Glass ceiling remains unbreakable by all but a few

February 8, 2010

Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke1- Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke is the founder of Women’s Worldwide Web – an online charitable organisation designed to help empower women with access to micro-finance loans, education, mentoring and networking. She has an MBA from ESCP Europe Business School and is a Board Director of Enfants d’Asie. The opinions expressed are her own. Reuters will host a “follow-the-sun” live blog on Monday, March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day. Please tune in. -

As an educated European woman enjoying a fulfilling career, along with the majority of my female and male peers, the “angel in the house” curse and the “feminine mystique” malaise seem, in many ways, to have faded into history.

My peers and I can read the inspiring headlines “We did it” , knowing that women will soon constitute the majority of the U.S. workforce, knowing that there are nowadays more female than male university graduates in the U.S. and Europe, and that an increasing number of high-profile female role models are heading some of the world’s leading companies.

The courageous feminist struggles of our foremothers are not to be forgotten.  But, in our new, post-industrial world, haven’t most of the critical legal and social battles for women like me been won?  Isn’t it self-indulgent to bash on about the need to persist in the struggle for women’s empowerment and gender equality when my ostensible juggling act is to type a memo on my BlackBerry with one hand and operate the microwave with the other?

This International Women’s Day, I will be celebrating the heroism, resilience, resourcefulness, creativity and achievements of women worldwide, today and throughout history.  Progress in women’s socioeconomic status over the past century has been monumental.

And yet, as we assess the hard-won accomplishments of women around the globe, one year before the centenary of International Women’s Day and following the 30th anniversary of the landmark Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women, I can’t help asking whether this year’s International Women’s Day is less a cause for celebration and more a moment for sadness and acute concern.

Some facts: approximately 1.3 billion people live in absolute poverty and the majority of them are women; women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours but earn only one-tenth of the world’s income and own less than one-tenth of the world’s property ; nearly a billion people in the world are illiterate and two thirds of them are women; it is estimated that a woman dies every minute as a result of problems in pregnancy and childbirth, mostly in the global South, and the vast majority are preventable; one in three women worldwide is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused ; it is estimated that 100 million females are missing from the planet as a result of sex-selective abortion, discriminatory nutrition and health care in childhood and routine violence against women, a “gendercide” that « far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century » .

These statistics are mind-numbing.  Heartbreaking, if you allow even a touch of the reality of the lives behind the numbers to unfurl.

Violence against women, the violation of women’s rights and the egregious disparity between women’s “paper rights” and women’s rights in practice are all pandemic.  Cutting across boundaries of age, race, culture, wealth and geography, these are global problems—not confined to far-off “underdeveloped” and “developing” countries.  They blight even the doorsteps of middle and high-income countries, which suffer some of the highest rates of violence against women .

Of course, relative to our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers, women in the rich world have unprecedented opportunities and freedoms.  But even here, at home in my high-income country, the picture is not all rosy. Women still earn substantially less than men, on average.

Women are still severely underrepresented in senior managerial positions and public office .  And there is the perennial, arduous struggle to reconcile work and family life (not least because women’s needs in this respect are mediated through structures that allow too few women to participate in the decision-making).  The glass ceiling remains overhead, stubbornly unshatterable by all but a select few.

International Women’s Day should mark an urgent renewal of our collective resolve.  Men and women everywhere, from the grassroots to the international level, can work to put an end to violations of women’s human rights and to improve the global status of women, continuing our efforts to achieve women’s social, economic and political empowerment and parity.

This is not only an end in itself: it is acknowledged that achieving the Millennium Development Goals depends upon it, it makes smart business and economic sense , that women’s empowerment undermines extremism and terrorism and will strengthen the global fight against climate change .

There are multiple feminisms at work in the world, and obviously the needs and aspirations of women differ, often radically, from one context to another.  But we share a common need to create the conditions whereby women everywhere can be safe, can exercise their rights, act as creative agents, determine their lives and fulfil their potential.  In civil society, in business, and at local, national and international governmental levels, powerful initiatives are being taken to achieve this.

Between us, we can and must: facilitate girls’ and women’s education; promote inclusive finance to give women the financial opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty; lobby and advocate to end the violations of women’s rights; make rigorous policy to create the legal frameworks for women’s empowerment; find the political will to translate those legal rights into practice; break ground with new business programmes for women; and participate in women’s mentoring and leadership schemes.

Ours is an astonishingly and increasingly interconnected world: riddled with information and communication technologies that our grandmothers could not have dreamed of. These technologies have unprecedented potential when it comes to raising awareness, collaborating and mobilizing support and resources to bridge the gender divide .

The “Grameen telephone ladies” in rural Bangladesh, Rwandan women weaving baskets and selling their products online, the telecommuting urban mom on Twitter: women are less and less “worlds apart…”.

On International Women’s Day, we can celebrate the triumphs of countless everyday heroines, awe-inspiring women who are creatively and courageously making progress in all aspects of social, political and economic life, all around the world—often, against all odds.

The day is also a reminder of the urgent need for global collective action in asserting women’s rights and working to achieve gender equality. Energized and enabled by what has already been achieved, we need to go further in enhancing the safety and status of women.  Women everywhere need to be free to exercise their vast potential, if we are to make a fairer, better world.

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