Gender Equality in 2022: The Best, the Worst, the Most Surprising, and Most Ridiculous

By Sia Nowrojee on December 16, 2022

A protest sign as seen during the “Bans of Our Bodies” rally and march in Pittsburgh, PA. 2022 saw the rollback of girls’ and women’s rights worldwide. Today, girls and women still have only three-quarters of the legal rights of boys and men, according to the World Bank. Photo: Mark Dixon

This year was yet another roller coaster for gender equality activists and advocates across the globe. From the high of seeing feminist solidarity in action to the low of watching fundamental rights stripped away, our Girls & Women Strategy team reflects on the state of gender equality in 2022 and what’s giving them hope in 2023.

In 2022, the exhilarating highs for gender equality included a flourishing of solidarity from Mexico to Ukraine to Iran. An increasing number of governments adopted feminist foreign policies. In the U.S., Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court while women were elected in record numbers to state legislatures, Congress, and governorships across the country.

The lows came with the rollback of girls’ and women’s rights worldwide through aggressive attacks and passive enforcement. In fact, girls and women still have only three-quarters of the legal rights of boys and men. And while the COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the gendered dimensions of inequality, that once-bright light has faded, and we are left with the ongoing causes and consequences of gender injustice.

I chatted with my Girls & Women Strategy colleagues about the state of gender equality in 2022 – the good, the bad, and more.

The Worst: Widespread Violence Against Women and the Rolling Back of Rights

Sia: 2022 definitely served up a mixed bag on gender equality. It feels like progress stalled and struggled again in 2022. Autocrats and anti-democratic forces were among our antagonists, attacking women’s rights as a political strategy, attracting some strange bedfellows in this unfortunate endeavor.

Maggie Roache, Coordinator: Strange indeed. In fact, in countries as diverse as Afghanistan and the U.S., girls and women now have fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers did. It’s infuriating. The U.S. became one of just four countries to roll back abortion rights in the past 25 years. In the aftermath of the fall of Roe v. Wade, many states passed laws to ban or severely restrict access to abortions. Medical professionals have already been targeted. I’ve been following the story of Dr. Caitlin Bernard, who has faced threats and investigations after providing abortion services to a 10-year-old rape victim.

Michelle Milford Morse, Vice President: It’s concerning, to say the least. This all means, ironically, Americans living in states that effectively outlaw abortion, like mine, Texas, have fewer human rights protections than women in Iran or Saudi Arabia, which have long been rightly criticized for their records on women’s rights.

Demonstrators protest in Iran following the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in police custody for allegedly violating the country’s morality laws. Photo: Taymaz Valley

Sia: Very ironic. In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s March decree forbidding girls and women to attend secondary school or enter the workforce undermined two decades of educational and economic progress. The Taliban promised to resume secondary education at the start of the new school year. I was outraged when I read that, as high school girls streamed into classrooms for the first day of school, officials reversed course and postponed classes indefinitely. In October, the Taliban once again raised hopes, allowing those female students who were in 12th grade before the republic’s collapse to take the national university placement exam. But those hopes were shattered when the Taliban blocked majors they deemed inappropriate for women to pursue, including economics, engineering, journalism, and veterinary medicine.

Minna Penttila, Senior Manager of Grants & Finance: That broke my heart. Girls have a right to go to school. Girls’ access to education is being restricted in other places, too. Millions of girls around the world are unable to go to school right now.

Did You Know?

Up to 11 million girls around the world might be pushed out of school permanently because of COVID-19, according to a study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Gabriela Carbó Zack, Senior Associate: And it’s not just exclusion from opportunities. Girls and women are being attacked in other ways, too. Despite gaining global attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence (GBV) continues unabated.

As many as 45,000 women and girls worldwide were killed by intimate partners or family members in 2021 alone. One woman is killed every 11 minutes. The figure is even more devastating when you consider that it includes only intimate partner or family violence and does not even begin to account for violence toward women using their voice as political leaders and human right defenders.

Stephanie Oula, Director of UN & Civil Society Engagement: It’s unacceptable. We have not made progress. The statistics are staggering, and the situation is untenable. It says a lot about what we, as a global community, are willing to tolerate for half of our human family.

Did You Know?

Mary Jerome, Adviser, Strategic Partnerships: This year has been especially horrific for girls and women in Ukraine. Not long after Russia’s invasion in February 2022, reports emerged about the widespread use and threat of sexual violence by Russian forces. Survivors of such devastating trauma will need access to resources and support for years to come in ways that are almost impossible to calculate.

