Leadership in a changing society: Where are the women?

The 2018 Global Gender Gap of the World Economic Forum makes it painfully clear that, when it comes to female political and economic leadership, we still have a long way to go. Gender disparity in economic participation is currently at 41.9% and in political empowerment this even gets to 77.1%. While we are almost closing the gaps in educational attainment and health outcomes, these results indicate that women are yet to be recognized as equal partners in public life.

Picture taken from CPA Canada

So what is holding women and girls back? Entrenched inequalities, discriminatory social norms and gender stereotypes contribute to preventing women from participating on an equal footing politically and economically. Women and girls are still burdened disproportionately with unpaid domestic and care work, which continue to be perceived largely as a women’s affair, with few policies devoted to ensuring a more just and equitable distribution. Globally, women are performing more than three-quarters of the time spent in unpaid care work. More women than men work in vulnerable, low-paid, or undervalued jobs. Many women and girls active in politics or taking leadership in business are subjected to higher and gender-biased levels of scrutiny and criticism. 81.8 per cent of the women national parliamentarians who responded to a 2016 Inter-Parliamentary Union survey indicated that they had been subjected to psychological violence, mostly intended to dissuade them from engaging in politics.

Improvement of life at the cost of the exclusion of many

Globally, what this comes down to, is that we are missing out on and under-using an enormous amount of talent. With one foot into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this becomes particularly problematic for the future ahead. The Fourth Industrial Revolution changes the way we live, work and relate to one another through the integration of physical and digital systems (‘cyber-physical systems’), advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, bio and genetic technologies and so on. Creative and innovative ways are required to navigate and respond to the massive social changes expected by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Missing out the talent that women and girls, and otherwise marginalized people, can bring into such changes would be a major loss. It will reduce the potential of the Revolution and place high risk for excluding many from benefiting from the change.

The industrial revolutions of the past have brought significant economic growth and improved the quality of life of many. The first and second Industrial Revolutions brought major opportunities and an entry into the formal economy for women, who saw their role in society shift dramatically. With the third – digital – revolution, information and communication technologies (ICTs) enabled certain women to better manage work and life through teleworking or improved their entrepreneurship. The Industrial Revolutions also inspired the early social and feminist movements. Empowered by newly obtained forms of participation and resources, women began to organize and protest for more equality in in the workplace and in society, starting with the fight for equal voting rights. Today, women are still mobilizing for equal treatment. The #MeToo and other movements, enabled by ICTs and social media, created a space for women and girls to connect and mobilize all over the world, and are contributing to change the way in which societies understand and regard sexual harassment and gender inequality.

Picture taken from The Guardian Nigeria

At the same time, economic growth and improvement of life brought by the industrial revolutions were also built on the exploitation and exclusion of many. During the early Industrial Revolutions, once in the workplace, women faced discrimination, poor treatment and dire working conditions. Their labour was not valued the same as men. When it comes to ICTs and the online space, in many countries, women and girls are still lagging behind in accessing and using these technologies compared to men and boys. Ultimately, the past industrial revolutions have not freed women from their constricted social norms: women are still not participating equally in political and economic decision-making dragged by expectation for primary responsibilities for “family and home” and still barred from leadership role due to conscious and unconscious biases.

How, then, can we harness the Fourth Industrial Revolution to bring true benefit to women and others? Diversity, equality and respect for human rights are critically important. Changes will not respond to the life and reality of people if people are not involved in designing such changes. Lack of women’s participation in the study of economics resulted in the actual labour of women not being calculated into the GDP until the 1970s. Lack of women participation in science technology resulted into the design of care seatbelts not being safe for pregnant women and foetus and in conventional diagnosis of cardiovascular diseases not adequately identifying early symptoms in women. Many studies reveal that more diverse workforce are better at solving problems. However, it is not only about numbers. To tap into the power of a diverse workforce, people need to feel valued because of their differences, not in spite of them.

Leaving no one behind

Lastly but most importantly, protection of human rights guarantees provides a minimum safeguard against potential political, economic and social crises which could be triggered by the impact of the revolution. In a drastic change, there will always be relative winners and losers – but we must make sure no losers will lose their basic human rights. Flexible working arrangements should not mean no protection of labour rights. Temporary loss of employment should not end in destitution and poverty. Online connectivity should not dilute protection of privacy or freedom of expression. Respecting and protecting human rights can aid in preventing political, economic and social instability and crisis, which are huge risks for business and governance.

This time, we have to navigate the revolution better. We need to avoid the pitfalls of the past and strive to make the Fourth Industrial Revolution benefit all, including women. To do so, gender equality is the key.

♥ We need to address the root causes of gender inequality in political leadership and economic participation. Simply adding more women will not change things unless we transform restrictive and discriminatory gender roles and social norms for both men and women. We need to encourage not only women but also men to change. Women should be encouraged to progress in careers in STEM areas and men should be encouraged to enter into care work, which, by the way, should be properly valued and protected. Both women and men should be supported to take leadership roles and, at the same time, to better manage work and domestic responsibilities. To do this, we need changes in norms and attitudes at individual and community level, in laws and policies, and in institutional culture in business.

We need to advance from diversity to inclusion in its truest sense. A diverse range of backgrounds and life experiences is an asset—yet that asset is only of value when people feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to the workplace. Only by engaging the full talents of both women, men and non-binary people from diverse backgrounds can we expect to keep our organizations and societies thriving.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution will affect various aspects of the society, we need strong leadership for gender equality in all spheres of life. We need more “feminist leaders”, female, male and non-gender conforming, who truly represent the voices of diverse groups of women. We need to have such leadership at home, in the community, in civil society and social movements, in science and technology, in business and in politics and governments.


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