When looking at the current performance and future prospects of countries to achieve knowledge economy/society status, gender equality remains a very complex issue. There is general agreement that it is more than important to secure gender balance, at the level of principle, but the results in terms of productive policies and effective measures are still far from satisfactory for the societies of the 21st century.

The challenge is now double: men should be much more open-minded and fair to help correct historical injustice partly still practiced in the 21st century, and – on a purely rationalist level – knowledge society and economy obviously cannot be built if half of the human capital remains only partially mobilised!

The compelling evidence presented nowadays are demonstrating that gender more balanced economies are growing faster, are more innovative and internationally competitive, and of course vice versa. This applies also at the micro-economic level: various studies have shown that gender balance makes companies not only socially more acceptable but also more successful and profitable.

In international debates, these purely pragmatic arguments have not been sufficiently present, and now this seems to be changing rapidly – as so many countries are searching for any underutilised potential for accelerating their growth and knowledge-based development.

Five years after the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals, progress on gender equality has been modest at best, and now the effort to narrow gender gaps faces new challenges in the form of automation trends and the regressive impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Achieving equality for half the world’s population is a global imperative that risks being undermined by competing priorities in a complex world and by the challenges of recovering from the pandemic.

McKinsey Global Institute mapped 15 indicators of gender equality in work (how men and women engage in paid work, how they share unpaid work, and their representation in high-productivity and formal jobs, and in leading positions in the economy), and society (essential services and enablers of economic opportunity like digital and financial inclusion, legal protection and political voice, and physical security and autonomy). While absolute scores on equality in society tend to be higher than those of equality in work for most countries, they found virtually no countries with high equality on social indicators and low equality in employment and labour markets. This suggests that solutions need to tackle both.

Although women in advanced economies of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have made far-reaching gains as workers, consumers, and savers over the past two decades, much of this progress has been offset by rising costs and new forms of insecurity that disproportionately affect women. Between 2000 and 2018, women accounted for two-thirds of 45 million jobs created in 22 OECD countries, but many of these jobs were part-time or independent work that were less secure and offered lower pay and fewer benefits. In this period, female part-time employment increased by 2.3 percentage points, versus a 0.7-percentage-point increase in full-time employment for women.

While women face inequality in the world of work, they also face inequalities at home. Around the world, women do three times as much unpaid care work as men. As one of many examples around the world, the “double shift” is a fact of life for millions of women in China, who go out to work but then do the lion’s share of work in the home as well. On average, they work nearly nine hours a day, and only about half of that is paid. Putting the two together, on average women in China work almost one entire day a week more than men. In some countries like India, women do almost ten times as much unpaid care work as men. This phenomenon is by no means confined to developing economies; it is a consistent fact that women work a double shift in advanced economies, too. In the United States, for instance, women still do almost twice as much unpaid care work as men; 54 percent of women but only 22 percent of men report doing all or most of the housework. Even among individuals who earn the majority of their household’s income, 43 percent of women who are primary household income earners continue to do all or most of the household work, compared with only 12 percent of men. In addition, working women are more likely than their male colleagues to have a working spouse: 81 percent of women are part of a dual-career couple and have two careers to balance, while only 56 percent of men are part of a dual-career couple.

In MGI’s 2015 power of parity report, there are ten “impact zones.” These are the largest concentrations of gender inequality, where action to tackle gender gaps would have the most impact. In five global impact zones, gender inequality is high whether women live in an advanced or emerging economy: blocked economic potential (including women’s participation in leadership positions and formal work), time spent in unpaid care work, fewer legal rights, political underrepresentation, and violence against women. Today, for every 100 men in leadership positions globally, there are just 37 women. One in three women globally, including in developed countries like the United States, has experienced violence from an intimate partner at some time in her life.

