Throughout much of history, men have seized resources, created institutions in their image, controlled markets, and leveraged those advantages to the detriment of women and gender equality.
As a result, women often do as much, or more, for less pay and less recognition than men. There is nowhere on earth where women and men enjoy full equality.
Where – and what sex – you are born does not determine your intelligence, resourcefulness, or abilities. It determines your relationship with existing power structures.
This relationship to power overwhelmingly determines our futures. Yet women persevere, finding power through solidarity, and pure grit, and challenging a world built for men.
Women and girls don’t all experience gender inequality in the same way. But data can help illuminate the complex barriers that they will likely deal with.
Gender norms, societal expectations, and assumptions about how men and women should behave can hold women back from participating in the labour force, accessing financial resources, and holding political positions of power. They can deprive girls of nutritious food, opportunities to play, and investment in early learning.
They are detrimental to all of us when they impede economic growth. And they are abusive when they normalise gender-based violence.
But norms are not destiny. In recent decades, the proportion of people who believe in prioritising men’s and boy’s employment and education over their female counterparts has fallen. And legal provisions to protect women from domestic violence have challenged the social acceptance of these crimes. Progress on gender equality is hard-fought, incremental, and largely driven by women. There’s much more to do, and it’s up to all of us to do it.
Achieving gender equality would mean a world where who you are – and your perceived role in society – does not limit your rights, opportunities, and access to resources and services.
The world is making progress towards gender equality. Slow and uneven progress.
Between 2015 and 2020, 1 in 3 countries either made no progress on gender equality or moved into reverse.
On the current trend, gender equality will take nearly 300 years.
The most unequal societies generally have the highest levels of poverty. This is a toxic cycle: poverty festers in unequal societies, it entrenches gender inequalities, and the absence of gender equality, in turn, holds back economic and social progress.
So when a crisis hits, women – especially women living in poverty – feel the aftershocks first and strongest. COVID-19 exemplified this.
In 2021,it is estimated that over 37 million women were pushed into extreme poverty.
And the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are long-lasting. Global extreme poverty is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels only in 2030.
A woman living through the COVID-19 pandemic was 10% more likely than a man to experience hunger – up from 6% before the pandemic.
Climate change also shows how crises impact women more intensely. A woman living through a climate disaster would be less likely to survive. She is also more likely to be displaced by the impacts of climate change, as 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. This puts her at greater risk of poverty and sexual violence. In the wake of devastating droughts in Somalia in 2021, rates of gender-based violence increased by an estimated 200%.
Global progress against this scourge has been stalling since 2015, and in some places, it has gone in reverse.
Women also shoulder the burden of feeding their families. They grow 60-80% of the world’s staple crops and are almost entirely responsible for buying and preparing it. If women had the same access to productive resources than men, up to 150 million people could be lifted out of hunger.
One of the most fundamental forms of power is power over our own bodies. A woman’s ability to make choices about her sexual and reproductive health is crucial to this power.
This is denied to nearly half of women and girls in low- and middle-income countries. It is denied to 90% of those living in Mali, Niger, and Senegal.
If a woman or girl doesn’t have this control, she won’t be able to seek healthcare, use contraception, or say no to sexual partners. She may be among the young women in sub-Saharan Africa who are twice as likely as their male counterparts to be living with HIV.
This is as pernicious as it is common: 1 in 3 women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lives, and 1 in 10 girls is forced into sex.
By any other standard, this would represent a health crisis of epidemic proportions. But due to stigma, existing gender norms, and ineffective legal structures, sexual offenders enjoy near impunity in the vast majority of countries. For example, Uganda secured just 19 convictions per 1,519 rape cases in 2021.
If a woman does come forward, many Africans believe she will be criticised, harassed, or shamed for doing so. It’s a cruel irony that she would be tried in the court of public opinion when her offender is likely to never see court at all.
But there is some hope of change: Across much of Africa, men and women identify gender-based violence as the most important women’s rights issue.
Women are key to ending extreme poverty. Marginalising them is like trying to climb a rope with one hand tied behind your back. Yet 2.4 billion women of working age do not have the same economic opportunities as men.
If a woman is seeking a job, it is likely that she will be subject to sexist laws that hinder her ability to safely earn a quality income. She may not be able to run businesses, navigate the working world, or secure a job in the same way as a man.
Only 14 countries treat women equally under the law and progress slumped to a 20-year low in 2022.
This contributes to significant gaps in employment. If a woman doesn’t have access to transportation, affordable childcare, or a supportive family, she may opt out of the workforce.
Most women want to work in paid jobs, but too many are kept out of the labour force.
If a woman is employed, she’ll make just 77% of man’s wages on average. The gap widens depending on her race and if she has a disability.
Tallied up, this creates a mind-blowing US$172 trillion difference between men’s and women’s total expected lifetime earnings (nearly twice the world’s gross domestic product!).
