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The War Against Women

Why the West has a long way to go in workplace equality


UPDATED FOR 2015. One year on from our groundbreaking 2014 report on women’s rights in the workplace and in politics and society worldwide, two more women are now CEOs of FTSE 100 companies. But, as this updated 2015 report demonstrates, they remain in a tiny minority, and the quest for equality in business, politics, and society remains a huge challenge in nearly every part of the world. Despite notable success stories, the UK and the US have a poor record, even when compared to developing nations, says Strategist editor Chris Middleton.

Additional reporting: Zena Martin, James Ian McKay.

World AffairsEach year, a recurring theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Inspiring Change’: an apt choice. While human rights have advanced significantly in the last 50 years, there is still an extraordinary amount to do to improve women’s low status in many societies – what former US president Jimmy Carter called, in March 2014, “the most widespread human rights violation on earth”.

Virginia Rometty

IBM CEO Virginia Rometty, one of only 46 women CEOs in the US Fortune 1000

While most Western countries have enshrined equal rights for women in law, figures show we are not even close to living in an equal society. For example, only 17 out of 196 countries have female heads of state or government; the global average is that just 22 per cent of parliamentarians are women, along with roughly five per cent of CEOs in both the UK and the US.

Updated 2015 statistics about women in business and government are set out and analysed later in this report.

The tide of history is moving towards change, but that change is slow and, at current rates of progress, it stretches six decades ahead of us [see below] before we approach gender equality as a global average.

Successful women leaders do not always do enough to help other women succeed, suggested this separate Strategist report last year. The challenge is that their relative scarcity in the higher echelons of business and government places an onus on them to advocate for women’s leadership that many are unwilling to carry. That’s understandable: for them the issue is not about gender, but about skill.

Nevertheless, it is comforting for Westerners to believe that a poor equality record is the preserve of repressive regimes or patriarchal societies in some developing nations. But in fact, women in Europe and North America face no less of a challenge than women elsewhere when it comes to their proper representation in business, politics, and society.

Archbishop Tutu

“We men have made a mess of things. I want a world run by women.” (Archbishop Demond Tutu, March 2014)

Indeed, figures we publish below in this report reveal an uncomfortable truth: despite many success stories – female CEOs and political leaders among them – women are, overall, no better represented in the West than they are in a great many developing nations.

In fact, in a growing number of cases, they are significantly less well represented than in parts of Africa, or in Central or South America, for example. Most developed economies sit far down in the global league for women’s representation at national level, even as small, but growing, numbers of women run companies, organisations, and governments in the West.

The UK, the US, and some other developed nations have much to be ashamed of, therefore. Arguably, the low levels of women’s representation in these countries undermines their claims to be properly representative democracies.

But first let’s look at some recent historical context.

Agents for change: a historical perspective worldwide

Despite restrictions on their civic participation, women have been the most effective advocates for non-violent change across divides of ethnicity, religion or socio-economic deprivation in countries such as Liberia, Bosnia, and Nepal.

In recent years, the repression of some women leaders and activists has been global news. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi, chair of the National League for Democracy in Burma, has spearheaded the movement against the military junta since 1990. By the time of her release in November 2010, her 15-year house arrest had made her the world’s most recognised political prisoner this century.

But other women have been equally important on the world stage as advocates for change, if perhaps less well known in the West. For example, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai, mobilised popular opposition to Kenya’s corrupt leadership in the 1990s.

Madres de Plaza de Mayo

The sign of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Argentina.

A decade earlier, the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, mothers of the ‘disappeared’ in Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’, marched every week brandishing their children’s names and photographs, drawing international attention to the murder of citizens. In time, this simple act of protest became a national political force, symbolised by the women’s distinctive white headscarfs.

However, gaining longer-term social, economic and political participation has been a more difficult task for many women who are attempting to improve their societies. In many nations – and organisations – any strong emphasis on traditional roles can make it difficult for women to be recognised as legitimate long-term leaders within existing structures.

Losing rights by revolution


Women protest against the erosion of their rights in Egypt

Political or social mobilisation can come at a heavy price, including increased levels of violence or abuse against women, once the ‘galvanising moment’ has passed. Three years on from the start of the Arab Spring, for example, Egypt ranked as the worst country for women’s rights in the Arab world, according to a 2013 report on the region published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The implication was that, far from advancing women’s rights, revolution had actively set them back. “Most political gains for women have been lost. Women are struggling to preserve their dignity, and far from progressing, they are now fighting to preserve some of the rights they had before the Arab Spring,” said Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation on that report’s release. “Despite hopes that women would be one of the main beneficiaries, they have been some of the biggest losers.”

So where does women’s representation in government, and business, stand on a global scale? In 2015, the most recent statistics make for some surprising reading.

Women in government

Out of 196 countries worldwide, just 17 have women as either the head of government or the head of state, including Her Majesty the Queen in the UK. A little over one in five of the world’s parliamentarians are women, and the UK sits barely above that global average.

Seven countries – Sudan, Yemen, Vanuatu, Tonga, Qatar, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia – have no women in parliament at all, and in all but three countries’ governments worldwide, women are in the clear minority.

Rwanda MPs

Rwanda is the only country in the world to have a majority of women MPs.

