Gender Equality: What in the World is Going On?


Katherine White
One with Heart Self-Defense Program Coordinator

March 8th is International Women’s Day. The United Nations theme for 2016 is Planet 50/50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality; equal pay for equal work, safety for women and children, women treated with dignity and respect. International Women’s Day has been given voice and vision to these ideals for over 100 years.[i] How close are we to closing the gender gap in 2016 and can we get there by 2030?

Equal Pay.  Globally women are still concentrated in low income jobs that pay less than minimum wage and women earn an average of 22.9% less than men for the same work.[ii]  While progress is being made, a 2015 study done by the International Labor Organization estimates at the current rate it will take 70 years to bridge the gender pay gap.[iii]

Safety and Security. A 2011 Gallup poll taken in 143 countries found that when women and men were asked if they feel safe walking home alone at night, an average of 38% of women said no as compared to 28% of men. I was surprised at how close, on average, men and women’s perceptions of safety are, but a closer look shows the gender gap grows as countries gain greater stability and economic prosperity. Among the countries with the highest incomes, an average of 59% of women feel safe as compared to 84% of men. In the Netherlands, where a relatively high percentage of people feel safe in general, the gender gap is 22%.[iv] This indicates that as living conditions improve men gain a greater sense of safety and security than women.

Statistics don’t tell the whole story. While there is no question there is a gender gap in pay equality, the reasons for this can be more complicated than straight forward discrimination. There are subtle societal attitudes about gender that move women into lower paying or part-time jobs.[v] It is also difficult to compare what is happening internationally when conditions of life, cultural mores and laws protecting women vary greatly from one country to another. Some countries are only beginning to implement laws to address sexual assault and discrimination in the work place and statistics regarding these issues may not be accurate if they exist at all. Even so, studies done by United Nations and other human rights organizations give us important information to help distinguish rhetoric from reality.

As part of the International Women’s Day Step it up Initiative UN member states have made public commitments to take action to close the gender gap, create more opportunities and improve safety for women. You can follow the link below to read all of the member state commitments.[vi] Here are the commitments made by several member states along with a little bit of the rest of the story.

Afghanistan commits to implement anti-violence law and national action plan

Not a lot of progress has been made towards women’s rights and safety since the fall of the Taliban 13 years ago. According to a July 15, 2015 article in Aljazeera 90% of Afghan women experience physical, sexual, or psychological violence, or are forced into marriage.[vii] Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be born a woman.

China commits $10 million to UN Women for assistance for other developing countries to build 100 health projects for women and children

China’s proclamation focuses on assisting other countries stating that “every Chinese woman has the opportunities to excel in life and make her dreams come true.” This rhetoric does not reflect current reality for women in China. Women earn 28% less than their male co-workers and there is still widespread discrimination in the workplace.[viii]  In 2012 only 21% of legislative positions in parliament were held by women, ranking China 50 out of 187 countries.[ix] In a 2013 UN study done in China, 23% of the men interviewed admitted to committing at least one rape.[x] An article written for CNN says that in China International Women’s Day has become a commercial opportunity, like Valentine’s Day, when women are given gender stereotype gifts such as beauty products and kitchen supplies.[xi]

Colombia commits to strengthen gender equality policies, eliminate gender disparities in education, reduce female unemployment, implement a plan of ending gender violence.

A 2013 gallop poll identified Latin Americans as the least likely in the world to say that women are treated with dignity and respect. Across 22 Latin American countries a median of only 35% of the population feel that women are treated this way. Men are much more likely than women to say that women are treated with respect. In Columbia and Peru only 20% of the population feel that women are treated with dignity and respect.[xii] A number of studies done by the International Labor Office conclude that gender inequalities are a direct consequence of traditional, stereotyped views of the place and role of women in society, views that are based in prejudice and disregard for the contributions of women.[xiii]

Germany will require corporate boards to apply a 30 percent quota for women

Germany’s 30% quota isn’t a commitment to equality, but it would be a big improvement. Currently there is not a single female executive among Germany’s largest firms. 56% of mid-sized companies do not have a woman in a leadership position. Women hold only 7% of executive board seats and 25% of non-executive board seats.[xiv]

