It is frustrating that people think that feminism is a thing of the past – whereby both men and women are reluctant to identify themselves as feminists. Perhaps because they equate it to the “radical” political movement of the 60s, or perhaps because they do not think the patriarchal regime that governed women’s economic, social and political liberties for centuries is relevant anymore. Or we often compare our socio-economic status to women in developing countries and conclude that we are better off in industrialised nations and should feel grateful for our basic civil rights. It might be worthwhile to pause and acknowledge that despite tremendous improvements in empowering women’s statuses in the realms of voting rights, education or employment worldwide, this is a journey that is far from complete.
This piece aims at discussing some of the flagrant inequalities still faced by women in this day and age. This calls us to question our satisfaction with the status quo and maintain the momentum in the fight for gender equality.
Women and work
While women are almost equally represented in the labour market in advanced OECD countries, and have access to prestigious jobs, the wage gap between men and women can be stark. This means that although many of the political and legal battles have been won in wealthy countries, the economic struggle continues to play a defining role. In 2014, women in Europe earned on average 16 percent less than their male counterparts, and in France, young graduate women from Sciences Po Paris earn on average 30% less than male graduates. Fifteen months after graduating in 2012, the monthly gross salary of women is around 43 000 euros a year, while going up to 52 500 gross for men.
This economic inequality between genders can be identified further up the corporate ladder, as demonstrated by the low proportion of women in the executive board. In senior management level, women increasingly start dropping out. Women make up just 5.8% of the S&P 500 CEOs. Even in the most egalitarian countries such as the Nordic states (Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden), although there may be more women on the board, the chief executive is almost always a man.
Women and politics
Women represent only 28% of parliamentary seats worldwide (Human, Yann Arthus-Bertrand). In practice this means that political decisions concerning society are often taken without the participation of women or without considering gender, which puts at risk some of women’s legitimate needs. In the United Kingdom, women hold about 23.5% of seats in the Parliament, and in the European Parliament, 35% (Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg).
In Saudi Arabia, for the first time in its history women were allowed the right to vote in municipal elections in December 2015 (Saudi Arabia is the last country in the world to accord women the right to vote). However, they still do not have the right to drive.
A couple of other examples from around the world can demonstrate that women still remain second-class citizens, where their battles go far beyond economic struggles, and are often subject to violence of various kinds. These examples help to relativise why the feminist movement is still fundamentally important, and certainly not just an overrated political movement of the past that we can comfortably shelve away.
According to the Indian National Crime Records Bureau, ninety-two women are raped on an average every day in India (India Today). UN Women found that globally, around 200 million girls and women have undergone some form of female genital mutilation (FGM), with the highest prevalence occurring in Somalia, where 98% of women and girls between 15 and 49 years old have been genitally circumcised. In the EU, estimates suggest that one in three women (or 61 million out of 185 million) have experienced physical or sexual violence.
Towards a fairer society
The list of inequalities goes on, and is almost tiring to some to repeatedly hear these statistics; and certainly leads to disagreements at the dinner table that tend to spark gender wars, pitting women against men. However, feminism is about acknowledging that there is a gender issue in society, and whereby in order to fix it we must develop and defend women’s rights to equal standing as men. It is not taking something away from men.
Sheryl Sandberg wrote in Lean In, a candid and inspiring book setting out the challenges faced by women that « a truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes ». We are far from this 50%, and the momentum to change the mindset surrounding female empowerment must not be lost. A lot more still needs to be done.
In particular, the global mindset should evolve to invite more men to identify with these issues, to have a constructive talk on gender equality and feminism because it has to come from both sides. Certainly the least constructive action would be to propel an “us versus them” tirade. Including men into the conversation will be a defining factor in achieving true equality. However, traditional gender roles can be hard to break for men too, as “stay-at-home” dads can face negative societal pressure. While men should be respected for their choices to take care of their children, these men have reported to feeling isolated and receiving judgment from other parents, specifically women. Progress involving men in the home is slower than the progress women have made in the workplace, but the good news is that the current generation of men are more open to being real partners and the shift will slowly happen. It’s also about women respecting women’s choices, and not about competing. In this respect, we must also value the importance of female solidarity instead of feeling threatened by personal choices regarding careers or family.
These many facets of feminism should not be undermined, however distant they may seem to you, so that in 2017, men and women would not be ashamed to call themselves a feminist and that in the not too distant future, half our political and economic institutions could be run by women.