I can’t remember a more exciting time to be a feminist. Both here in the UK and globally, we are having long overdue conversations and uncovering uncomfortable truths. It’s a process which is painful, of course. But, if we support each other, it’s also empowering, exciting, vibrant, and full of potential.
The most thrilling reason for this – which is also the reason that I believe the current movement will win ground-breaking changes – is that the battle for gender parity is an increasingly broad church. Winning allies and building partnerships is the key to making change. That’s what I see happening in this decade.
When London mayor Sadiq Khan declares himself a feminist, you know something exciting is happening. When a blockbuster movie features an Indian man who revolutionised women’s access to sanitary pads, you know people are going to sit up and take notice. And when the #MeToo movement starts conversations in industries and sectors who thought themselves insulated from the problem, we know we are getting somewhere.
Employers – whether in the public or private sector - may not have always seen themselves as at the forefront of the battle for equality. But companies have a critical role to play. Work is what shapes and controls huge swathes of our lives; in terms of time, money and identity. If gender inequality remains entrenched in this sphere, then we’ll simply never solve the problem.
Arguably – and lots of what we have seen recently would tend to prove this point - the workplace represents the hardest nut to crack. That’s because the attitudes that lead to well-known problems such as the glass ceiling and the gender pay gap are entrenched early. Girls are taught to hold preconceptions from an early age about what they can and can’t do; a certain job is a man’s domain, or that behaving in a certain way in the workplace is ‘pushy.’
It’s one of the hot topics at the World Economic Forum this year, where big companies like M&G Investments, Credit Suisse and Unilever are taking part in discussions on the barriers that prevent girls and young women progressing in the workplace.
That means, for example, companies taking measures to increase female participation in the workforce, and, crucially, at decision-making levels. And in parallel, encouraging male staff’s equal engagement in parental care. It’s policies like these that will shift the old shibboleth of ‘father as breadwinner’ and ‘mother as caregiver.’
But this culture shift remains a big challenge – and we shouldn’t be naïve that we’re nearly there. We’re not. Analysis by Plan International indicates that at present, no single country on earth is on track to meet the target of gender equality by 2030 that all world leaders agreed under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Even the nations we might think of as more ‘advanced’ in this respect – like Norway or Germany – still have a way to go.
We’re driven by this injustice and the denial of equal rights. But, should anyone need further convincing, the economic case for narrowing the gender gap that persists throughout a girl’s life - in education and in work - is overwhelming.
For example, every extra year in school boosts a girl’s future income by ten to 20 per cent. And when it comes to the workplace, companies with strong female leadership on their boards show a return on equity that is higher than those without – 10.1 per cent versus 7.4.
That might surprise you, but it doesn’t surprise me. I, like millions of other campaigners worldwide, have a gut instinct that justice is not just good for individuals, it’s good for society as a whole. We should be excited that more and more key players are coming to the same realisation.
The movement for equality is driven by inspiring campaigners such as Malala Yousafzai and Laura Bates, supported by a wonderful and diverse movement of grassroots activists. We believe that their success will be taken to the next level when allies of all stripes join the cause – and we welcome them with open arms.