Rwanda commits to increase economic participation of women

After the genocide of 1994 women became central to rebuilding Rwanda. In the past 22 years they have made tremendous progress passing laws to protect women from sexual violence, to assure that all women receive an education, to allow women to own land and daughters to inherit land, and to protect women from discrimination in the workplace.  Women hold 64% of the legislative seats in the country, the highest percentage in the world compared to a world average of 22% and 18% in the United States. Despite rapid gains, deep social change takes time. 85% of the women in Rwanda live in rural areas where as few as 3% participate in local government. Rwanda’s Gender Monitoring Office documented that despite laws, policies and strategies “there is still a wide gender gap between policy and practice” in rural areas.[xv]

The United States will work toward a world where every woman and girl can enjoy their rights and freedom

While the United States likes to see itself as a world leader in human rights, it is actually falling behind many countries in closing the gender gap. In terms of equal pay for equal work, women in the United States come in 30th out of the 52 countries surveyed, earning 77% of what men earn. Women of color experience a significantly higher rate of wage discrimination: African American women earn only 64% and Hispanic women 55% of what White males earn. The 29 countries with greater pay equality than the U.S. include: South Africa, Vietnam, Venezuela, Serbia, Costa Rica, Egypt, and Guatemala.[xvi]

As for political representation, the United States is moving backwards. It currently ranks ninety-eighth in the world for percentage of women in its national legislature; down from fifty-ninth in 1998. According to The Nation, at the current glacial rate of progress women in the United States won’t have equal representation for 500 years.[xvii]

In the United States women are at much higher risk of sexual violence than men and the risk may be growing. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that 91% of victims of rape and sexual assault are women, 9% are men.[xviii] According to the National Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence reported incidents of domestics violence have gone up and a woman is now being assaulted by a partner every 9 seconds.[xix]

The 2016 member state commitments are part of the Beijing Platform for Action formed 20 years ago as a framework for participants from around the world to come together with the single purpose of empowering women everywhere.[xx] The commitments provide guidance and inspiration. Fulfilling the commitments requires so much more. It requires honesty about what is happening close to home. It requires individuals, communities and nations see and treat others with dignity and respect. It requires that we recognize a long history of boots on the ground work, much of it done for little or no pay by women, to rebuild war torn countries, provide shelter to abused women and children, advocate for survivors or rape, provide self-defense training, and demand that laws are created and enforced to protect women from violence and discrimination. It requires that citizens of the world understand if we don’t sustain this kind of boots on the ground work, the progress women have made is likely to backslide or even disappear.

For centuries women have stepped it up and pushed toward gender equality. The very nature of the challenge requires that it no longer be considered ‘women’s work.’ Empowering women empowers everyone. In countries where there is greater equality, economies grow faster and families and communities are healthier. Hillary Clinton said recently “studies suggest that women’s physical security and higher levels of gender equality correlate with security and peacefulness of entire countries.”[xxi] This is an invitation to every man and woman to take a moment on March 8th, acknowledge what is required to fulfill the promise to close the gender gap and make a personal commitment to do some part of the work.  Equality by 2030? It is up to us.


[i] International Women’s Day website:

[ii] Center for American Progress: The Straight Facts on Women and Poverty, Oct. 2008

[iii] International Labor Organization: Pay Equity: The Key Driver of Gender Equality, 2015

[iv] GALLUP: Women Feel Less Safe Than Men in Many Developing Countries

[v] The Economist: Why politicians are asking the wrong questions about gender inequality, Nov. 2015

[vi] UN Women:  Member State Commitments

[vii] Aljazeera:  Afghanistan: No Country for Women, July 2015
Aljazeera: Our unkept promise to Afghan women, Dec 2014

[viii] CNN: Women still face great wall of discrimination in China, March 2014

[ix] CATALIST: Women in the Labor Force in China, April 2016

[x] National Geographic:  UN Study Looks at High Rate of Rape in China, Sept. 2013

[xi] CNN: Women still face great wall of discrimination in China, March 2014

[xii] GALLUP: Respect and Dignity Lacking for Women in Latin America, Oct. 2014

[xiii] International Labor Organization: Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch (GED)

[xiv] CNBC Business: German parliament approves legal quotas for women on company boards, March 2015

[xv] National Geographic: Women in Post-genocide Rwanda Have Helped Heal Their Country, April 2014

[xvi] International Labor Organization: Pay Equity: The Key Driver of Gender Equality, 2015

[xvii] The Nation: why Does the US Still Have So Few Women in Office?, March 2014

[xviii] National Sexual Violence Resource Center: Statistics About Sexual Violence, 2015

[xix] National Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence

[xx] UN Women: The Beijing Platform for Action Turns 20

[xxi] GALLUP: Women Feel Less Safe Than Men in Many Developing Countries

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