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Why I am so passionate about closing the gender gap

The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report, published today, shows that a decade of slow but steady progress on improving parity between the sexes came to a halt in 2017. Katja Freiwald – who leads our women´s partnership and advocacy agenda – explains what this means for her personally.

Progress is hugely disappointing

Katja Freiwald, Director of Global Partnerships and Advocacy for Women’s Empowerment and Livelihoods
Katja Freiwald

Director of Global Partnerships and Advocacy for Women’s Empowerment and Livelihoods

From our Chief Sustainability Office, Katja uses her marketing expertise to build partnerships that support behavioural change campaigns and deliver sustainable development for business and communities. She manages partnerships with NGOs and UN agencies to create the greatest possible joint impact.

Everyone has a responsibility to treat others equally, no matter what their gender, beliefs or background

The report shows that, at the current rate of progress, the global gender gap will take 100 years to close, compared to 83 last year. And the workplace gender gap will now not be closed for 217 years. It was 170 last year. That reversal is hugely disappointing.

Even more so is that the gap has widened across all four pillars of the report: educational attainment, health and survival, economic opportunity and political empowerment. These latter two are of particular concern because they already carry the largest gaps and, until this year, were registering the fastest progress.

Tackling unpaid care work must be a priority

As I’m just back from maternity leave – trying to balance work and family life – this has brought into sharp focus an area I’ve been passionate about for some time: unpaid care work. This is linked to deeply ingrained outdated social norms. If women’s unpaid work were compensated at a rate roughly equal to minimum wage, this would add about $10 trillion to global economic output.

Earlier this year, we launched a report – Opportunities for Women (PDF | 6.3MB) – where we set out our approach for tackling gender inequality. Unpaid care work is a priority area given that it directly impacts women on a daily basis in our workplace, supply chain and distribution network, as well as our consumers.

Gender inequality is personal

Being a mother of a five-month-old has made me realise that gender inequality and social norms are everywhere. For example, in Germany, where I am from, you have the opportunity to spend the first year with your baby. While in Belgium, where I am based, you must return after 16 weeks. In the eyes of a German person, that makes me a ‘bad’ mother for going back to work so soon.

Globally, women spend between 2 and 10 times longer on household chores like laundry, cleaning and cooking, and caring for children and family members. Having said that, my partner does his share, although this is not generally the norm everywhere.

But probably the biggest restriction I feel is the cultural pressure ingrained in women to be good at everything. Before, women were left out of work. Today, it feels like we are expected to be a perfect mother and wife, and still build a successful career.

At Unilever, I have always had a supportive manager and team that made agile working possible. In my previous career, however, the human, softer and often more compassionate way of leading was seen as weakness. This is not the case anymore. But the confidence gap is something I see all the time: the female desire to set the bar higher than our male colleagues, before taking the next step.

My views have changed since returning after maternity leave

Previously, I thought this issue was most prevalent in the developing world. But speaking with colleagues in those regions, I’m not sure anymore where the pressure is higher. It seems in many European countries, the infrastructure is missing to allow both parents to go back to work. In the developing world, this is often possible with support at home – usually from extended family.

This has become an important discussion in my house and we are taking conscious steps to allow both of us to have a career. However, I don’t think we would be able to manage that if we didn’t have access to good crèche facilities and the support of our parents who live close by.

As individuals, we can all help progress

We must move away from short-term programmes, towards interventions that address adverse norms. If there’s one thing, it’s that we need to create an unstereotyped mindset. We are doing a lot of work in this space, including the Unstereotype Alliance – a coalition of more than 20 industry leaders, working to eliminate gender bias and harmful stereotypes in advertising.

Everyone, wherever they sit in the spectrum of life and work, has a responsibility to treat others equally, no matter what their gender, beliefs or background. We must be honest with ourselves, be aware if we are being biased, and be proactive to ensure that women and men can thrive together.

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