber men in post-secondary education. The conversation on the status of women needs to transition from victimhood to modern-day powerhouse. Since women drive 70 to 80% of all consumer purchasing, and given women’s educational responsibilities within the family, their education as responsible consumers could change patterns and address some of the other challenges facing humanity.

While the health gender gap is generally closing, recognizing women’s reproductive rights and providing effective family planning are yet to be guaranteed around the world. Women’s access to education and other rights have been cut back in Afghanistan and reproductive rights have been cut back in the United States. Women continue to be treated as second-class citizens, and barbarian extremist practices such as female genital mutilation traumatizes millions of girls each year, with an additional 86 million potential victims by 2030. Violence against women is the most under-reported crime worldwide, continuing to be perpetrated with impunity. Although 119 countries have laws that penalize domestic violence, almost 35% of women experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, and over 600 million women live in 15 countries where domestic violence is still not a crime. Violence against women increased during the pandemic, while services to address such violence have been reduced.

During the spread of the COVID pandemic women lost more employment that men, reducing the limited gains made in the past decades. The pandemic deepened pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic. In addition, 19.2% of women 18 years and older are disabled compared to 12% for males, another factor in discrimination.

Nevertheless, The Millennium Project study on changing stereotypes showed that slow but massive shifts in gender stereotypes will occur over the next few decades.

  • Mothers should use their educational role in the family to assertively nurture gender equality and should be supported by their families, communities, and the media to do this.
  • Make policies to change social structures that help women meet the demands of their careers and family responsibilities.
  • Encourage girls’ education, especially in STEM education and innovation to reach income parity (according to UNESCO women are only 1/3 of the global scientific workforce).
  • Where possible, ensure free (or employer-paid) preschool and child care.
  • Equal remuneration for work of equal value has to be integrated into law.
  • Pursue government policies that encourage female university graduates to start their own businesses.
  • Eliminate gender preferences and discrimination in job descriptions and actual hiring in occupations or industries that are dominated by men by default.
  • Occupational and sectoral segregation should be eliminated by valuing care work similarly to other professional work, thus also addressing gender stereotyping.
  • Popularize mobile-phone apps that instantly report violence to police and follows up on investigation and prosecution.
  • Make international aid programs conditional on respect for women’s rights, enforcement of treaties protecting women rights, and prosecution.
  • Apply sanctions for non-compliance on international treaties on women’s rights.
  • Increase women’s participation in peace-building negotiations and foreign aid administration.
  • Create, define, and criminalize domestic violence in more detail, and implement laws against treating females as second-class citizens, violence against women, patriarchal attitudes, and barbarian practices such as female genital mutilation and “honor killings.”
  • There should be no age limit for prosecution for violence and rape.
  • Ensure a woman’s rights to land ownership, financing, and decisions over their own bodies.
  • Fight gender stereotyping in the media, stop the excessive details of female victims, and increase the percent of women executives in journalism (37% of media and communications leadership in 2022 were women).
  • Add martial arts and other forms of self-defense in elementary and secondary schools’ physical education classes for girls, not only for self-defense but also as a deterrence policy.
  • Improve data on the legal and economic implications for women and violence against women.
  • Implement UN and US recommendations for prevention of trafficking of women and girls.

Sub-Saharan Africa: This region had the highest improvement of all regions in women’s parliamentary representation in 2023, growing from 9.8% in 1995 to 27.6% in 2023. Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa became the first woman Chairperson of the African Union Commission and Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became the first female Director-General of WTO.  34% of the Speakers of Parliament in Southern and East African countries are women and 26% of national legislators are women. The 2023 Gender Parity Index rated Sub-Saharan Africa slightly below the global weighted average score; only better than Southern Asia and the Middle East and North Africa. ILO notes that women have a nearly 85% likelihood to be in vulnerable employment versus 70% likelihood for male. Adult female labor force participation is expected to slightly increase from almost 72% in 2014 to 72.4% in 2018, yet lower than their male counterparts, which is estimated at 87.7% and almost 89% respectively. Closing the wage and employment gender gap would mean an 121% income increase for women, valued at some $0.7 trillion. Although women represent 52% of the agricultural labor force, they have little or no land ownership and are further affected by increasing land-grabbing by foreign companies or countries. Low levels of education and qualification makes it very difficult for the region as a whole and for women specifically to escape the poverty vulnerability cycle.

