The hard path to gender equity

A recent report showed little progress has been made in achieving gender equity over the past decade. UNSW Professor Claire Annesley identifies five key strategies to keep moving towards a fairer future.
Samantha Dunn | UNSW Newsroom

In 2015 the United Nations set out 17 goals as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – one of these goals was to achieve gender equity. But this month a UN Development Program Survey, 2023 Gender Social Norms Index, revealed that bias against women is similar to what it was a decade ago, and gender equality is stagnant.

Gender inequalities are still deep-rooted in every society," the UN report says. "Women suffer from lack of access to decent work and face occupational segregation and gender wage gaps. In many situations, they are denied access to basic education and health care and are victims of violence and discrimination. They are under-represented in political and economic decision-making processes.”

The survey covers 85 per cent of the global population, so the results are significant – and concerning for those seeking to drive change.

“While I was disappointed to read that these attitudes still exist, and to such a high degree, I am not surprised,” says Professor Claire Annesley, whose research expertise includes gender equality, political representation and public policy. “We’re tackling really entrenched views. And any approach that thinks that naming the problem plus a little bit of education will lead to change has been proven not to work.”

Prof. Annesley suggests that there are five important strategies to keep moving towards gender equity.

1. Gender equity requires good design

“Anyone reading the headline stats out of the report would agree that they are bad,” says Prof. Annesley. “But simply sharing statistics will not mean things are done differently, because we are wanting to change attitudes that have existed for such a long time. And there is a lot of power in favour of certain people embedded in the status quo. So change means asking for power and influence to be shifted as well. It means those seeking gender equity need to think about how to design for more gender equality.

The UN report found:

  • Almost 9 out of 10 men and women surveyed still hold fundamental biases against women.
  • Two out of five people think that men make better business executives.
  • Half of those surveyed still hold the belief that men make better political leaders than women.
  • A quarter of respondents believed it is justified for a man to beat his wife.
  • A quarter of respondents have experienced intimate partner violence.

“Harvard Kennedy School Professor of Public Policy Iris Bohnet gives a fantastic example in her book What Works: Gender Equality by Design. She tells the story of an orchestra that held open auditions, and they were frustrated that, audition after audition, it was always guys who got selected to be part of the orchestra. So they redesigned the audition process, and they left the curtain down. The change in the design meant that you could no longer see the musicians, and instantly they got a much more equal composition of the orchestra.

“And that's what I mean by design. You have to change the rules of the game to design out the opportunity for our bias to click into our behaviour or our decision-making.

“Another example of redesign that has worked is political parties deciding to recruit candidates from women-only shortlists in order to increase representation of women. So, they change the rules to address a problem and redesign the process so that the outcome can lead to more gender equality.

“The traditional rules are designed in a way that reinforces the position of men within society and you can redesign rules to create more gender equality.”

2. Women need to be allocated more resources

“It's one thing to say we want more equality, but actually the thing that holds women back from being able to take up opportunities whether that's in leadership, or to stand for political office, or even to leave violent relationships are resources.

“So, while changes in rules can mean that, hypothetically, women can take up leadership roles or return to the workforce, they need financial support to make that a viable option. So, an example of using resources to pursue gender equity would be covering the cost of childcare as a society.

“Another example of effective resourcing is microfinancing, where money is lent to women to start, or support them in, their own business.

“The UN report sets out an example in Bangladesh, where Grameen Bank pioneered microfinance to support economically and socially disempowered women. The program changed the gender power roles within households, and empowered women to improve their situations financially and socially.”

3. Gender equity is not just about women

“The report is full of information about women and what's holding them back. An important and less talked about issue is that of the role to be played by men in the process of achieving gender equity.

“An example from my research into how to get more women to take part in politics, and the impact they have when they do, includes that the biggest predictor of change was when a Prime Minister or President made a pledge to say that, ‘My cabinet, if I get elected, will be 50 per cent women or 30 per cent women.’ And that promise is the biggest predictor of an increase in the presence of women in cabinet.

“And it is mostly men who have made that promise. In the US, Bill Clinton made that promise, Zapatero in Spain made that promise, Justin Trudeau made that promise in Canada. When there are men who step up and speak out and advocate for change, it can be exceptionally powerful.”

4. Gender equity requires vigilance

“As the report shows, you can make progress, but you have to be watching, and enforcing and reinforcing the progress all the time.

“Whenever there is conflict or crisis or a slight untangling of democratic principles, then you can rapidly see a backsliding of progress towards gender equality. You see that in a conflict situation, like a war. You can see that where there's a crisis, like COVID, and you can see that where there is a crisis of democracy and some of those kind of basic principles around equality, entrenched in democracy are questioned and unpicked and that you might see that play out in terms of women’s safety or reproductive rights. Part of keeping on the path to gender equity is vigilance that gains made, don't get lost.”

5. Progress towards gender equity is part of a bigger project

“Finally, gender equity is part of a bigger project towards equality more generally across society. A society that is inclusive of First Nations people, of people of all races, of the LGBTQI+ community, of people living with disabilities. The more we have equality for all groups, the more likely we are able to promote equality for women as well.

“And this pursuit is about giving up some privilege and sharing, and that is why it doesn't happen immediately. It requires some people to give up power for power to become more evenly shared.”