Participants gather at the Reykjavik Global Forum in Iceland. Photo: UN Foundation
What happens when hundreds of gender equality advocates and global leaders descend on Iceland’s largest city? A week ago in Reykjavik, there were reflections on women in power, sobering new data, and discussions about who has a role to play in the push for gender equality. A UN Foundation team was on the ground for the Reykjavik Global Forum and left with three takeaways on what it will take to achieve a gender-equal world.
Held under the theme “Power, Together” the 2022 Reykjavik Global Forum provided a meaningful opportunity for women leaders from government, the UN, civil society, and the private sector to come together and strategize about how to build a more equal world for girls and women. This year’s Forum, which was hosted by Women Political Leaders and the Government of Iceland, came at an especially critical moment as multiple, compounding crises are stalling progress and even rolling back hard-won gains for girls and women worldwide.
Here are three takeaways from three days of strategizing to find and accelerate solutions to gender inequality on a global scale.
1) The Times (and the Data) Are Troubling
What are society’s perceptions of women’s suitability to lead? Women Political Leaders and Kantar Public launched the Reykjavik Index for Leadership for a fifth year to measure the perceived legitimacy of women’s suitability to lead. Specifically, the index measures the perceived legitimacy of male and female leadership in politics and across 20 professions. It also examines variations in how men and women are viewed in terms of their suitability to serve in positions of power.
Why do perceptions matter? Perceptions manifest in numerous and deepening inequalities across every aspect of society, government, and business. While they may not reflect reality, they can lead to further prejudice and affect opportunities offered to both boys and girls, shape career paths, and influence who we elect to lead. This has the cumulative effect of disrupting the chance for policymaking, governance, and businesses to fully and accurately reflect the constituencies they serve.
The 2022 data presented at the Forum is troubling. Since 2018, perceptions of female leadership have not improved. Despite seeing inspiring leadership from women leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fact that two out of three of the top leaders in the United States are currently women, the overall score across the G7 leading industrial countries remained at 2018 levels. While there has been some progress, in Germany, Italy, and Japan in particular, we are in a holding pattern, or worse, backsliding. In the United States, the score dropped almost 10 points! After achieving progress in earlier years, all G7 countries now see a downward trend in acceptance of female business leaders. Even more troubling, women are prejudiced against women as leaders (but men are more so), and young people are more prejudiced than their parents against women as leaders.
Christy Tanner, Senior Advisor to the Forum, noted that, while troubling, the data is not surprising. “Power is being influenced through perceptions of equality, and whether or not equality is a good thing is being questioned,” she said. Sexism and other forms of discrimination are political strategies that are being used to influence elections and policies.
Despite these perceptions, with the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 27) and the U.S. midterm elections taking place in parallel with the Forum; amid a backdrop of conflict in Ukraine, Yemen, and elsewhere; and the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, participants were keenly aware of the reality of how powerful women’s leadership is, and where it is so desperately needed, across international, regional and national settings, in businesses, and in civil society.
2) GENDER EQUALITY IS AT THE HEART OF EVERYTHING
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it’s clear: The factors underlying the gendered outcomes of COVID existed long before the pandemic and continue today. In fact, Forum discussions reinforced how gender equality lies at the heart of addressing a wide range of key global issues and ongoing crises, including good governance, the rise of autocratic rulers, climate change, the role of the UN and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and conflicts around the world.
In a session titled “It’s the Patriarchy, Stupid!”, Icelandic writer and actor Bergur Ebbi noted that, “when women lead nations, they lead them into positive change.” Participants acknowledged the rise and impact of autocratic governments and reiterated the message that well-governed democracies require the full participation of women. Anti-democratic governments are the same governments rolling back progress on gender equality. In contrast, current and former female political leaders, who were well represented at the Forum, are leading progressive change in Belarus, Canada, Iceland, Ethiopia, Lithuania, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Turkey, and Ukraine. During a panel of Icelandic female parliamentarians, MP Helga Vala Helgadottir asserted that trust is an important component of women’s leadership. “Even when we don’t agree on everything, we can start to trust each other by being fair, being consistent, being human,” she explained. “Don’t be afraid to use your heart, and not just your brain, in your work and your leadership.”