Presently, the average fertility rate in the region is 5.1 and is not expected to drop below 3 by mid-century. Even though the global maternal mortality ratio has been declined greatly, with 55% of the about 800 maternal deaths per day occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. The region has the world’s highest maternal mortality, with some countries’ rates as high as 1,000 death per 100,000 live births. In Kenya, every two hours a woman dies in childbirth; that’s 4,400 death per year, most of them preventable. About 20% of Kenyan women experienced online harassment. According to Save the Children, Niger is the worst country in which to be a mother. UNICEF reports that 1 in 11 children born in sub-Saharan Africa dies before the age of 5.

Violence against women is widespread and, in most cases unreported. In South Africa, there are an estimated 60,000 cases of sexual assault per year. Rape and sexual assaults are even more acute in the conflict-torn zones, mostly in the DRC, Sudan, and Nigeria (with Boko Haram) and the neighboring areas. Sexual violence is used as a weapon and continues with impunity. In some Muslim communities, mostly in Egypt and Uganda, female genital mutilation and cutting is still practiced, despite increased international opposition. Improved education system and investments for paid-job opportunities (mainly for the youth), increased social spending (in some countries, where only 4 to 6% of the GDP is allocated to social protection benefits); improved infrastructure systems (mainly water, sanitation, and electricity), and enforcement of gender-equity regulations are some basic changes needed to improve the status of women in Africa.

Middle East and North Africa: Women’s rights in the MENA region remains critical and even worsening in some countries with the rise of religious extremism and expanded enforcement of the Sharia law. The region has the lowest gender parity of any region. ILO notes that the region’s women are much more likely than men to be in vulnerable employment — at a rate of 55% versus 32% in North Africa and 42% versus 27% in the Middle East.  Only the United Arab Emirates has achieved parity at the parliamentary level. Lebanon has the highest parity for ministerial positions with 32% women.  Tunisia is the first Arab country to have a woman as head of government (2021), while Israel was the first in the region with a female head of state (1969).

Stoning to death is still used as a legal form of punishment for “adultery” in several Muslim countries, and the purdah(female seclusion) and namus (virtue) customs persist in many Arab regions. Sexual harassment, rape, and sexual violence by ISIS (Islamic State) and other extremist groups and security forces across the region have reached intolerable levels. As of 2017, more than 200 million girls and women have been victims of genital mutilation and cutting in Africa and the Middle East where the practice is concentrated. However, these are increasingly being challenged by empowered women, the outcry of the global society, and women’s-rights icons such as Malala Yousafzai. In the Arab MENA region, philosophical, ethnic, and ethical assumptions have to change in order to make possible the structural transformations needed to improve the status of women. The international community could use sanctions and conditioned-aid, conditioned-partnership in international organizations and business partnerships to help accelerate the long-due change. Israel (ranked 65) is the best performing country in the region and has closed over 70% of the gender gap.

Asia and Oceania: High incomes and education levels in countries like Japan challenge old family structures. However, women occupy only 14.7% of senior leadership positions in Japan. If women participated in the economy equally to men, Japan’s GDP could grow by 16%. Together with the Republic of Korea (where women hold 10% of leadership positions), they launched the Gender Parity Task Force to improve women’s career opportunities. According to the Global Gender Gap report, Japan fell from 104th place in 2014 to 116th place in 2022 and 125th place in 2023. Republic of Korea rose from 117th to 107th place in 2023 and China fell from 102nd to 107th place in 2023. The region’s best performer was New Zealand ranked 4th followed by the Philippines (16th), Australia (26th), while the worst performers are Iran (143) and Pakistan (142).

The East Asia and Pacific region have nearly closed enrollment gaps between girls and boys in primary, secondary, and tertiary education, with girls even outperforming boys in some countries. However, in South Asia, only Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Bangladesh have reached gender parity in primary schools, reports UNESCO. China has closed the gap for primary education, and reached 46.6% parity in the ninth year of schooling. Women in China were 45.17% of the labor force in 2022 (up from 43.5% in 2020). An estimated 19% of executives in China are women compared to the world average of 25%.  Only a quarter of researchers in East Asia and the Pacific Rim are women.

