An economist warns that the next generation of feminists will feel even more frustrated

Hard to watch.
Hard to watch.
Image: Reuters/Adrees Latif
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Two weeks ago, on International Women’s Day, women workers were urged to abstain from paid and unpaid labor in order to demonstrate how much the economy depends on female participation. As women work more hours than men worldwide each day, their importance is undeniable. But while the last few decades have seen incredible global progress in terms of gender equality in education, there is a still a huge gap worldwide between women and men in the marketplace—in countries poor and rich alike. This gap is going to lead to growing frustration for future generations, even as feminism and women’s empowerment become increasingly mainstream concepts.

In terms of human capital worldwide, the sexes look increasingly equal. The proportion of pupils in high school that are girls has climbed from 42% in 1970 to 48% in 2014. At the college level worldwide, there are now more women enrolled than men. There were three million women college graduates in China in 1990; by 2010, there were 13 million. The proportion of college graduates in the country who are women has climbed from 35% to 46% over that time. Progress has been similarly rapid in India. In the US, the number of female college graduates in the country doubled over the same 20-year period, and women account for just over one half of all graduates.

But for all the progress in women’s education, the world of work still looks distinctly unequal. Planet-wide, the market labor force is still only about 40% women, and that represents just one percentage point of improvement since 1990. At that rate of progress, we will reach gender equity in the labor force in two and a half centuries. And the gap is bigger in the formal sector where firms are more likely to meet labor standards and minimum wage laws. Looking at the World Bank’s survey of registered businesses, only one third of the full time workers they employ worldwide are women.

The most striking gender gaps are in business leadership and innovation. The World Bank’s survey of enterprises suggests there is a huge gender gap in management. Across the countries in the survey, less than one in five firms are run by a woman. Women make up only 21% of boards of directors in Sweden, 14% in France and less than 2% in a number of Arab states. And the very top of the global economy is still a men’s club. Forbes’ ranking of the world’s billionaires suggests that only 191 out of the World’s list of 1810 billionaires are women.

The gap isn’t about ability. Women-managed firms are as profitable as male-owned firms in the same sector. But women do tend to run businesses in less profitable sectors that allow for more flexible schedules—connected to the fact that women still do the considerable bulk of unpaid work in the household worldwide.

That these types of gender gaps persist in some of the world’s wealthiest countries suggests this isn’t a problem that will be simply solved by development—more wealth, health, and education alone is not enough to close the divide. The ingrained attitudes about a woman’s responsibilities at home and in the market that underlie the gap have proven extremely resilient.

For example, the World Values Survey asks each year, ”When jobs are scarce, should men have more right to a job than a woman?”  Over time, fewer people worldwide agree with that idea. But there’s a growing number who chose “neither agree or disagree.” That leaves the percentage firmly disagreeing—those clearly opposing sexist hiring practices—on the decline. It was 40% in China a decade ago and is 37% now. In India, the number dropped from 28% to 23%, in the US, from 81%to 69%.  And men remain particularly tepid in this regard: they are 16 percentage points less likely than women to oppose sexist hiring practices in the US, 12 less points in China, and 10 points less likely in India.

The phenomenon of an increasingly educated population finding little in the way of market opportunities thanks to entrenched privilege is one we’ve seen before: college enrollment doubled in Egypt between 1990 and 2010, and quadrupled in Tunisia. But job opportunities did not: unemployment rates in 2005 remained above 30% in both countries. And there was a widespread sense that connections drove success in business—what mattered was who you were rather than what you did or how hard you worked. That was one factor behind the upheavals of the Arab Spring—Young workers had nowhere to go but the street.

Women need their own revolution in terms of behaviors and attitudes. The marches and protests that we’ve seen lately are great first steps, but clearly women need policy as much as they need visibility. One hopeful sign involves politics, where women have enjoyed some of the most rapid developments in gender equality. In 1997, 12% of legislators in national parliaments worldwide were women; by 2016 this had climbed to 23%.

Governments worldwide should get rid of dated legislation that keeps women out of particular occupations (driving a train in Russia, for example). And they should pass strong legislation on discrimination. But they also need to ensure the next generation understands that women and men have an equal place in the labor force—even if they approach jobs differently. Because 250 years to gender equality in the workplace is simply too long to wait.