Globally in 2015, only two countries have 50 per cent or more representation of women in government: Rwanda (where 63.8 per cent of MPs are women), and Bolivia  (53.1 per cent). Cuba is not far behind, with 48.9 per cent of parliamentarians in the country being women, according to May 2015 statistics published by The International Parliamentary Union. In all, a staggering reflection of global attitudes.

Next on the list (as of May 2015) are Seychelles (43.8 per cent women in parliament); Sweden (43.6 per cent); Senegal (42.7 per cent); South Africa (41.9 per cent); Ecuador (41.6 per cent); Finland (41.5); Iceland and Namibia (both on 41.3 per cent); and Spain (41.1 per cent). Thereafter, the figures fall into the thirties – all the way down to zero per cent. [Figures on the IPU website change weekly: please use the link above to check the very latest statistics.]

The UK: not even in the top 50

So where does the UK sit in this table? Since the May 2015 General Election, the UK is 58th in the global league of women in parliament – down five places from its position in May 2014. The UK stands just above Peru, Eritrea, Dominica, and Guinea, and significantly below such countries as Viet Nam, Kazakhstan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nepal, and Zimbabwe, among others, in terms of women’s representation in government.

The United States is even further down the list, at 72nd, with a 19.4 per cent presence of women in government: behind Kenya and even Saudi Arabia, which until very recently, had no women in parliament at all.

In some countries, such as Nepal and Mozambique, quotas have been introduced to increase the number of women in parliament. Although outmoded in the West, quotas have helped break down some of the structural barriers to women’s involvement in politics in highly patriarchal societies.

Worldwide, the proportion of women in national assemblies increased from 11.6 per cent in 1995 to 19.5 per cent in 2011, according to UN statistics – an increase of 0.5 per cent a year. The most recent figures show that that rate of change is continuing. Good news, but it also means that, at the ongoing rate, it will be 60 years before the global average approaches 50 per cent.

Women in the workplace

HP CEO Meg Whitman

HP CEO Meg Whitman

In 2015, the picture remains little better when it comes to workplace equality, even in the West. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2014 men earned an average of 9.8 per cent more than women. The gap is narrowing, however: in 2013, the difference was 10.2 per cent. At the current rate of year-on-year change, therefore, UK wage equality may still be 20 years away.

In the US, women earn an average of 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man – significantly less so for African-American and Latina women.

That said, women now lead a number of major US corporations and brands, including: Meg Whitman (Hewlett Packard – which, under her leadership, is splitting in two, leaving her in charge of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise); Virginia Rometty (IBM); Mary Barra (GM); Indra K Nooyi (PepsiCo); Ursula M Burns (Xerox); Marissa Mayer (Yahoo); and Safra Catz (co-CEO at Oracle).

The IT sector’s strong showing in the list – there are several other women CEOs in the industry – is cause for celebration, and perhaps indicates the emergence of a more forward-looking agenda on the US West Coast that other industries may eventually follow. But currently, only 46 of the Fortune 1000 CEOs are women – less than five per cent overall.

In 2015, the situation is little better in the UK. As the Strategist‘s Zena Martin reported last year in her interview with Baroness Goudie, men easily dominated the FTSE 100 in 2014. The good news is that in 2015, the situation has improved slightly: there are now six female CEOs within it, up from four in 2014: Alison Brittain of Whitbread; Veronique Laury 0f Kingfisher; Alison Cooper of Imperial Tobacco; Liv Garfield of Severn Trent; Moya Greene of Royal Mail; and Carolyn McCall of easyJet.

When Angela Ahrendts was CEO of Burberry, she topped the FTSE 100 pay league, but she stepped down in October 2013 to become a VP of sales and retail at Apple.

Despite the positive progress, six out of 100 CEOs remains a tiny percentage in this second decade of the 21st Century, and yet it is the highest proportion of women leaders since the FTSE’s foundation.

Sadly, the statistics don’t get any better further down the companies’ league: out of the FTSE 250, only five per cent of all CEOs are women. Nationally, board-level appointments are increasing for women, but often in non-executive roles.

So what is being done to improve the figures? In the UK, the 30% Club – a group of chairmen from blue-chip UK enterprises and organisations – has helped raise the number of women on the corporate boards of FTSE 100 companies to an average of 25 per cent in 2015, up an impressive five per cent from this time last year.

The group’s founding commitment is to raise that figure to 30 per cent by the end of this year: an achievable aim with six months to go. Even if they fall short by a couple of per cent, the organisation should be congratulated for forcing the figures continuously upwards towards their goal.

In 2013, the figure stood at 16.5 per cent, which demonstrates that the voluntary leadership of a group of major corporations can have a rapid and significant effect. A full list of 30% club members is here. Each member is committed to getting other chairmen to join the campaign, making the Club into a high-end social network, in effect – a crowdsourced leadership campaign.

Excellent news, but still a stark reminder of the hill that women leaders have to climb to gain an equal footing in UK business – a battle they share with women all over the world, in every walk of life. TS

The Strategist says

Women’s active engagement can be one of the most effective means to transform attitudes, organisations and societies for the better. But the challenge is to maintain the impetus of positive change, and not to let it dissipate once goals have been achieved. Failing to capitalise on or to further develop women’s participation at community, organisational and national levels carries a significant cost for social cohesion, diversity and equality.

Chris Middleton is founder and editor in chief of Strategist magazine. Zena Martin is an equalities advocate and also one of the UK’s leading PR executives. James Ian McKay is the pseudonym of a development economist within a major international organisation.





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