Although all countries of South Asia have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, UNDP reports that gender inequality causes a 60.1% loss in human development in the region, while ActionAid estimates that closing the wage and employment gaps would mean a 73% income gain valued at some $4.3 trillion. Central Asia has closed 69.1% of its gender gap in 2022. WHO notes that the region has about 30% of the world’s maternal deaths, the second highest globally. Mainly due to the dual legal civil and religious systems in many parts of Asia early and forced marriage, violence, discrimination with respect to inheritance and land ownership, dowry issues, and honor killings continue to be prevalent and unpunished. In Afghanistan, the criminal law prevents prosecutions for domestic violence, forced and child marriage, and there were calls to overturn the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women for being counter to Islam. This prejudice against women costs Afghanistan about $1 billion per year. The project “Engaging Young Men through Social Media for the Prevention of Violence against Women” aims to end gender-based violence in Asia and the Pacific by using social media.

Bias in favor of sons continues to be of concern in many countries of the region. The sex ratio at birth in India 952 girls per 1,000 boys, due to abortions of female fetuses. China‘s one-child policy worked to reduce fertility rate, but the Communist Party leadership ended the policy and allowed married couples to have three children as of May 2021. However, if they have more children, women worry about employment discrimination.

About 22% Eastern and South-Eastern Asian legislators are women, Oceania has 20%, Central and Southern Asia has 19%, and Western Asia has 18%. After adopting the political quota system, the share of women in the parliaments of Central Asian countries increased from none to over 20%, although they still have to struggle with the reminiscent patriarchal structures.

Europe: Gender parity is highest of all regions at 76.3%, with 20 out of 36 countries with at least 75% parity. Scotland was the first country to legislate free period products for those in need. Gender parity is an important part of the structural changes in Europe. The highest gender gap by sector is in politics—on average at 80%. Women represent 37.2% of the members of the European Parliament, while only 8 of the 27 commissioners are women. The Nordic countries—Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden—are among the top five ranked by the 2022 Global Gender Gap report, and the countries have closed their gender gap by between 80% to 86%. As of May 2016, across the EU, women account for 29% of national parliaments. Although Poland has passed a law that requires at least 35% of local candidates in general elections to be female, the rate of women in the Parliament after the last election is 27.4% (as of 2016). The inter-institutional women’s caucus launched in December 2014 is supposed to address the gap by promoting gender equality in the EU institutions. In May 2016, women’s share of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in the EU-28 was 23.3% (up from 11.9% in 2010). A draft EU directive voted by the EU Parliament in 2013 requires publicly-listed companies to have 40% of each sex on their board by 2020, and the Aspire Fund supports female business initiatives. A campaign has begun in Germany to get women in 30% of the management positions in journalism by 2017. Albania has reached a record 70% of women in its cabinet. Fifty percent of the researchers and engineers in Denmark and Norway are female.

In the EU, women represent 60% of university graduates and in 2012, on average 83% of women reached upper secondary school, compared to 77.5% of men. However, women earn on average 16% less per hour than men for the same work, or 31% less per year, since 32.6% of women are part-time workers. This also impacts old age living standards, with 23% of women aged 65 and over being at risk of poverty, compared to 17% of men. Nevertheless, Europe has the best social policies, including child care, maternity leave, and health care. Violence against women remains a concern, with some 33% of women in the EU having experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. Some 10% of women complaining of sexual harassment or stalking through new technologies. About 80% of Russian women aged 16 to 60 years are employed and comprise 48.6% of employment. Women account for 43.4% of Russians with a PhD.  Turkey, that aspires to join the EU, has yet to address its gender gap. As of July 2017, female representation in its parliament was only 14.6%, ranking 133 by the Global Gender Gap Index, and it has a large gender income gap (estimated income for female earning $10,501 compared to $26,893 for males.)

