Helen Szoke: Gender equality can’t be a token gift

    We shouldn’t have to keep talking about women, but we need to.

    We need to because despite all the rhetoric, the studies and initiatives, all the knowledge we have about the inequalities, discrimination, lack of participation, harassment and violence women are subject to, we continue to fail them.

    We are failing women around the world despite knowing women can be the single greatest solution to poverty, economic growth and prosperity. We need to do more, and talk less,

    Today women remain underrepresented and underpaid in the public and private sectors. Globally, women hold only 19% of Parliamentary seats and only 16% of ministerial posts. Only one quarter of senior officials or managers are women.

    At the current rate of progress, women won’t be paid as much as men for equal work for another 75 years.

    In Australia and beyond, women do most of the unpaid labour, are over-represented in part-time work and are discriminated against in the household, markets and institutions.

    Around the world, women are in crisis. The epidemic of violence against women continues to escalate. One in every three women globally has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime.

    If you are a woman, you are more likely to be poor.  The majority of the 1.3 billion people who live in extreme poverty are women and girls. More than 350,000 women die each year from complications during pregnancy and childbirth – 99% of these are in developing countries.

    But none of this is new. It’s time for us all, in the public, private and development sectors, to stop talking and do something to ensure women everywhere are empowered, and most importantly, equal.

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    The private sector is very good at speaking the language of gender equality in the workplace. Corporations are doing a great deal in Australia to make sure women are represented and protected. But often these efforts are not being translated into their global operations.

    Supply chains and labour conditions may be exploiting women or creating environments that negatively impact the rights, lives and livelihoods of local communities who are already vulnerable. In these communities women often bear the brunt of these pressures, while receiving few, if any, benefits the business brings.

    It’s vital the private sector looks deeper into their practices to ensure they are part of the global effort to help empower rather than add to the vulnerabilities and inequalities women already face.

    In the extractive industries alone, research by Oxfam found that only nine of 38 oil, gas and mining companies made any mention of the importance of engaging women in any policy or guideline documents that are publicly available.

    Corporate Australia must continue to remind itself that the battle for equality is far from won, and must continue to instill policies and frameworks that attract and retain women and provide the same opportunities as men, at all levels, wherever they operate around the world.

    The development sector must also do better and hold ourselves to the same standard. Gender must be front and center of everything we do; from self-imposed quotas and employment opportunities to advancement and board representation.

    In the field, we must start every single activity by considering how we can work with women to ensure their voices are heard. It’s challenging. All too often, because of culture or capacity, we have to determine how hard we can push to guarantee women will have a place at the table, but it’s vital we keep pushing.

    I was recently in Nepal to see first-hand the recovery from the recent earthquake. In a meeting with community leaders in a village high in the mountains near the Tibetan border, the room was almost entirely full of men.  One by one they spoke, while the woman who were there sat silently. I insisted that they too must be given the opportunity to speak.

    One woman stood and shared her thanks for the relief that had been provided, her family’s challenges and the concerns she had for the future as reconstruction continued.

    It was so important to give these women the opportunity to represent themselves. . In everything we do, from a small schoolhouse high in the Himalayas to our head offices here in Australia, we must keep checking ourselves so women are given every opportunity to thrive.

    Gender equity is a work in progress, and every organisation needs to have targets, milestones, policies and reminders to keep us in check.

    The evidence is clear: strong development, inclusive growth and women’s rights are fundamentally bound together, in everything from economic growth, access to education, food and health security to the environment, and good governance.

    Helen Szoke is Chief Executive of Oxfam Australia.