By Katja Iversen | World Economic Forum | 7 June 2018
At the next G7 Summit in Canada, I will ask nine of the world’s most powerful political leaders to invest in gender equality. The group itself illustrates the current imbalance of power: only two of its members are women. This unequal ratio reflects the global reality of women’s absence from leadership positions. Women are still sidelined in politics and business, in global summits and corporate boardrooms. Even I, the president and CEO of a global advocacy organization for gender equality, am still asked at events if my husband is speaking on a panel.
This underrepresentation isn’t a new phenomenon. Of 146 countries studied by the World Economic Forum in March 2017, only 15 had a female head of state or government. That’s about 10%, compared with about 25% of the G7 group, which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and United States, as well as the European Union Council president and Commission president. Except for Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and the UK’s Theresa May, all those leaders are men. Women still only represent 23% of parliamentarians and 18.3% of ministers worldwide.
The corporate world reflects much the same picture. As of March 2018, there were only 24 female CEOs in the Fortune 500 companies. Globally, only 15% of all corporate board seats are filled by women.
As the president and CEO of Women Deliver, a global advocacy organization for gender equality and the health, rights and well-being of girls and women, I am determined to aid efforts to change this.
Here are four reasons why it’s time to invest in gender equality and women’s political participation, and in girls and women everywhere:
1. This is a powerful moment for gender equality
The G7 countries generate more than 30% of global GDP, in addition to their strong political influence and technological capacities. If these countries all committed to investing in girls and women in bigger, more effective ways, we could truly drive progress for the world - economically, socially and politically.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau - this year’s G7 president - has created the world’s first G7 Presidency Gender Equality Advisory Council. I am part of the council, which has been tasked with recommending how to integrate gender equality into the overall work and outcomes of the G7, at home and abroad.
Expression of commitment to improve the lives of girls and women is nothing new for the G7. What makes this year unique is the holistic approach to gender equality and issues, and the urgent need to translate political momentum into policies and programmes that can transform lives. This takes political will, as well as financial backing.
2. Female leadership matters
Gender equality is a key to creating a better world for us all. We will not reach the G7’s ambitious aims for peace and prosperity without it. Female leadership has many proven benefits.
Studies show that a higher number of women in parliament is linked to greater investments and better outcomes in health, education and other social indicators. It is also linked to better and more transparent governance. We also know that women in positions of authority tend to resolve national crises without resorting to violence, and that peace lasts longer when women are at the peace negotiation tables.
In the private sector, evidence from Catalyst indicates that companies with strong female leadership boast a 35% higher annual return on equity than companies without.
3. It’s time for women to be heard
I know these facts, statistics and studies by heart. But I also know how many obstacles women face in everyday life. Even when women are proportionately represented in numbers, their voices are often suppressed.
Years ago, I was in an advisory group with an balanced gender split - four men, four women. But the men constantly interrupted the women, only referred to one another and took credit for our ideas. I actually timed it: the men spoke 80% of the time. During a break, I gathered the women together and we decided to team up to make our voices heard.
What happened during the rest of the meeting reflects not only what can happen when women step up, but also underscores the power of women’s collective voices and actions. The dynamics changed, the power relations shifted, and the conversation developed from one focused on technological fixes to one focused on investment in process, products and people. The evidence - and my own experience - show that women in leadership positions offer unique contributions. But it takes hard work to make this happen.
4. Gender equality is not just about women
True equality requires the support and commitment of both men and women. It requires governments, like those represented at the G7, to champion programmes that invest in girls and women in areas such as healthcare, education and training. It requires businesses to examine their structures, policies, marketing, investments and culture. It also takes a commitment to diversity - not just gender diversity, but all intersectional identities that contribute to a person’s life and experience. And it requires leadership at every level, in every sector.
These investments are significant, but the reward is bigger. It’s about improved health outcomes, a stronger social fabric, economic gains; as well as simply doing the right thing.