Demonstrators near the United States Supreme Court calling for the protection of reproductive rights. Photo: Ben Von Klemperer

The Best: Stories of Solidarity

Sia: Thankfully, 2022 offered us some hope, too, particularly in the form of feminist solidarity.

Stephanie: Hooray for feminist solidarity! Mexican feminists showed us how it’s done. In 2021, the Supreme Court of Mexico unanimously ruled that penalizing abortion is unconstitutional. While feminist leaders in Mexico were celebrating this hard-fought victory that was generations in the making, the U.S. was moving in the opposite direction, with many states criminalizing the right to a safe and legal abortion.

By the time, Roe v. Wade was overturned, Mexican feminists were ready to provide support to their sisters in the north. Before this year’s landmark ruling, they had racked up decades of experience operating in open defiance of the Mexican government’s laws against basic reproductive health care. Because they had been planning for the worst-case scenario in the U.S. — the rollback of Roe — they were ready to export their wisdom, their strategies, their expertise, and their persistence to push forward in the face of unjust laws.

Sia: We witnessed solidarity from boys and men in 2022, too, which is so important in these challenging times, and demonstrates the connection between gender equality and rights for everyone. In Iran, boys and men are protesting alongside girls and women after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody of the country’s “morality police” for allegedly violating Iran’s hijab law.

Michelle: Another great example of solidarity in action comes from Liberty Latin America. After two women employed by the company were killed by their partners during pandemic lockdowns, the telecommunications company took steps to honor their colleagues’ lives with action. It developed a comprehensive company policy to ensure that the Liberty Latin America workplace is supportive of and safe for women by raising awareness about gender-based violence. It also created guidelines and resources to support employees experiencing violence. Now, the company is sharing its policy and encouraging other companies to do the same.

Maggie: Workplace safety and equal pay also gained ground this past year. Thanks to the work of our friends at Lift Our Voices, bipartisan legislation in the U.S. was signed into law that limits the use of nondisclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment. And the U.S. Soccer Federation announced a deal to pay the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams equally, including World Cup prize money.

Michelle: I can’t wait for the Women’s World Cup next year!

Members of U.S. Soccer and the U.S. Women's National Team Players Association sign a collective bargaining agreement signifying equal pay between the U.S. men's and women's national soccer teams at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. on September 6, 2022. Photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images

Maggie: Me, too. Meanwhile, New York City became the latest jurisdiction to require employers to post salary ranges for open positions, which could be game-changing for narrowing the pay gap and helping women negotiate for higher salaries.

Mary: That’s true for where I live, in California, as well.

Grace Anderson, Program Officer for UN Engagement: We’re seeing solidarity from parliamentarians, too. In November, the European Parliament passed a law to ensure there are more women represented on publicly traded companies’ boards by July 2026. I loved what the EU leadership said about breaking the glass ceiling after a 10-year battle to get the law passed: “There are plenty of women qualified for top jobs and with our new European law, we will make sure that they have a real chance to get them.”

Mary: Here’s to smashing the glass ceiling and more women serving on boards! This kind of representation on corporate boards is so critical. Research even links gender diversity to better company performance, including greater returns on sales and assets.

Grace: There was much to celebrate this year in the realm of laws protecting gender equality. Slow but steady progress was made in countries around the globe, from updating parental leave laws in Armenia and Colombia, to eliminating barriers to women’s employment in Vietnam, to allowing menstrual health leave in Spain. And I can’t wait to dive into the full report on some of these new laws when our colleagues at the World Bank release it next year.

Did You Know?

The following countries made progress dismantling legalized gender discrimination and/or implementing new laws that support gender equality in 2022: Armenia, Cambodia, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Georgia, Greece, Sao Tome and Principe, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Togo, Ukraine.

The Most Surprising: Climate Justice and Paid Parental Leave

Sia: Good news also came in the form of surprises.

Grace: It’s never a surprise when Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados and a climate action trailblazer and rock star around the UN, does something fantastic. Last summer, under her leadership, civil society and academic leaders proposed a major reform of how multilateral development banks provide funding and support to poorer, climate-vulnerable countries called the Bridgetown Initiative. But it was a good surprise when it gained broad support from key stakeholders at COP 27 this fall, including France’s President Emmanuel Macron, the head of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva, and U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry. Mia Mottley’s leadership is moving this from a proposal to an actual possibility, which is so important because the initiative would provide more support for countries on the front line of climate change, especially Barbados and other Small Island Developing States.

Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley speaks at the UN Climate Change Conference known as COP 27 in Sharm el-Sheikh Egypt. Photo: UN Climate Change

Gabriela: I was very encouraged by that. Girls and women in the Global South disproportionately experience the risks and consequences of climate change, so to see the initiative recognized and broadly supported is a big victory and hopefully a strong foundation for climate action in 2023.