In some geographies, economic growth could help advance gender inequality in regional impact zones where certain aspects of gender inequality are most prominent. They are low labour-force participation in quality jobs (in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa), low maternal and reproductive health (in sub-Saharan Africa), unequal education levels (in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa), financial and digital exclusion (in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa), and girl-child vulnerability (in China and South Asia). For many of these impact zones, economic growth can increase the provision of services that could help improve outcomes. In Africa, for instance, rising per capita GDP should enable more healthcare provision, reducing maternal mortality. As countries increase their standard of living, girls typically attain increasing levels of education. In developed countries, women are now outperforming men academically in many dimensions. In the United States, for example, women receive 57 percent of college degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and have higher overall average GPAs (but still lag behind men in STEM graduation rates).

Advancing gender equality is not just an opportunity for countries; companies also stand to gain. McKinsey research on Diversity Matters (2015), on Delivering through Diversity (2018), and most recently in May 2020 on Diversity Wins examined whether companies with higher levels of both gender and ethnic diversity have greater economic performance. The 2020 research examined a data set of more than 1,000 large companies in 15 countries and found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. Companies in the top quartile of ethnic and cultural diversity were 36 percent more likely to outperform on profitability. The highest-performing companies on both profitability and diversity had more women in line roles (that is, owning a line of business) than in staff roles on their executive teams. The research also found a penalty for bottom-quartile performance on gender diversity: companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnic diversity were 27 percent more likely to underperform the industry average than all other firms.

Over the years, the research conducted by LeanIn.Org has found some progress in the advancement of women through the corporate pipeline in North America. In the 2019 Women in the Workplace report: of entry-level workers, 48 percent were women, compared with 45 percent in 2015. Women made up 21 percent of the C-suite, compared with 17 percent in 2019. However, as these numbers show, women are underrepresented at all levels of organizations, and the pipeline is leaky between the entry-level and the C-suite. The biggest obstacle to women on the corporate ladder is a “broken rung” in the first step up to the manager level. For every 100 men hired or promoted to manager, there are only 72 women - and only 58 black women. After this initial degree of drop-off, it is very difficult for women to make up the ground lost. If differences in promotion rate are aggregated across five years, this equates to a difference of one million women in leadership roles.

Women in R&I

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics’ (UIS) data, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. UIS data also show the extent to which these women work in the public, private or academic sectors, as well as their fields of research. But to truly reduce the gender gap, we must go beyond the hard numbers and identify the qualitative factors that deter women from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Numerous studies have found that women in STEM fields publish less, are paid less for their research, and do not progress as far as men in their careers. However, there is very little data at the international or even country-level showing the extent of these disparities.

Throughout history and over the last years, women have strongly intended to play central roles in addressing major aspects of the world's most urgent problems such as global poverty, health, and climate change. Women have been in a continuous effort to promote health, educational, and environmental sustainability programs. In exchange, women are facing countless obstacles to ensure gender equality. Science is not an exception in the field of gender disparity in the scientific community.

Scientific research does not know borders and brings together scientists with different backgrounds and areas of expertise (Tobin, 2017). The strategy that prevails amongst the scientific community is to work in a collaborative manner regardless of the characteristics of each individual contributor. However, gender diversity is still limited across distinct scientific fields. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), women represent just 28.8% of worldwide science researchers.

On the other hand, women were leaders in, for example, building the early foundation of modern programming and unveiling the structure of DNA. Their work inspired environmental movements and led to the discovery of new genes. They broke the sound barrier - and gender barriers along the way.

Gender Inequality Index

Gender inequality remains a major barrier to human development. Girls and women have made major strides since 1990, but they have not yet gained gender equity. The disadvantages facing women and girls are a major source of inequality. All too often, women and girls are discriminated against in health, education, political representation, labour market, etc. - with negative consequences for the development of their capabilities and their freedom of choice.

