The state of the World for Women

Last Friday I was lucky enough to have an invite the London Tech Week, Accelerate Her session ‘The State of the World for Women’ with speakers Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair and moderated by Dame Vivian Hunt.

The session was over an hour, and covered a lot, but from my scribbled notes (I was admittedly a bit excited to be part of this session), here are some of the key points.

How have women been affected by the Covid-19 Pandemic?

This has already been widely acknowledged, but both speakers made it clear they feel women are being, and will continue to be, disparately affected by the pandemic – if we consider childcare within many worldwide countries, the main burden still lies with women, which means having nurseries and schools closed, the responsibility of looking after children long term, has been placed on the female of the household. Many of the jobs that are considered ‘key workers’ throughout the pandemic are also held by women – Nurses, Care workers, Teachers, Retail staff – meaning they have often been forced to make choices between caring for their children or doing their jobs. Some of the sectors, such as retail and hospitality, could also be the ones affected by job losses. And with at least some of the recovery of the economy from Covid-19 resting with these sectors successfully reopening, this directly impacts women’s choices – Do they return to work? Do they place their children in childcare if they feel it’s unsafe? If school’s remain closed, women will simply not be able to return to their jobs or may lose their jobs meaning longer term unemployment and large staffing gaps within these areas. This shows how disproportionate the burden on women actually is.

And this goes further – Home Schooling has become the issue all mother’s share but has laid bare the structural divide in completely uneven starting points with many families not having access to laptops, or sharing one single mobile phone between an entire family. Hillary mentioned a study undertaken in 2010 showing the gender gap to mobile phone access between men and women, where men were often found to be given priority in owning and using the only mobile phone within the household. This clearly impacts anyone’s ability to home school, or even connect with the outside world.

So what do we do? How can we resolve a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the simultaneous economic shock the world is experiencing? The answer is complex and all of the speaker’s agreed this is a moment of pivotal change; that the global emergency has brought to the forefront some huge issues, but that we have to be brave enough to take them on.

Realise that neutral is NOT neutral

Dame Vivian asked if we were having a moment of consciousness (not only within the pandemic but also referring to the Black Lives Matter movement and recent riots we’ve seen across the globe) and the speaker’s agreed, this seems to be a turning point in recognising bias. To really move forward we need to understand that neutral is not neutral – in any movement, whether it’s Women’s Rights or Black Lives Matter, we have to pick a side – it’s not enough to retain the status quo.

Do things differently

Dame Vivian made a really interesting point about needing to get past the mentality that if a person advances it will somehow stop their own advancement – we need to stop believing that crushing someone else will somehow help us. Hillary agreed and said, particularly with women there is sometimes a desire to prove they can do a job as well as a man, the same as a man, but that actually we should be thinking about how we can do it differently – that we don’t need to work in the same way as them and that we need to create an environment that’s different in Politics and Business. Cherie agreed and said we really need specific provision to ensure that women don’t now fall even further behind – and when you consider a recent report by the World Economic Forum, which says it will take 257 years to close the gender pay gap, it’s easy to see where we’re at and that we’re nowhere close to where we need to be. We need to Rebuild it better, not the same.

Raise your own expectations

Cherie said there are still stereotypes of what a women’s role is and that without change the situation will simply regress – so start with yourself to raise your own expectations – Hillary said in her team of people, there was a distinct difference between how men and women reacted when given a promotion – the men would ask ‘what took you so long?’ and the women would say ‘Am I ready?’ and that this shows the systemic barriers in place to even the most confident and academically capable women.

Top Down v. Bottom Up recovery

All of the women acknowledged we usually look at a top down recovery system, but in this case we need to make it bottom up – For example, if in economic recovery we protect the most vulnerable jobs first, we also protect the most vulnerable people. They also noted that this was true of education – to make changes, they need to be bottom up, rather than top down – getting children back into school’s is going to be an imperative part of any recovery. We also need to break down the systemic barriers already in place – structural, legal and regulatory – even in advanced societies. Hillary noted that in the US, they are still fighting for family leave, and Cherie said we need to recognise that this is not solely a ‘women’s issue’ but that shared parental responsibility should be what we are aiming for. If we removed barriers from women across the economy, every economy in the world would increase and lift everyone, not just women.

Recreating employment

Cherie made the point about many people having being able to work from home throughout the pandemic, and that this would recreate employment, particularly for mother’s who often struggle with childcare requirements, costs, and scheduling. More homeworking would allow many women to be more flexible. She also noted that they only reason she had been able to continue her career as a Lawyer after having children was the ability to stay in touch via technology, emails, mobile phone, really underlining the importance of women’s access to tech.

Finally, all 3 women were asked for their tips on what they would tell young girl’s (but all apply to all young people) to do and here is what they said:

Have the courage to believe, to change and to make the future.

Pursue everything to the best of your ability and effort.

Learn as much as you can outside of school, about people not like you. Be brave and kind.

Communicate, be confident, try new things.

Don’t worry when it doesn’t work out – everyone gets knocked down, you need resilience to get up.