By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director, UN Women
This weekend, at the invitation of President Michelle Bachelet and myself, women leaders from across the world are meeting in Santiago de Chile. We will applaud their achievements. We will remind ourselves of their contributions. And we will chart a way forward to correct the historical record. History has not been fair to women – but then, women usually didn’t write it.
This meeting will be an opportunity to take a hard look at the world that is, and the world that will be. The case is urgent, not only for individual women and their human right to equality, but for everyone. The “perfect storm of crises” as one expert has called it, threatens food, energy and water supplies. It threatens political and economic stability in all our countries. It could upend any prospects for balanced and sustainable development.
On the other hand, mobilising the potential of women and maximising their contribution will turn aside some of the worst effects of climate change and help ensure food and water supply; will help correct massive economic inequality between the few and the many; will mitigate conflict and political instability, and help to build lasting peace. Women’s rights are human necessities.
At the heart of our discussion is how to put more women in positions of power. Across the 192 U.N. member countries:
- Only 19 women are heads of state or government;
- One in five parliamentarians are women;
- One in 20 city mayors are women;
- One in four judges and prosecutors, and
- Fewer than one in 10 police officers are women.
Women leaders are just as hard to find in economic life – only one in five board seats in major companies are held by women. And this is despite evidence of increased company earnings when women are on the board!
So how do we get there from here? We already have a road map. It was agreed by 189 world leaders back in 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Countries have made a good start with better overall education and health care for women; but they haven’t followed through on the rest of the package, especially political participation and economic empowerment. At the present rate of progress, it will take 81 years for women to achieve parity in employment. Women, and their countries, can’t wait that long.
This year, the 20th anniversary of the Beijing conference, the year when the U.N. will adopt sustainable development goals for the next 15 years, offers a unique opportunity to make a new start.
First of all, today’s leaders must make a personal commitment to increase women’s presence in decision-making – not just in their numbers, but in their contributions. There are many ways to do this – quotas and numerical targets for women’s participation; training and mentorship to boost women’s confidence and capacity; private-sector engagement matching public-sector initiatives. Countries will find their own ways, if the will is there.
Employers must ensure equal hiring, payment and promotion policies; support to balance work-life conditions, and give women the opportunity to lead. Managers must learn to welcome women’s input and contribution.
Leaders who lead by example in their daily lives will win allies in every aspect of their work for gender equality. They can win allies in the media too – at least to avoid reflexive disparagement, negative stereotyping and casual sexism; and at best to celebrate the positive and constructive contribution of women leaders, even in the toughest environments.
Then there are many women who struggle and suffer every day. They are the everyday heroines of our age, and their fight for equality deserves a wider audience. We shouldn’t have to wait for another vicious attack or another assassination before we learn their names.
These measures sound ambitious, but they are fully realistic. We know from our own experience in leadership, that we can achieve them all. The 1995 Beijing platform for action is not a “wish list”; it’s a “to do list.” If today’s leaders front-load gender equality, if they start now to make good on those 20-year-old promises, we can look forward to serious progress by 2020, and gender equality by 2030.
“The arc of the moral universe is long,” said Martin Luther King, “but it bends toward justice.” Where women are concerned, we have to bend that arc a lot faster now, to make up for all the years it didn’t bend at all. At stake are not only justice and human rights but also perhaps survival itself.
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