Mind the (Gender) Gap

railway-1758208_1920Today is 26 August 2017.

Today, my eldest daughter and many of her friends attended university open days around Canberra. It’s that season here in Australia. Last weekend, I took her and two of her closest girl friends to Melbourne to check out the University of Melbourne. We drove 16 hours together and had a fantastic time.

Sixteen hours in a car with three young women, one of whom is 16 and two who are 17. I’ve known the other two girls since they were five and they really are more like daughters to me than friends. Even though I’m not planning on heading back to uni, I had a wonderful weekend spending time with them, laughing, talking, hearing about their hopes and dreams and just goofing off. All three of them are intelligent, fun, adventurous, incredible young women. They have bright futures ahead of them.

Less than 100 years ago, their futures wouldn’t have looked so bright. On 26 August 1920, women’s right to vote became part of the constitution of the United States. That’s 97 years ago. Here in Australia, women received the right to vote in 1902, so just over 100 years ago. And yes things have changed for women in that 100 years.

But this week, I attended a lecture at the University of Canberra presented by Virginia Haussegger on the 50/50 Project: a program to see 50/50 representation of men and women in leadership positions around Australia by 2030. The talk was entitled Progress and Pitfalls. It seems there have less of the former and more of the latter. And the gender gap doesn’t seem to be closing any time soon.

I learned that Australia has graduated more women from university than men for the past twenty years and by extension has one of the most highly educated workforces in the world. We rank number one on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index for education. But in 2016, Australia was ranked 42nd in economic participation and 61st for political participation of women.

On the gender equity ladder, Australia ranks 46th overall.

This is not good news for me or my daughters or their friends who are heading off to university shortly. Progress is not being made fast enough.

It turns out that gender equity in Australia, on the current trajectory and with all else being equal, won’t happen for another 169 years.

Yep, you read that right. 169 years.

And since female generation lines are considered to be 29 years old, that means that not only will my daughters and I not see gender equality, but neither will my granddaughters, my great granddaughters or my great great granddaughters. MAYBE, if they are lucky and things start to change a slight bit faster, then my great great great granddaughters might live in a society where gender equality is a normal part of life.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s not fast enough.

You might say, why does gender equality matter? Well, it matters for a whole host of reasons.

Research has shown that gender equality can reduce poverty and world hunger whilst improving the economy, security and the overall well-being of a population.

“If the world closed the gender gap in workforce participation, global [Gross Domestic Product] would increase by 28 trillion dollars by 2025… That’s about a quarter of the world’s current GDP, and almost half of the world’s current debt,” said U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Catherine Russell in 2015.

Studies have also shown that countries that are closer to gender equality are more secure and have peace agreements that last longer when women are at the negotiating table.

So what happens to our girls and women to keep them from reaching their potential? On Tuesday night, Haussegger explained the main factor is the fact that women have to make the choice to have children or not. Women who reach leadership positions have, in the main, chosen to remain childless.

This is an argument that is pretty cut and dried. When my 13 year old daughter asked about the lecture and I explained the problem to her, she replied, “so you mean, because you, me and the rest of the women in the world can get pregnant, we are discriminated against?” Yep, that’s basically it in a nutshell.

But as I’ve been thinking about this all week, I’m wondering if there is another force at play.

I agree completely with ‘to have a child or not have a child’ issue. But is there something deeper as well? Is it a belief in ourselves as women? Boys grow up seeing role models and having their choices and beliefs constantly reinforced and validated. A girl who goes against the grain and doesn’t fit the stereotype of being ‘good’ and ‘quiet’ and ‘nice’ and any other words used to make girls feel small about themselves is made to question herself and her choices.

How many times as a young girl did you defer to a boy or to a man (most probably your father), because that’s what you had modelled to you by the women around you?

And how many times do you still do that each day? I would bet that it’s more than you think.

I had coffee on Thursday with a friend who is incredibly intelligent and works in a government department here in Canberra. She’s raising two wonderful girls and we found ourselves talking about this very issue. As we talked she realised that she had deferred the day before to a new male boss that she has. Although she has been in the department longer, has more experience and definitely knows more about the project that she’s working on, when pressed, she deferred to him because she didn’t want to ‘rock the boat’.

And all too often, I believe, that’s what we do. We are quiet or let a man mansplain something to us that we know more about than they do or we defer because we don’t want to rock the boat.

It’s so incredibly frustrating to me to see and hear stories like this as EVERY one of the women I know are just as smart, strong, brave and incredible as any man I know. And I know some amazing men. But until women start believing in ourselves and each other, standing up for our beliefs and rocking the boat more, we are going to grow old waiting for the benefits of gender equality.

The more I see women working together, building tribes and supporting each other, the more we come to believe in our power. We ARE powerful.

Instead of reaching gender equality in August 2186, wouldn’t it be great to reach it in August 2036? Or even sooner?

Maybe it’s just me, but I think we all need to start rocking the boat more, not less. 169 years is just too long to wait. Society, our daughters and future generations need us to believe in ourselves and in each other now. We need to mind the gap in our own lives and do something to help to close it.

I’d love to hear your stories of ‘minding the gap’ or if you have an idea that could help rock the boat in a big way. In the meantime, here’s the YouTube post of Virginia’s speech if you would like to view it. 50/50 Project: Progress and Pitfalls

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