What Shall We Tell our Children?

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

by Catherine Clark

When Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book Lean In hit bookshelves five years ago, it created a global firestorm of conversation about why progress towards women’s inclusion in the workplace had stalled, and what to do about it.

Sandberg, who remains the powerful Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, suggested that women often hold themselves back, so she encouraged them to lean in, and push forward with their lives and their careers. Yet, it’s 2018 and we’re still having the same conversations, but now with respected companies like McKinsey echoing Sandberg’s comments with reports which say that “progress on gender diversity has stalled.” Add to this the fact that, while women make up 50% of the earth’s population, they still suffer most significantly from the effects of poverty, domestic violence and marginalization, and you have a recipe for wondering if women’s equality globally, or their health and economic empowerment, really are a priority.

Ironically, the silver lining for women may come from economics, traditionally an arena reserved for men. According to a landmark study by Ernst & Young entitled “Women: The Next Emerging Market”, the combined global income of women will reach $18 trillion this year, and women will control almost 75% of global discretionary spending by 2028. Those numbers are impressive and an indication that the formidable mobilization of women’s voices has had an impact.

But it’s also because men themselves are increasingly helping to make change a reality, something that Sandberg herself called for in Lean In.

Of course, the involvement of men in women’s economic empowerment is not altogether altruistic. Studies such as EY’s have shown that marginalizing women is bad for the financial bottom line. Companies, industries, countries – and men – lose money when women are paid less, not paid at all or not included in the decision-making about how money is spent. As OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said recently: “Gender pay gaps are not only unfair for those who suffer them, but they are also detrimental to our economies. If you do not have equal pay, productivity suffers, competitiveness suffers and the economy at large suffers.”

That analysis is compelling because, despite good intentions, the hallmark of most economic organizations is that they have, until recently, been predominantly populated by men. That’s also why male voices championing the inclusion of women at every stage of the economic chain are essential to progress.

This is not at all to suggest that women cannot advance without the support of men – but instead to point out how much real, significant and lasting change can be made when both men and women work together to move the dial. That’s true everywhere, but starkly evident in the developing world.

I’m privileged to serve on the boards of CARE Canada and CARE Kenya, and recently spent several days visiting projects in Kenya, which the World Bank recognizes as one of the fastest growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet women there still face significant barriers to equality.

Some 15% of women age 15-19 have already had at least one birth, according to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey of 2014, and UNICEF numbers indicate that 26% of Kenyan girls are married by age 18. These are not numbers that bode well for economic self-sufficiency.

On the other hand, gender empowerment projects run by organizations like CARE Kenya are making headway. Agricultural projects that see husbands and wives working side by side – both to tend fields and share duties within the home and on the farm – are resulting in better yields and better profits. That goes a long way towards convincing the men in the household that an equal distribution of responsibility has net benefits for everyone.

And in Nairobi’s Mukuru slum, projects designed to empower and educate boys and girls are resulting in vibrant entrepreneurship ventures, robust Village Savings and Loans programs and a gradual change of attitude about the traditional roles of women and men. Young men in Mukuru talked about the need to ensure that women are not subjected to practices like female genital mutilation, or to domestic violence; that is a profoundly positive development in areas of the world where women’s rights have not traditionally been a significant factor. The comments of those young Kenyan men demonstrate an important trend: a “new generation” understanding that a direct way to change the economic empowerment of women for the better is with the personal, direct and local support of men. In those projects, what began as an aspiration is becoming a practice.

Back home in North America, we talk a lot about equality and feminism, but we clearly still struggle to put words into practice. For instance, the sense of equality felt by our children is a standard which we nourish and expect, but don’t always manage to successfully execute. After all, Sheryl Sandberg had to write her book; McKinsey had to publish its study; and EY is still extolling to the world why women should be taken seriously.

The Forbes list of the Most Powerful Women in Finance is proud to show that many major banking, investment and financial institutions have women in senior decision-making roles. But you don’t need to lean in too far to find stories of women whose careers have been sidelined by their decision to start a family, to seek a flexible work schedule, to speak truth to power, or simply because an outdated mentality discourages them from knocking on the door, let alone walking through it.

Our government and corporate governance structures are just two examples of this. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, women make up only 27% of seats in the Canadian House of Commons. We comprise just under 20% of membership on the boards of Canada’s top 500 companies. And yet, as of 2015, 35% of Canadian women had a university degree compared to 30% of men.

So how do we change this conversation?

First, we continue to mobilize the voices of women. But, second, we also continue to mobilize the support of men, because it’s not enough simply to have government or corporate buy-in – or even to try to change the way institutions work from the inside. What we need is for men to stand beside us and advocate; we need them to help us effect legitimate change; and we need them to publicly demonstrate that they are putting plans into action.

Third, we need to change the conversations we have with our children so we are setting positive expectations from the very youngest age. Our daughters need to be raised to expect gender and economic equality in their personal and professional lives. Our sons need to understand their integral role in supporting the inclusion of their sisters, mothers, wives and friends in the economic and social fabric of their communities at every level. And our governments and industries need to set and reach specific goals to ensure that, if we are preaching equality, we are practicing it, too.

Finally, in the developing world, we need to continue to champion and support projects which offer women economic and personal empowerment – projects which have the side benefit of offering men tangible proof of why it makes a positive difference in the lives of their families and their communities. Having men on board, in any part of the world, is key to establishing lasting change, and to ensuring that future generations continue that change.

In the end, it is the next generation – in both the developed and developing world – who will truly move the dial as they grow into adults who run governments, businesses and households, and who will shape the communities in which they live. That’s why having a clear and open conversation about these issues at every level, from the cradle, to the board room, to the cabinet table, is so integral to success.

The statistics make it clear that investing in women – inves-ting in equality – makes profoundly good economic sense for both local communities and global economies. And that serves everything, from the bottom line to the global good.

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