Why is no country gender equal?

Preview of Deepa Narayan’s May 7 Kapuscinski development lecture on gender inequality.

Gender inequity poisons the entire planet, each and every one of us, women and men.

Consider the United States, a superpower. Women there earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar. At this slow rate of catching up it will take a century for women to earn the same as men for the same job. This is despite the Equal Pay Act passed in 1963.

How long then will it take India, an aspiring superpower, to achieve gender equity? India, with over 500 million girls and women, has labor force participation rates of 29 percent, less than the USA in 1947, the year of India’s independence.

Yet the India of today is not the same as 1947 America. Today 1.2 billion Indians own close to 1 billion cellphones. Digital TV ownership rates are higher in India than in the U.S. Images of half-naked women are downloadable in an instant to men behind bullock carts or to the rich in cities.

There is progress but it is terribly slow. We need to change our thinking. We are still using ineffective 20th century methods in the globalized world of the 21st century. These methods work at bullock cart rates.

We perpetuate gender inequity, because of the belief often held unconsciously by both men and women, that women are just not as valuable as men. This cultural inequity is then reflected in our rules and regulations and the decisions made by hundreds of fathers, mothers, students, teachers, bosses, colleagues, politicians, judges, companies, film and TV commercial-makers — the icon-makers.

This is true in every culture. Most crudely it is reflected in skewed sex ratios, a demographic reality. In India, for example, millions of girls and women are killed off or aborted, resulting in a sex ratio that is worse now than in 1901. It is the worst in rich, urban, educated communities. We can’t seem to educate away gender inequity.

It is also reflected in the fact that in the U.S. despite 67 percent of women working for pay, only 4 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women — and these companies perform exceedingly well. It is reflected in the fact that highly educated and accomplished women lose their voice, they don’t speak up in meetings and boardrooms when men are in the majority, which is most of the time. The elite Harvard Business School has had to teach women students to raise their hands confidently, and keep them raised, and had to make professors aware of their possible gender bias in judging students participation rates and in assessing grades.

We have to stop treating gender inequity as a technical issue. Research shows that the economic assumption of rational choice is flawed — 90 percent of the decisions we make are not rational, not deliberate. We work on automatic. These habits of the mind work on association, metaphors, learned early and reinforced over time. But they are habits, and can change.

It is also time to change where we locate gender inequity. We think of gender inequity as a private issue until it manifests in the public domain. But gender equity is not a private good. It is a public good that affects everyone. Gender inequity, embedded in community norms, overrides private norms. Moreover, gender inequity transcends borders in a globalized world through the Internet, TV, and real movement of people, companies and products.

Gender equity is a global public good. Just like you can’t change the ocean by working on one square inch at a time, you can’t change gender inequity by working only at the country level. Just like climate change, it travels across countries. It has global economic and social impact.

Therefore, just like climate change, it needs a global compact. It needs global action and champions to change the cultural story that holds women as derivatives, of men, and as afterthoughts. Just as our stories about climate change and how our actions impact global climate had to change, so also our stories about women and men need to change to impact the global climate of gender inequity.

To do this requires coalitions of leaders, activists, and innovators across borders. The seeds of change could sprout anywhere.

Deepa Narayan will deliver her Kapuscinski development lecture, “Blind Spots of Development: Rethinking Gender Inequality,” at 5:30 p.m. Central European Time on May 7. Watch the live webcast on kapuscinskilectures.eu and join the #KAPTalks debate on gender inequality.

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About the author

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    Deepa Narayan

    Deepa Narayan serves on the Global Advisory Councils of the World Economic Forum. From 2002 to 2008 she served as senior adviser to the vice president in the poverty reduction and economic management network of the World Bank. She was named as one of 100 most influential global thinkers by the U.S. Foreign Policy magazine, one of 35 great minds by India Today magazine in 2011 and one of 100 disruptive heroes to bring about changes in large organizations by Hackers Work in 2013. She has published over 15 books and is author of the forthcoming book, Womanhood: Made in India.