"When women lead nations, they lead them into positive change."
Icelandic writer and actor
With COP 27 underway, Forum participants highlighted that girls and women continue to experience the brunt of climate change, while generating the most innovative solutions. Panelists representing girls and women’s organizations, Indigenous communities, and the private sector called for inclusive, collaborative approaches that put girls and women at the center of climate strategies. Additionally, the need to acknowledge that countries most affected by climate change are the ones least responsible for it was stressed.
Former and current UN leaders from different agencies attended, including UN Women, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Participants recognized the UN as a powerful force for global good, while also acknowledging the challenges the system is facing and a sense of disappointment in the system. Aya Chebbi, former African Union Special Envoy on Youth and founder of the pan-African Nala Feminist Collective, a self-described believer in multilateral institutions, explained, “The credibility crisis of the UN is about voice. Who has a voice at the table? Who claims to speak on behalf of others?” She continued, “The Security Council is addressing conflicts in Africa, while Africa does not have a seat on the Council. Similarly, young people do not trust institutions where they are not heard. We need to be ambitious when we think about UN reform. We need to talk about transformation.” Other participants acknowledged that it was time for a woman to be UN Secretary-General.
Sima Bahous, Executive Director of UN Women, in conversation with Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland, and Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, former mayor of Reykjavik. Photo: UN Foundation
Women, peace, and security were discussed in conflicts that have the global community’s attention, such as Ukraine, as well as “unseen struggles,” such as those in Afghanistan, Iran, and South Sudan. Participants called for a better understanding of the situation and needs of girls and women, and the need to address the particular risks that girls and women face in conflict. They also reinforced the fact that women are critical to achieving sustainable peace, as demonstrated in Colombia, Liberia, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere.
3) THE PRIVATE SECTOR HAS AN IMPORTANT ROLE TO PLAY
Solutions and strategies to close the gender gap didn’t only come from civil society and activists from the gender equality community; female leaders from the private sector — from companies as varied as Mastercard, Pinterest, and Unilever — added their voices to the conversation.
The intersection of the global economic crisis and gender equality featured prominently. Solutions included bringing disenfranchised people and businesses around the world into the digital economy; democratizing money through blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies and the need to include more women in the sector; philanthropies advancing gender equality through new financial tools; and continuing the fight for equal pay across every country. Michelle Milford Morse, UN Foundation’s Vice President for Girls and Women Strategy, led a conversation with leaders from the private sector highlighting the sector’s critical role in advancing gender equality and diversity, equity, and inclusion through their companies’ commitments, strategies, and plans for action. She pointed out that “despite the evidence that if women were to fully participate in the global economy, $28 trillion would be added to global GDP, there are fewer women in the US workforce than there were in 1995!” There are opportunities for corporations to do more and to create workplaces that work for women, which are workplaces that work for everyone. This includes closing the pay gap, advancing women’s leadership at all levels, creating safe workplaces, implementing paid sick and family leave, and ending the use of negative stereotypes in advertising. Participants agreed that while this may be challenging, the rewards would be enormous, for women, for families, for economies, for peace and security, for all of us.
Michelle Milford Morse, Vice President for Girls and Women Strategy at UN Foundation, expounded on the benefits of gender equality—from the economy to peace and security. Photo: UN Foundation
The Forum was an inspiring moment. Despite the discouraging data from the Reykjavik Leadership Index, and the challenges and crises that were discussed, the potential and the impact of women’s leadership was clear, as was the energy in each session. Women in leadership from around the globe, representing all sectors were calling for action, sharing how they were taking action, and connecting to collectively protect and advance gender equality. Despite the backslides and the challenges, the Forum reminded us, as Stephanie Oula, UN Foundation’s Director of UN Engagement and Civil Society, said when she accepted the UN Foundation’s Power, Together award, those of us working for gender equality are — and must always be — “practitioners of hope.”
The UN Foundation joined more than 400 global leaders and advocates at the 2022 Reykjavik Global Forum, where we were honored to receive a “Power, Together” Award, in recognition of our work to protect and advance gender equality.