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Five ways to create a better future for women

By Professor Jane Turner OBE DL, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Engagement at Teesside University.

We require a significant shift in attitudes and beliefs (stereotypes, gender norms, call them what you will) regarding the role of women in this country.

Our cultural attitudes play a strong role in influencing the status of women in society and work and these attitudes, among both men and women, shape the level of gender parity considered appropriate or desirable within each society. So, as the gender champion for Teesside University, I want to continue to see greater presentation and transparency of data and identifiable and measurable actions on this issue.

Globally, current statistics are alarming: 63 million girls across the world are denied an education; every year, in the least developed countries, barely 60% of girls complete primary school and just 30% enrol in secondary school; and an estimated 15 million girls under 18 are married worldwide, with little or no say in the matter.

Significant gender inequality persists in the workforce and in politics. Women perform 66% of the world’s work, and produce 50% of the food, yet earn only 10% of the income and own 1% of the property; women with full-time jobs still earn only 77% of their male counterparts’ earnings; only 24% of all national parliamentarians were women as of November 2018, a slow increase from 11.3% in 1995; and as of January 2019, 11 women were serving as Head of State and 10 serving as Head of Government.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2018 estimates it will be another 202 years before we achieve gender parity across the four areas of health, education, workforce and politics. From a westernised perspective, it has been more than 200 years since the Industrial Revolution sent Western women into the workforce in large numbers. It has been over 150 years since women gained access to higher education in Western countries. And it is 100 years since some women gained the right to vote in the UK.

Yet here in the UK women account for only 22% of senior leadership positons and only seven FTSE 100 companies have women CEOs. In public life, just 36% of legislators, senior officials and managers are women. In education, whilst 38% of the secondary school workforce is male, men are appointed to 72% of headteachers’ posts. And if the gender pay gap were to be closed today, women would on average receive a £6,300 annual wage increase (equivalent to £90 billion collectively in the UK).

In the Tees Valley, where I grew up and now work, the outlook for young girls currently is rather bleak in terms of five markers: childhood poverty levels, life expectancy, teenage conception rates, GCSE results and the percentage of girls aged under 18 not in employment, education or training. The Global Entrepreneurship Index also reported that aspiration and ambition are the lowest of all UK regions, and women in the North East are the least likely in the country to launch their own business, with only 2.8% of women describing themselves as early-stage entrepreneurs.

Gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge. If women – who account for half the world’s population – do not achieve their full economic potential, the global economy will suffer. From an economic perspective, there is a positive correlation between GDP per capita and gender equality. In fact, raising the female workforce participation rate to male participation rates would have a positive net impact on GDP in both developing and developed countries.

Worldwide, women in the workforce contribute both directly and indirectly to productivity gains. Indirect gains come from their greater investment in their children’s health, education, welfare and other success drivers. Male-dominated industries could increase their productivity in many countries by up to 25% through improved female workforce participation; better gender balance on boards is proven to lead better share price and financial performance; and more gender-balanced leadership results in better all-around performance. Also, when women are elected to office in countries with internal unrest, these economies can experience a significant boost compared with results under male leaders.

Gender bias/norms are undermining our social fabric and economic potential, to the detriment of us all. It is a tremendous waste of the world’s human potential. By denying gender equality, we deny half the population a chance to live life at its fullest. Political, economic and social equality for women will benefit all the world’s citizens. But we have to work together so we can eradicate prejudice and work for equal rights and respect for all. So, what comes next?

I propose that our collective purpose and moral responsibility has to be to create a better future for young girls and women. To come together to question, challenge and disrupt the status quo, the gender norms, the attitudes, the stereotypes. The evidence for gender equality is compelling and driving gender equality is our collective responsibility: we cannot and should not wait any longer. So as a University, we are taking a convening role and building that collective.

Here are five things we can do immediately in our region:

  1. Open up avenues for young girls and women to engage in entrepreneurial activities and entrepreneurship. Schools, colleges and the University can help with a joined-up plan to advocate more female entrepreneurs, which may involve the promotion of role models and a regional mentor network.

  1. Remove barriers to women moving into positions of responsibility and leadership are areas where the business sector plays a particularly effective role e.g. in selection boards, thus ensuring fair representation. We could ask all businesses to sign up to a ‘No Women No Panel’ pledge in a campaign with a goal to raise awareness of having gender balance in panels and public events.

  1. Business can have an impact not only on their female employees but also on participants in their supply chains, distributors, and customers, and on the broader communities in which they work. As a first step, they could implement policies within their own organisation to attract, retain and promote the women within their firms, motivating other companies to do the same.

  1. By 1,000 businesses signing up to offer a ‘meaningful’ encounter to young people, girls in particular. A meaningful encounter is defined as being an experience where a student has an opportunity to learn about what work is like or what it takes to be successful in the workplace.

  1. Drive the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) agenda, collectively as a region, to ensure that girls have access to a broad range of life skills and vocational training – and programmes to engage individuals and communities in dialogue, where gender issues are openly discussed.

Professor Jane Turner OBE DL is working with Simone Roche, CEO and Founder of Northern Power Women and later this summer the University is publishing a book to illustrate the capability of Women of the North, largely hidden figures. The aim is to build greater understanding of the talent that resides here and to inspire the next generation, particularly young women.

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