The Gender Inequality Index (GII) measures gender inequalities in three important aspects of human development: reproductive health, measured by maternal mortality ratio and adolescent birth rates; empowerment, measured by the proportion of parliamentary seats occupied by females and proportion of adult females and males aged 25 years and older with at least some secondary education; and economic status, expressed as labour market participation and measured by labour force participation rate of female and male populations aged 15 years and older. The GII is built on the same framework as the IHDI (Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index) - to better expose differences in the distribution of achievements between women and men. It measures the human development costs of gender inequality. Thus, the higher the GII value the more disparities between females and males and consequently more loss to human development.

The GII sheds new light on the position of women in 162 countries; it yields insights in gender gaps in major areas of human development. The component indicators highlight areas in need of critical policy intervention and it stimulates proactive thinking and public policy to overcome systematic disadvantages of women.

Closing thoughts

Under the Slovenian Presidency, the European Council adopted on 26 November 2021 another document dealing with gender equity - the Ljubljana Declaration on “Gender Equality in Research and Innovation”. It was endorsed by 34 European countries - 24 EU members, but not by Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

The Declaration builds on the adopted Gender quality Strategy 2020-2025, the Gender Action Plan III, and the renewed European Research Area. This confirms that the EU is treating the gender equality issue from both angles, the political, as well as the economic and research/innovation one.

Achieving actual gender equality is now more important than ever before in history, as the knowledge economy needs all available human resources. It is a shame, that little is known of the advantages women possess compared to men – though scientists have discovered that fact a long time ago. However, most attention in research over gender differences has focused on psychological profiles and how the other gender is perceived by the opposite sex.

The feminist movement – fully justified in order to “wake up masculine social responsibility” – has unfortunately sometimes generated even some counter-productive results: provoking traditionalist reaction from parts of the masculine public, and alienating some feminine public from the legitimate fight for equality. This is usually the experience of any political movement, and what counts is the end result – which cannot be neglected. Without feminists, probably women still would not have voting rights!

However, gender equality does not imply rejecting the fact that we are different – quite contrary. Over 40 physiological and psychological differences have been discovered by scientists between the two sexes. The female body is more resistant – obviously linked to motherhood, which also requires stronger emotional intelligence. And that helps also with interpersonal communication. We need to recognize these genetic differences, and in order to make gender balance most productive, we should organize life and work accordingly.

In the sphere of social interaction, these are probably the most important feminine advantages:

  • higher social and emotional intelligence;
  • diligence in preparations and attention to details;
  • readiness for teamwork, and acceptance of team leader;
  • motivation for achieving fair benefits for all involved in action or negotiations;
  • higher level of perseverance in performing an accepted role in an action;
  • reluctance to break agreements, rules and laws.

There are however also some feminine disadvantages:

  • interpersonal relations are taken rather emotionally (not easy to forgive and forget), which complicate hierarchical relations among women;
  • due to weaker orientation in space, it takes longer than men to take a bird’s eye and determine strategy.

The important differences between men and women are not leading to the conclusion that one is superior to the other, but that we are (probably not by God’s mistake) complementing each other. In corporate management theory for a long time, it has been established and proven by extensive research, that mixed-gender boards are more successful than men-only, or those with symbolic female representation.

(Article by prof. dr. Ajda Fošner and prof. dr. Boris Cizelj).

Sources used and further reading

European Commission, Horizon Europe Guidance on Gender Equality Plans (GEPs), 2021.
Ljubljana Declaration on Gender Equality in Research and Innovation.
Carolina M. Franco-Orozco, Bárbara Franco-Orozco, Women in Academia and Research: An Overview of the Challenges Toward Gender Equality in Colombia and How to Move Forward, 2018.
McKinsey Global Institute, Ten things to know about gender equality, September 21, 2020.
Regulation (EU) 2021/695 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 April 2021 establishing Horizon Europe – the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, laying down its rules for participation and dissemination, and repealing Regulations (EU) No 1290/2013 and (EU) No 1291/2013 and Council Decision (EU) 2021/764 of 10 May 2021establishing the Specific Programme implementing Horizon Europe – the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, and repealing Decision 2013/743/EU European Commission.