Gender equality benefits everyone

Universities should take more action to highlight and nurture talent in young women, says Jane Turner

February 17, 2019
Female science students

We require a significant shift in attitudes and beliefs (stereotypes, gender norms, call them what you will) regarding the role of women. This statement is absolutely applicable to the higher education sector, of course, with recent figures showing that the proportion of UK university departments headed by women has remained static over two years. But the issue is deeper.

Globally, current statistics are alarming: 63 million girls across the world are denied an education; every year, in the least developed countries, barely 60 per cent of girls complete primary school and just 30 per cent 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 per cent of the world’s work, and produce 50 per cent of the food, yet earn only 10 per cent of the income and own 1 per cent of the property; women with full-time jobs still earn only 77 per cent of their male counterparts’ earnings; only 24 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women as of November 2018, a slow increase from 11.3 per cent in 1995; and as of January 2019, 11 women were serving as head of state and 10 serving as head of government.

The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2018 estimates that it will be another 202 years before we achieve gender parity across the four areas of health, education, workforce and politics. 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. 

In the Tees Valley, where I grew up and now work, the outlook for young girls is currently 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 per cent 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 per cent through improved female workforce participation; better gender balance on boards is proven to result in better share price and financial performance; and more gender-balanced leadership results in better all-round 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. Working with Simone Roche, CEO and founder of Northern Power Women, 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. 

Jane Turner is pro vice-chancellor for enterprise and business engagement at Teesside University.

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