Latin America: The region continues to progress since 2017, with a 1.7% increase in 2023, bridging 74.3% of its overall gender parity. Women’s participation in Latin American parliaments has improved due to the introduction of quotas in many countries. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile elected women heads of state. As of June 2017, 11 countries in the region have achieved more than 30% of women in parliament. In Mexico, 38% of the Chamber of Deputies are women and the President’s Reform Initiative recommends that 50% of all political parties’ candidates for popular positions should be women. Women held 1.6% of CEO position and 14.5% of corporate broad of directors in 2023. The 2014 Global Gender Gap report indicates that 14 of the 26 countries in the region have closed over 70% of the gender gap, with Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Jamaica being the region’s highest ranked, while Guatemala, Belize, and Paraguay are the region’s lowest ranked.

More women than men attain tertiary education across the region, but IMF’s 2017 paper remarks that female labor participation was just over 50%, compared to 80% of males. Gender pay gaps also remains; women are still earning 26% less than their male peers. Rural and indigenous women work unpaid at least 16 hours a day. Despite economic and political progress, women’s well-being continues to be hindered by machismo political and social structures and women easily become victims of organized crime in various forms. At least 4,473 women were killed by their husbands or relatives in 2021 in the region, up from 1,678 in 2014. As a result of restrictive legislation, one in three maternal deaths is due to abortion, and the lifetime risk of maternal death is 0.4%.

North America: The region ranks second behind Europe overall having closed 75% of the gender gap, though it is 1.9% lower than the previous edition, with the US 2.1% and Canada 0.2% declines. Women’s share of the total labor force in North America was 46.6% in 2023 (46.5 in the U.S and 47.4% in Canada). Women earn more than their partners in about 10% of dual-earning households in the U.S. and 33% in Canada. As many women have higher education level than men and their number in senior management positions is increasing. However, only 5.8% of women hold CEO positions at S&P companies in the U.S., and 69.9% of mothers with children under age of 18 were working; compared to 92.7% of fathers. Silicon Valley has the largest pay gap in the U.S.  with an earnings difference of $40,584 between genders. Women earn 78% of what men earn for comparable work, and the wage gap is worse for women of color. The gap was largest for Hispanic and Latina women who were paid 54% of what white men earned. Based on the trends of the past half-century of progress, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that the U.S. national wage gap will close around year 2058. States vary significantly, with projections to 2038 in Florida and 2159 in Wyoming. The Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA) passed the House of Representatives on April 15, 2021 by a vote of 217-210, but failed in the Senate in June 2021 in a procedural vote.

Women’s representation in the U.S. Senate in 2024 is 25% (25 Senators) and 29% (126 of 435) Congressional Representatives.  Canada has 30% women in the House of Commons – the highest percent in its history, but only 1 of 13 provincial premiers are women. Both the U.S. and Canadian governments made critical cuts in domestic and international family planning programs for women. Since the Supreme Court Overturned Roe v. Wade, as of May 2024, abortion is banned in 14 states, gestational limit between 6 and 12 weeks in 5 states, limit between 15 and 22 weeks in 6 states, and

abortion is legal beyond 22 weeks in 25 states and D.C.  The U.S. is among the countries with the costliest childbirth, most expensive day care, and the shortest parental leave. Among 41 nations, the U.S. is the only country which doesn’t mandate national regulations or government-provided paid parental leave. These problems are even more critical as the share of one-parent families in the U.S. has increased; children living with a single mother is the second most common family arrangement. More than half of single mothers are living in extreme poverty.

Canada provides maternity or parental benefits. According to the Employment Insurance Maternity and Parental Benefits policy (except for Quebec Provence), which has its own parental insurance plan), the EI benefits generally pay 55% of one’s average insurable weekly earnings, up to a maximum amount. (As of January 2017) Employers must give parents a minimum number of weeks for maternity, parental, and adoption leave. But employers don’t have to pay them during such times. More than 40% of new parents surveyed said they could not afford maternity leave, and 81% of those who took the leave and returned to work, would have stayed on leave longer if they could have afforded it. The share of employed mothers with children aged 6 and over increased from 46% in 1976 to almost 80% by 2012, while women with children earn, on average, 12% less than women without children. In the U.S., violence against women was reduced by 55% since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.