The pandemic has become a clear call for strong, compassionate female leadership that is essential not only to ensure girls and women are equal everywhere, but also to help fix the enormous global challenges facing us all.
Around the world, the pandemic has put a spotlight on the equity challenges and unmet needs facing women. Girls in marginalized communities have been among the first to abandon their educational pursuits. Women have left the labor market at record levels. The burden of unpaid work continues to multiply. Maternal mortality rates have yet to improve. Quality, uniform gender data remains missing across countries to properly account for women in policy decisions. And the ascent of women to leadership positions in government and business has been painstakingly slow.
“We’re at a pivot point where people can really see literally that inequality that, in some cases, has really remained invisible is really visible,” said Jennifer Klein, co-chair of White House Gender Policy Council, at our recent event, Equal Everywhere: Champions for Change.
“This is a clear agenda for action for this year and beyond,” said Elizabeth Cousens, President and CEO of the United Nations Foundation. “What can we learn from women’s leadership during this crisis right now that we can translate into larger lessons about leadership writ large?”
Speakers agreed that to build back better and create a fairer, more equal, and inclusive world, women will need to be at the forefront of economic recovery strategies or else risk widening — or worse, eroding — fragile progress.
“Women listen better. Women multitask better. What better time to use those skills than right now solving a global pandemic?” said Gina Clark, executive vice president and chief communications and administration officer for AmerisourceBergen.
A Holistic View of Women
The disproportionate cross-sector impact of COVID-19 on girls and women is a reminder that “women have a range of issues that they are facing especially in the wake of the pandemic,” said Loyce Pace, the director of global affairs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the former executive director of the Global Health Council. “In our advocacy, we should really be putting that front and center, the fact that it’s not just a health problem.”
Roopa Dhatt, co-founder and executive director of Women in Global Health, said that to avoid worsening the gender equality gap means taking a holistic look at women, whether it’s at home, in their communities, in society, or in the institutions in which they operate.
“We need to be gender transformative and root out the drivers of inequity,” she said. “We’re afraid that the shadow pandemic that is impacting girls and women especially is going to widen those gaps.”
Better Data for Better Outcomes
The conversation among our champions for change pointed out a critical step the world needs to take right now to inform stronger governmental policy decisions: Collect better, more inclusive data on girls and women across countries.
“The gender data question is really important and has been raging for years,” said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General of the World Trade Organization. “We are not there in many dimensions simply because many countries don’t keep that data.”
While some countries have made improvements on collecting key information tied to wages or labor market participation, not every country collects such information or has done so throughout the pandemic to understand the impact of the crisis on women. But existing studies show that leaving women out of the economy comes with a high price: as much as $28 trillion in global annual GDP by 2025, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
“We can see the change, but we must accelerate the pace of it,” said Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia. It begins with starting to remove old gender barriers for girls at a young age. Her book Women and Leadership, co-authored with Okonjo-Iweala, found that successful female leaders were nurtured as they grew up and often went to extraordinary lengths to gain access to education.
“They knew without that education the rest of what they wanted to do in life, including becoming a leader, would not be possible,” Gillard said. “It starts with educating a girl, and hopefully, it ends up in a gender-equal world where we can look and see that 50% of our leaders are women.”
Who’s Telling the Story
A way to achieve that is by shifting the narrative and changing who’s telling the story about women.
That means elevating diverse voices in stories across media platforms — from newsrooms to Hollywood films and streaming services — and organizations prioritizing inclusivity as a core value in how they work.
“It matters who tells the story because that is who determines what stories are told and that’s how you get true diversity,” said Klein. “That’s step one to changing those really deeply embedded gender norms.”
Another is to consciously disengage from magazines, social media outlets, and television shows that perpetuate harmful biases that erode women’s self-esteem or place additional pressure on women to meet exhausting ideals of perfectionism.
“This is a full-time job of unlearning and learning,” said Jameela Jamil, advocate and founder of the podcast I Weigh with Jameela Jamil. “Women in particular are given extra homework that men are not given. We are given an extra set of rules that we’re supposed to adhere to.”
Global businesses, with huge marketing budgets, can help counter some of these gender norms. The “Come As You Are” campaign from global shoe company Crocs is a great example by embracing inclusivity and individuality as core values and shifting the narrative on gender.
“I really think that representation starts inside an organization,” said Michelle Poole, President of Crocs, where half of the leadership team, from the chief marketing officer to the head of product, are women. “You really have to see and look at who’s making the decisions, and that’s where I think real change comes from.”
Breaking perceptions through sports
And nothing can help change the perception of women and their innate strength better than competitive sports.
“Sport allows women to excel,” said Nathalie McGloin, a tetraplegic race car driver and an ambassador for Stanley Black and Decker. Nearly two decades after breaking her neck in a car accident, McGloin drove in her first race, which she described as a turning point in her own personal journey to deal with her injury.
“Where we have social stereotypes, which associate women with weakness, sports associates women with strength,” she said.
For Rose Nathike Lokonyen, a refugee Olympian and high-profile supporter of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the power of sports has changed her life and that of other refugees and has given young girls an example of how they, too, can achieve greater heights.
“Sometimes, especially in African countries, they say, ‘Only men can do sports, get into sports,’” said Lokonyen. Now, she says, at least there are examples in sports that show “what a man can do, a girl can do.”
Take a stand
We won’t stop until girls and women are equal everywhere. That’s because equality is her birthright, enshrined in the UN Charter, but it isn’t her reality: Despite some progress, there is no place, no part of life where a girl or woman has the equal rights or opportunities as a boy or man. COVID-19 is making existing inequalities worse, especially for young women and women of color. #EqualEverywhere brings together the UN Foundation, businesses, communities, and individuals to demand and insist on equality—with urgency. Learn more.
Featured Image: Natalie Hua/Unsplash