Grace: Another happy surprise is that in November, JP Morgan Chase announced its new parental leave policy, giving 16 weeks of leave to either parent for the birth or adoption of a child, regardless of which parent is the primary caregiver. This is a high-water mark and a rarity for the financial industry, which is notorious for inadequate paid leave policies.

Minna: Lack of paid leave deprives mothers of critical time with their children, and lack of paid leave for fathers exacerbates the care gap and perpetuates gender inequality.  Providing adequate paid parental and familial leave leads to higher employee retention rates. Both families and companies win.

The Most Ridiculous: Women Being Diminished and Excluded

Minna: There was no shortage of ridiculous gender inequality news in 2022. I’m from Finland, so I was particularly annoyed when Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin made headlines as videos surfaced online showing her dancing and drinking with friends and celebrities. After facing pressure from media and male political leaders, Marin agreed to take a drug test and issue an apology. It was insulting.

Gabriela: I loved the fact that women across the globe came to Marin’s defense, including U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — often a target of sexist critiques herself — who said, “Elected officials who dance? We’re here for it!” and shared a video of herself dancing in front of her office on Capitol Hill.

Minna: Indeed. Many pointed out the double standard women face. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time Marin was diminished due to her gender and age and will unlikely be the last. It happened again when a journalist asked about her meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, saying, “A lot of people will be wondering are you two meeting just because you’re similar in age and, you know, got a lot of common stuff there.”

Um, what? Marin responded, “We’re meeting because we are prime ministers,” and Ardern said, “I wonder whether or not anyone ever asked Barack Obama and John Kerry if they met because they were of similar age.”

Michelle: Palm meet forehead. I mean, we’ve all seen the photos of homogenous groups of heads of state at the G7. I’m pretty sure they are not gathered because of their similar age.

Maggie: Those photos reveal a persistent lack of women’s representation in global leadership. We recently got another classic photo of gender inequality on the global stage. This time, it was from the COP 27 climate conference. Out of the 110 world leaders who attended the global conference, just seven were women. Despite evidence that girls and women bear a disproportionate burden from climate change, women made up less than 34% of country negotiating teams at the UN summit in Egypt. As they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Favorite Gender Equality Moments in 2022

Sia: OK. So those weren’t our favorite moments. But which ones were?

Poet and activist Amanda Gorman speaks at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Moment at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on September 19, 2022. Photo: David Berkwitz

Mary: I was very proud to see that one of the Nobel Peace Prize recipients this year was the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine. The award was accepted by the singular Oleksandra Matviychuk. She is a Ukrainian human rights lawyer and civil society leader based in Kyiv.

Maggie: I met Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland, a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and an incomparable advocate for climate justice. I’m incredibly inspired by her ambitions for a habitable planet and a future we should work toward, and by her eagerness to lift up young women who dedicate themselves to the same cause.

Gabriela: Learning from our WithHer Fund partners, who are leading by example to end gender-based violence and make extraordinary contributions to their communities, has been the highlight of my year. They’re designing GBV awareness-raising campaigns for the Deaf community in Argentina, providing food and shelter for survivors in Belize, organizing government accountability campaigns in El Salvador, providing mobile HIV testing and family planning services in Malawi, encouraging communities to commit to ending child marriage and FGM in Mali, and hosting yoga and meditation workshops for survivors in Trinidad and Tobago.

Michelle: I have two favorite moments: Watching Billie Jean King do the coin toss at the Super Bowl in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, and waking up on Dec. 8 and reading that the U.S. Olympic athlete Brittney Griner was safe and on her way home after spending nearly 10 months in Russian captivity. Four days later, the first thing she did on a basketball court in Texas was dunk the ball. My thoughts exactly, Brittney!

Stephanie: In November at the Reykjavík Global Forum, I got to be in the same room as Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the former president of Iceland and the first elected female head of state in the world. She’s an icon for what’s possible.

Minna: In May, I joined the She Speaks Africa Jubilee of the Graça Machel Trust’s Adolescent Girls’ Movement. I was truly inspired to hear from the young women and girls on how they’re making a change in their communities, and I feel so optimistic about the future of gender equality with young leaders like these.

Grace: During the UN General Assembly in September, I attended an event with poet, activist, and all-around inspiration, Amanda Gorman. During the United Nations General Assembly, she stood in front of delegates and the world, as she issued a rallying cry, “Above all, I dare you to do good so that the world might be great.” I’ll be holding on to that energy as we move forward into 2023.

Sia: That’s perfect inspiration for us all as we head into 2023 and recommit to doing the work to make our world a more equal place for girls and women, for everyone.