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Women in Economic Leadership- Ending the Discrimination Between Women and Men is Our Pending Priority as Societies in the XXI Century

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Discussing one of the most pressing issues of our time, five leading women in the field of economics gathered Jan. 16 at IE’s Aula Magna to share their thoughts and experiences with gender inequality in the event “Women and Economic Leadership,” organized by the IE School of Global and Public Affairs in collaboration with the Secretaría General Iberoamericana. The panel, which addressed topics ranging from policies and career prospects to motherhood and reproductive rights, reinforced the need to keep the gender discussion alive to push for change.

The evening kicked off with Dean Manuel Muñiz highlighting the importance of gender equality in a moment where the rise of populism is bringing back an attack on women’s and minority rights, as seen in the United States, Spain’s region of Andalucía and Brazil, to name a few. “If this discussion was urgent a few years ago, now it is imperative,” Muñiz said. Panel mediator Borja Santos Porras, IE School of Global and Public Affairs Executive Director, asked the speakers to introduce themselves and make initial remarks about the issue of gender equality.

Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, focused on the numbers that illustrate this inequality. She said that bringing about gender equality is not just the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do, as societies that do not practice it come short in economics. “We are talking about US$ 28 trillion, the combined amount of the U.S. and Chinese economies — that’s how much is being lost every year because we do not have gender equality,” Clark said. She added that it is easier to explain the loss and impact of gender inequality in economic terms as men often relate to those more. The World Bank annual Women in Business report, Clark said, reported that in 2016 there were 155 countries with at least one prohibitory law against women, and 104 with restrictions on the type of work women could do.

An estimated 1.4 billion women around the world still face economic violence, in which their access to economic means is controlled, and therefore they are unable to leave abusive situations, Clark said, adding that it is time for a fresh globalization round around these issues. “Every year gender equality is measured in four dimensions and last year we have seen a regressive trend in all four. This year, we were regressive in three,” Clark said. She added that having women participate in the economy is not only good for women themselves, but also for countries and or businesses. The road to progress is very slow, and the forecast of reaching parity between genders is estimated to take 107 years, Clark said, especially with the lack of women in decision-making positions. Regarding the rollback of authoritarianism, she added that the rights that women enjoy in our societies are very recently won, and there are pushbacks. “Never take these gains for granted,” she said. “Many countries have come a long way, but these are fragile rights.”

Next was Cristina Gallach, High Commissioner for the 2030 Agenda of Spain, who emphasized a Europe-wide strategy to tackle inequality. She said that the most brilliant women in the most advanced countries in the world are still struggling with equal access and opportunities in the job markets due to gender discrimination and that the situation is even more fragile for women in developing countries. “We got to a point where we have all the economic data to improve and advance equality, numbers of how much women contribute to the economy, and it still it does not happen,” Gallach said. “It’s an absurdity, close to criminal.” She insisted that the situation needs to be put clearly at the table, and there is a necessity to fight the new leadership that is making gender equality backslide, starting with women’s rights to control their own bodies. Gallach also said that we as a society will not advance without inclusion and that men play an important role in advancing women’s agenda and helping with advocacy.

Arancha González, Executive Director of the International Trade Center, kicked off her introduction with the confession that she had not been born and raised a feminist, and only became one throughout her life. She insisted that the battle for equal rights is not about feminist friends getting together and talking about women’s issues. “It’s about societies understanding how we leverage our differences. We are not the same and we don’t have to be the same,” she added. “We have very different assets and backgrounds, this is called diversity and we need to take advantage of it.” González insisted that plain and simply, feminism is good economics. “It’s the IMF who is saying this, not a crazy feminist,” she joked. González also said that leveraging diversity improves growth and competitiveness, while discrimination directly affects productivity and the economy, and that our society is not a zero-sum game in which if women win, men are necessarily losing.

