Changing the conversation

March 8 – International Women’s Day – presents an opportunity for advocates, organizations and communities around the world to set the record straight on gender equality

Their circumstances and backgrounds couldn’t be more different, yet the way the two women are perceived is strikingly similar. A woman in rural Zimbabwe leaves her village to travel long distances to buy the wares she needs as a vendor.

In North America, a woman demonstrates leadership among her C-suite colleagues. Instead of bringing them wide appreciation and respect, the two women’s roles garner them labels like “loose” and “pushy.”

At the same time, evidence that a more equal society brings wide benefits is mounting. Closing the gender gap in the labour market, for example, could boost global GDP by $28-trillion by 2025, according to a McKinsey Global Institute analysis. Unlocking this potential requires that we openly address – and change – unequal cultural norms and behaviours, says Margaret Capelazo, gender adviser at CARE Canada.

In the case of the women in Zimbabwe, who face criticism because they leave their villages to become vendors, a community engagement initiative was able to draw attention to the difference between perception and reality, says Capelazo.

“A colleague of mine said that the men in the village first reinforced the stereotype by saying women needed to stay close,” she explains. “Then the facilitator asked one of the men where the nice shirt he was wearing came from. He said, ‘My wife brought it from a trading expedition to South Africa.’ You could see the penny drop as the men in the room realized that they benefit from their wives’ economic activity.”

Exploring the cultural context of gender issues helps to advance the discussion, says Capelazo. “Yet [gender bias] is very deep seated. Moving towards greater equality often requires people to change their thinking, their social rules, their deeply held convictions and beliefs – it takes time.”

Gaps remain, even in Canada, where the topic of gender equality has received public attention for many years, says Deborah Gillis, president and CEO of Catalyst, the leading global non-profit organization dedicated to accelerating progress for women through workplace inclusion.

“Where women have the opportunities to contribute and lead, we see better results and economic benefits not only for businesses, but also for communities and countries,” she says. Yet women in leadership roles often experience pushback when they are perceived to be acting outside the norm.

“There is a gap between promise and practice. Despite the fact that we annually graduate significantly more women than men from universities and colleges, women continue to be under-represented in senior management in general.”

On a graph, the participation of Canadian women in the workforce looks like a pyramid, according to Gillis. While data shows equal numbers of men and women in entry-level positions, the percentage of women on boards of directors and in other leadership roles is significantly smaller.

What causes that imbalance? Gillis explains that Catalyst research shows various areas where women are treated differently. For example, women entering the workforce after completing an MBA start out earning less than their male counterparts.

Gender bias is very deep seated. Moving towards greater equality often requires people to change their thinking, their social rules, their deeply held convictions and beliefs – it takes time.
— Margaret Capelazo is gender adviser at CARE Canada

Women have less access to mentors and less developmental opportunities. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to receive hot jobs, large budgets and international assignments.

“There are a number of systemic issues where the opportunities – and outcomes – for women are different,” says Gillis. “This shows us that diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice.” The solution requires intentional steps toward creating an inclusive workplace culture, according to Gillis, who adds that Catalyst increasingly focuses on “robust pipelines, which allow women to move into leadership positions.

“In 2016, we will recognize emerging leaders with our Catalyst Canada Honours program for the first time – this is an important group of individuals who are driving change from the middle,” Gillis explains. “In order to see sustainable progress, we need engagement throughout the whole organization.”

The move to greater gender diversity requires everyone – women and men – to embrace the concept that inclusion is part of an organization’s DNA, says Gillis. “For a long time, most of the discussion around equality was focused on women and didn’t really engage men. It’s important to encourage men to act as champions and role models for gender diversity.”

According to Capelazo, CARE also places an emphasis on enlisting male champions for promoting a better gender balance. “We typically ask the women in the village to identify local men who are setting good examples – who may help with chores, distribute land fairly, or encourage their daughters to go to school,” she says.

“Those men receive extra training around gender equality so they can talk to other men.” While not as rapid as hoped, the progress is encouraging, says Capelazo. When she started her career in gender work 15 years ago, the positive impact of gender equality was not as widely acknowledged.

“Today, almost everyone has heard about it and is curious to learn more,” she adds. Gillis says the response to Catalyst’s work around inclusive leadership is also a hopeful sign. “We have 120,000 participants in 200 countries signed up for our inclusive leadership courses on the edX platform – and our goal is to significantly increase the number of learners over the next few years. This shows a high level of interest in understanding how to act and behave more inclusively.”

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