The pandemic has significantly set back gender parity by more than three decades, highlighting the precarious nature of progress toward gender equality.
Prior to 2020, data from the World Economic Forum had indicated that the global gender gap was incrementally narrowing and could close within 100 years. Within a year, contrary to expectations, this estimate had increased by a staggering 36 years.
Expectations for a swift return to the pre-COVID-19 estimate of a century were dashed when the WEF Global Gender Gap Report was released in July 2022, indicating a recovery of only four years. The expectation now being that it will take 132 years to close the gender gap. The data compiled by the WEF has brought to light how easily progress toward gender equality can be lost in times of great disruption.
It is clear that the economic impact of COVID-19 disproportionately affected women, highlighting a vulnerability that had been unseen due to slowly improving statistics. The disproportionately negative effects will be felt for decades to come, demonstrating how multiple societal and economic factors influence equality; and critically, that statistical improvement is not a true indication of robust societal change or inclusion.
In the corporate environment, progress has been slow. This is despite the benefits that businesses are proven to reap when they are more diverse. Having a greater range of perspective through diversity in all of its forms better equips organizations to improve corporate culture, boost business performance and develop solutions to overcome complex global challenges, including issues like climate change. It’s no coincidence that businesses with more women in board positions are, as an example, more likely to be delivering on their ESG commitments, a key component to remaining competitive in the future.
Equality transcends business benefits, which makes striving for greater equality a moral imperative. It falls on each of us to find opportunities to do better for those around us, on a daily basis, and to become allies and stewards of a future that is more diverse and inclusive.
Globally there are increasing legislative and reporting requirements to drive broader social change, including addressing gender representation at all occupational levels and pay gap assessments. Legislation and mandatory reporting are critical tools that set a framework and expectations for institutional reshaping.
While public policy plays an important role as a change driver, a real and permanent shift toward equality in businesses requires an internalized responsibility at the individual level to be more inclusive, to be more aware of areas where there is under-representation, and to play an active role as allies, sponsors and champions. There is additional responsibility that rests on senior executives to use their power for the benefit of a more inclusive future, which means taking action like leading by example, creating a culture of equity, as well as using influence and decision making to courageously drive change where it is needed.
Bridging the gender gap must evolve. While public policy is a critical and much needed element, progress will remain easily disrupted if individuals do not accept the challenge to shape their communities, corporate cultures and thinking about equality. The collective responsibility that is shared by societies and organizations begins with individual accountability. Without meaningful progress toward inclusion at an individual level, each new significant disruption that societies have to grapple with will expose the same deeply rooted vulnerabilities, as was the case with COVID-19.
If the progress toward closing the gender gap is so flimsy that it can be derailed by more than three decades in one year, with immaterial improvement in the next, it leads to more questions. If this was the effect on gender equality, which impacts half of the world’s population, we must also ask how has progress toward equality been impacted for smaller minority groups and vulnerable communities, for whom there are no statistics available?
This is the critical and ethical business case for the need for deeper, more ingrained responsibility, for multifaceted approaches to equality in the future.