“It’s all about power share,” González said. “Those who have the power want to keep the power.” She also proposed two main ways to improve power-sharing: remobilizing and choosing targets. “We became a bit too complacent. In Spain, we have one of the most progressive laws in the world about gender violence, but the law is not enough. We haven’t changed the culture,” she said. As for picking a target, González insisted the carpet bombing is not the most efficient approach, and that each woman should choose one topic they want to mobilize on, and repeat it until everyone is sick and tired of hearing it. “Mine is six thousand euros. That’s what it costs every Spaniard, what they are missing out on because of gender inequality,” she said.

Susana Malcorra, former Foreign Minister of Argentina, cited a few countries that are backsliding in democracy and, as a consequence, also in women’s rights. She said it is the case with Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and the legislation allowing military men to rape up to three women while in service, Matteo Salvini in Italy and the elimination of child support, Viktor Orban in Hungary and the policy aimed at women bearing more children, and Donald Trump in the United States, to name a few. “Empowered women as described as an assault to the natural political order, which establishes that men are always in charge,” she said. Malcorra further explained how this notion goes back to the most basic societal cells, which are families, and portrays progress towards gender equality as a subversion of the established hierarchy in families and in societies. She further said that women need to remain mobilized because too often there is a feeling that rights are won and settled, but they get easily backtracked. “The reason why we don’t solve this is because it is at the heart of politics, and politics is power, and power is the notion of men staying in control,” Malcorra said.

Each guest speaker then shared their personal experiences and barriers they had to overcome. Clark said that growing up in a farm in New Zealand and attending an all-girls school, she had a very sheltered life and only ran into gender discrimination barriers when she broke from her bubble and entered political positions. “You’re going into a sphere very male-dominated, with the ‘why are you taking the place of a man’ idea,” she said, adding that there were very little expectations of women in politics, let alone in leadership positions. “Strong women are terrifying because we’re not controllable,” Clarke said. “We are what we see, and girls need to see themselves in all the structures of society.” Gallach shared that although the world of journalism is perceived as an open, inclusive and progressive environment, this is not the reality she faced when entering the market. “We see the same shades of power. I can only say that we need stronger leadership because we need to start changing the lenses by which issues are being brought in the society,” Gallach said. She added that being offered a job at the United Nations was a big dilemma in her family, and her options were either splitting from her husband or having him quit his job so she could take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “We need more of these examples, and we shouldn’t be facing these dilemmas. We choose with whom we agree to form a family and how to manage, but this should not be the exception. We have to open our eyes to build these inclusive societies, so our children will realize that this is quite normal, it’s a sharing exercise,” she said.

González said that the first thing that became apparent in her professional experience was that the more she progressed, the fewer women were in the room. She added that another obstacle for women is an inherent self-doubt, and that because of gender discrimination women second guess their own abilities much more than men do. “’Will I be able to do that? Am I up to that job? Can I really do that?’ Women ask themselves these questions much more than men,” González said. Her advice was for women to reassure themselves that they are up for the challenges, take opportunities, and trust that if all the other people can do it she can also do it. Malcorra also touched on this topic, saying that when there are pre-requisites to a job or task, men fill out all of them without question, and women should do so too. “Maybe you need to push yourself when the train stops and work hard. If you are super suitable and prepared for the job, chances are you’re probably over-qualified,” she said.

Malcorra also discussed the costs of motherhood and cited statistics that show men and women start to really diverge in job opportunities after having the first child. She said that between five and ten years after the firstborn, the gap is alarming, meaning that either women have not gone back to work or if they have, they fall substantially behind. “This will not change in the sense that women will always bear the children,” Malcorra said. “This is the point of policy. You can only overcome this if the right policies are put in place, with  places where you can take your children, and a state that provides the network support.” She finished by saying that the way that different political leaders propose policy and make decisions will impact not only women personally, but also society, and making a call to action.”We as women need to take the joystick and make the policy decisions that have an impact on us.”

About the author: Giovanna Z. Rinaldo is a journalist and a Master’s of International Relations student at IE University. She can be found on Twitter @giozrinaldo and on LinkedIn.