Gender discrimination plays a large role in this injustice. Not just if a woman is hired, but if she is educated. There has been some progress on girls’ education – particularly in primary school – but progress on secondary education still lags behind.
This is a huge missed opportunity: Each additional year a girl spends in school can boost her earnings as an adult by up to 20%.
Even if a woman or girl overcomes these hurdles, she faces another key constraint: Time.
She will spend three times as many hours on unpaid domestic labour than a man because that is often perceived as her primary social role. This limits the time that she can spend in school or working, or on leisure activities.
If a woman or girl lives in poverty, the injustice is intensified because she will have to work longer and harder to meet her family’s basic needs. She would contribute to the 200 million hours women and girls spend every day on water collection. That equates to 22,800 years of missed opportunities per day – roughly equivalent to the period from the Stone Age to today.
We all rely on women’s unpaid labour. But the reliance is more extreme in low-income countries. That’s because governments have fewer resources to spend on social services that could decrease this reliance and promote gender equality.
As countries struggle to make debt repayments to governments and private bondholders, women disproportionately pick up the tab.
Ghana has cut its health spending by nearly half in recent years as the cost to service its debts has surged. 41,000 nurses, most of whom are women, are unemployed despite a profound shortage of healthcare workers.
In Nigeria, 30% of the federal budget in 2023 will be spent on debt service; almost twice as much as what will be spent on agriculture, health, and education combined.
These aren’t isolated phenomena. 56% of African countries are bankrupt or at high risk of debt distress. The more countries pay in debt servicing, the less they have for critical social services, which keeps women out of the paid workforce.
Meanwhile, the share of international aid with a gender component has nearly doubled since 2010 – accounting for around 40% of funding. This has stagnated since 2019, however, despite the evidence that COVID-19 disproportionately impacted women and girls.
But debt service payments due this year exceed total aid to Africa and even then, this funding is constantly under threat and subject to political whims of the (mostly male) political leaders in donor countries.
Too often, women aren’t counted. Literally.
Men are pervasively the default gender used in data collection. If a woman is counted, she may not be distinguished from a man in the data, which obscures potential inequalities in their lives. At least US$500 million is needed to help national governments close funding gaps in data collection, storage, and interpretation.
Without appropriate data, we can’t understand the exact breadth and depth of gender inequality: We have just 42% of the gender data needed to monitor the gender-specific dimensions of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Without adequate measurements, governments can’t make informed decisions about where and how to spend their money.
A woman’s contributions may also be obscured by our measurement tools. Gross domestic product, one of the most fundamental measurements of growth and economic output, does not account for women’s unpaid care work — which could be worth US$10.8 trillion annually.
In health research, men and male animals dominate clinical trials, even for conditions that predominantly affect women, such as breast cancer. A woman having a heart attack may be 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed as a result. If she’s in a car accident, she may be 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 17% more likely to die because safety features are tailored to men’s physiques.
Humans pass this bias onto artificial intelligence: up to 85% of artificial intelligence projects could deliver erroneous results due to gender, racial, or other forms of bias.
100 years ago, most women didn’t have the right to vote. Despite progress in voting rights, political bodies are still skewed towards men.
Political representation is the only area of women’s equality that is not significantly improved by economic development.
If a woman does run for office, she is likely to face backlash. 85% of Tunisians think women candidates will face criticism or harassment, a sentiment that is shared by 50% of people across a wide swath of African countries. When a woman is in power, she is likely to face double standards. In Nigeria, people think women are less likely to engage in corruption, but judge them more harshly if they do.
Even without this political power, women are transformative leaders. Women played a critical role in rebuilding Rwanda following the 1994 genocide, and they now hold the highest rate of political leadership in the world. In the 1990s, women leveraged informal markets in North Korea to feed their families whilst men worked in compulsory but unpaid jobs. During the First Intifada in Palestine, women leaders were pivotal in distributing resistance materials and providing social services like schools and clinics, before being sidelined by increasing violence and religiosity. Chilean women wove tapestries depicting Augusto Pinochet’s brutal regime, which earned global attention and helped spur his downfall. Writ large, peace processes are 35% more likely to succeed for 15 years or more if women are involved.
The list goes on.
Even without political representation, many women tirelessly and fearlessly advance gender equality. They do so in the face of profound repression, social barriers, the threat of violence, and with shockingly few financial resources. Women’s rights organisations received just 0.31% of international aid in 2021. Half of them in the Global South operate on less than US$30,000 a year.
Solidarity is critical to these transformations. It is one of the greatest resources for women organisers. From the huts of the women-only village in Umoja, Kenya, to the cells of a Tehrani prison where jailed women sing in protest, the power of the collective shakes the foundation of gender inequality.
If this work weren’t a matter of life and death, women wouldn’t be doing it for free.
Rectifying systemic injustices of gender inequality will take many concerted efforts, working across civil society groups, local and national governments, and international bodies. Effective measures include:
Visit our GitHub repository to access the data and code powering this Data Dive.