Growing Up as Girls: Cultural and Structural Barriers
By Sanjyot P. Dunung, Founder, Atma Global & Author
We've reached a global consensus that racial apartheid is wrong; let's at least now raise the floor and recognize that gender apartheid is also morally wrong.
Despite the progress toward gender equality that we have made in some countries, in other nations, being born a girl remains a severe impediment to accessing basic opportunities.
I'm a serial entrepreneur and the founder of a global digital education content company, specializing in cross-cultural issues. I also happen to be a minority female from a traditional culture. I mention that fact last because it's the least relevant reason as to how and why I became an entrepreneur and how I run my business.
But for many of the young women I mentor around the world, the fact that they are female is the most relevant factor in their lives. It determines everything that they can--or in most cases--cannot do. The daily limitations are often a suffocating combination of government restrictions and local cultural norms.
Over the years of working in global education and mentoring young people from around the world, girls and boys alike, it's clear that there are both structural and cultural barriers to equality. Overcoming global gender discrimination requires a two-prong strategy to address these barriers for girls and women.
Let's first address the structural barriers--the rules, laws, and policies enacted and enforced by governments--that continue to exist in many countries and are intended to marginalize women in society. These are barriers that uphold the system of gender apartheid. When we talk about starting a business or pursuing a career, the young women with whom I interact often tell me that it's "not even possible" because of the local laws. They remind me that I'm lucky to have grown up in a country where the laws did not limit my equal participation in getting an education or entering the professional world.
In many countries through collective efforts of elected officials and activists, there has been a lot of progress in removing the structural barriers for women. In these countries, educational and professional opportunities today far exceed what existed for our grandmothers. But there are still countries where the structural barriers--usually in the form of patriarchal and faith-based laws--deny girls access to equal education and full participation as adults in daily life and in the workforce.
We cannot profess to have achieved any semblance of gender equality when we live in a world where in a number of countries, women still can't start a business without a male partner, can't meet with male clients or colleagues, or can't travel to attend an industry conference or obtain a passport without a male guardian's approval. They can't choose how to dress or drive, and in many cases, they cannot even show their faces, be called by their names, or let their voices be heard by men. These ambitious and equally capable women remain excluded from the opportunity to contribute to their local economies.
There are numerous UN, World Bank, NGO, and private sector initiatives promoting female entrepreneurship worldwide. But how do we promote professionalism and entrepreneurship for women if they legally can't engage in business as equals? In some countries, the privileged few elite women have learned to use their family connections to circumvent restrictions, but for most women in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, to name a few, the laws still structurally limit even basic economic participation. And in many of these countries, the rights of women have actually gone backward!
If a country like Saudi Arabia is truly serious about its ambitious economic plans to promote growth and development by 2030, then it should start by removing the numerous structural, including legal, barriers that exist for women--enabling them to work equally alongside male colleagues, dress as they choose, and manage their own personal, financial, and business affairs. The recent announcement allowing women to drive beginning in June 2018 is certainly progress, but only if it is implemented without restrictions.
My hope is to call attention to the structural and legal restrictions in many of these countries that severely limit women's abilities to fully participate in their society. It's more than just having a handful of token female legislators, where numerical quotas can lead to a sense of complacency. Instead, women should have full equality of structural opportunity to freely participate in the political process, vote as equals, and govern. It's empowering them with the ability to craft legislation directly alongside their male colleagues, publicly voice their own opinions and debate, and openly lead both women and men in the public and private sectors.
Second, let's be clear, there are still deep cultural limitations to equality everywhere. The reality is that cultural change is evolutionary, taking decades not months, and it will take time for attitudes toward achieving equality to be consistent across all cultures and socioeconomic groups.
From my firm's work in the field, we know that it takes decades to change cultural influences--which are, in essence, the attitudes, values, beliefs, and practices that each of us is "programmed" with from birth by our families and communities. When both little girls and boys receive constant messages that there are not just biological differences, but differences in skills and aptitude--disparities that result from limited opportunities--it impacts both genders' ability to interact equally with one another.
When a little boy sees that the women in his life--from his mother to his sisters and everyone else--are treated differently ranging from what they are allowed to do, wear, say, or act, it colors how he sees all women. Subconsciously he internalizes that women are not quite equal and sadly perpetuates the same discriminatory attitudes of his forefathers. I often find, most curiously, that the very men who have experienced racism and denounce it will often turn around and consciously or unconsciously engage in sexism. Similarly, a little girl learns through these limitations very early on that she is somehow not equal to boys in her life, impacting not only the opportunities available to her, but her own expectations of what is possible.
These attitudes are ingrained in all of us from the moment we're born, forming our cultural perspective. And these early influences often become second nature as we enter adulthood, surfacing reflexively in daily human interactions, in the workplace, and even in the ballot box. We know that these attitudes are wrong, but changing them culturally will take time. But we have the opportunity now to remove at a minimum the structural barriers for women globally.
We need more moral outrage toward all the governments that still adhere to gender apartheid systems--just as we would if a government still sanctioned racial apartheid.
The problems are far from being insurmountable. We can demand that governments dismantle discriminatory laws and continue to encourage people to change their attitudes with a particular focus on the younger generations. Many of the worst gender restrictions are found in countries most eager to expand their economies. Global consumers should express their commitment to reforming discriminatory laws with their pocketbooks and their votes. Global businesses can likewise exercise their clout by engaging in socially responsible investing and divesting from all companies operating in and with countries that practice gender apartheid.
Removing both structural and cultural barriers to full gender equality globally will not be easy, but it IS achievable.
Copyright Sanjyot P. Dunung, 2017. All Rights Reserved.