Women's group. Kenya. Photo: © Curt Carnemark / World Bank
It has been nearly two decades since the Fourth Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995. The conference was a milestone in the advancement of women’s empowerment, because it highlighted the pertinent issues women face. We have come a long way since 1995. From the implementation of gender equity policies in the workplace to coordinated action on violence against women and human trafficking, we have seen commendable progress.
However, there is still much to be done in advancing the rights and opportunities of women. Among the areas in which improvement is still needed are increasing the participation of women in the economy and in political leadership at the local level, which currently stands at only 5% globally, according to the World Bank Group report, Voice and Agency.
A longtime and passionate advocate for the rights of women and children, Baroness Mary Goudie lends an influential voice to the cause globally. On June 17, 2014, she engaged with various stakeholders working toward the advancement of women at the “Beijing +20: Unfinished Business” breakfast in Washington, D.C. Those present at the meeting assessed the progress made since 1995.
I joined the lively event on my first day as an intern with IFC’s Gender Secretariat. After spending the morning listening to the discussion by Goudie and other breakfast attendees, I am more convinced that I too would like to devote my time and energy to championing the cause of women’s empowerment. Growing up in South Africa, I am particularly aware of the issues women face. At 45%, South Africa proudly boasts the third-highest percentage of women’s representation in parliament in the world. Sadly, South Africa still has one of the world’s highest rates of violence against women.
At the June 17 event, courageously espousing the cause for gender transformation in every sector of society and with influential leaders, Goudie called on those in attendance to take decisive action. When asked where there was room for improvement in order to meet the Beijing goals, she emphasized the need for increased, relevant political power for women as well as the necessity of enforcing pro-women legislation that has already been passed. In her words, “We need to be hard on policy and soft on people.”
From a private-sector perspective, IFC focuses its efforts on advancing companies’ workplace policies when they allow both men and women equal career opportunities and progress, as well as on closing the gender gap on company boards. The organization expects to fill at least 30% of IFC-nominated director positions with women by 2015, up from the current 24%.
To address the issue of women on boards, Goudie and Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment Management, established the 30% Club in 2010. It promotes an initiative for FTSE-100 companies to have at least 30% of board positions occupied by women, up from the current 21.6%. The club was first launched in the UK, then expanded to Hong Kong and Ireland, and is now gaining popularity in the United States. It has received attention and support from the public and from prominent media institutions, such as Bloomberg and The Financial Times.
The 30% Club and other initiatives like it are essential to inspiring younger women to endeavor to lead. Such programs also enrich corporate leadership with diversity, which results in better performance. As an aspiring leader in the corporate world, I believe that having more women make decisions about how companies are run will impact the ways in which business is conducted in the coming years.
The past 20 years have demonstrated that with commitment, partnership, and a firm stance on policy, women’s equality and opportunity can begin to be realized in the 21st century. Still, there is work to be done. The journey ahead is a long one, requiring transparent dialogue, active policy, inclusive development, and increased awareness of the issues women face. By working collaboratively with a results-oriented approach, organizations and individuals advocating the cause for women can bridge the gender divide.