Gender equality is a fundamental human right that ensures that all individuals, regardless of their gender, have access to the same opportunities, rights, and responsibilities in all aspects of life. It has become a crucial topic in international discussions and policy frameworks among governments, the United Nations, and other multilateral organizations. However, despite significant progress, gender inequality is still pervasive in education, employment, and political representation. This inequality is ingrained in societal structures through gender socialization, which is the process by which people learn to behave in a certain way as dictated by societal beliefs, values, attitudes, and examples. These stereotypes are perpetuated by family members, teachers, and others, creating a vicious cycle of generational transfer of inferiority that prevents a nation from achieving its true potential.
The journey towards achieving gender equality has been a long and ongoing one, and despite some progress, there is still a significant gap that needs to be bridged. The COVID-19 pandemic has further hindered progress in this area, as evidenced by the widening of the gender gap. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022, the gender gap has widened by a generation, from 99.5 years in 2020 to 135.6 years in 2021, with only a slight reduction to 132 years in 2022. Despite the common misconception that women have achieved gender equality in the workplace, this is not the case. The World Bank’s 2022 report shows that approximately 2.4 billion women of working age do not have equal economic opportunities, 178 countries have legal barriers that prevent women from fully participating in the economy and 95 countries do not guarantee equal pay for equal work to women. Regarding women in political leadership positions, progress has been sluggish. According to UNWOMEN, as of 1 January 2023, only 31 countries have 34 women serving as Heads of State or Government. At the current pace, it will take another 130 years to achieve gender equality in the highest positions of power. Additionally, women are underrepresented in national parliaments, with only 26.5% of parliamentarians being women. Although 23 countries have attained or surpassed the 40% mark while only six have 50% or more women in parliament in single or lower houses. This low participation rate can be attributed to various factors, including women’s reluctance to enter politics, and bias from voters and political parties.
The path towards achieving gender equality requires education and following the three-step change model proposed by Kurt Lewin. The first step involves unfreezing the current state of gender inequality, which is often marked by resistance to change in people’s old behaviours, ways of thinking, processes, and societal structures and norms. Education can play an instrumental role in breaking down stereotypes, changing attitudes, and creating awareness of the hindrances that gender inequality poses to the development of communities, families, and the nation as a whole. To accomplish this, workshops and role-playing games can be used to provoke people’s thoughts and encourage them to reflect on their own biases and assumptions. Once people are aware of the need for change, the next step is to transition towards a new state of being. This is often the most challenging step, as it is marked by uncertainty and fear. To help facilitate this transition, children should be provided with the right education about equal opportunities and possibilities, regardless of gender, which can help in shaping a gender-equal society in the future. Teachers, parents, and the government can play a critical role in training people’s viewpoints and framing education policies and curriculum and infrastructure that enable equality and opportunities for all. The government can also play a major role through legislation and raising awareness among those who already live with gender stereotypes and prejudices. Society as a whole can create new norms, values, behaviours, and ways of thinking that are more rational and enable individuals to realize their true potential. The more prepared people are for this step, the easier it is to complete.
The final step in the change model is refreezing, which involves reinforcing and stabilizing the new state of being. This can be accomplished by acknowledging the progress made in different areas, rewarding individuals who promote gender equality, creating role models, and celebrating successes. For example, Nordic countries (which include Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) have consistently held top positions in the Global Gender Gap reports. One of the key factors contributing to this success is that gender equality starts in schools, where equal access is given not limited to enrolment but also motivation and opportunities to excel in any field. Both men and women in these countries are aware of each other’s rights, which fosters a culture of gender equality. On top of that, these countries have a high percentage of female elected representatives in their legislature, which has helped in creating parity in society through law and has gone to great lengths to reserve positions for underrepresented genders. What is particularly impressive is their ability to promote gender equality in societal norms, which creates a virtuous cycle and reinforces itself through socialization.
In conclusion, as Hillary Clinton famously stated, “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” Gender equality is not just a women’s issue, rather it is a human issue that affects all. Education is a powerful tool that can empower women, remove barriers in their lives, and provide them with opportunities that have been previously denied. Since gender inequality is a widespread issue that affects numerous societies and regions, it is imperative that international cooperation is fostered to create policies and frameworks that embrace proven best practices and steer the direction of international policy-making to promote gender parity. Additionally, we must take it upon ourselves to raise awareness about women’s education, create role models in different fields, especially in STEM, and break down gender stereotypes so that everyone has equal access to opportunities and could harness their full potential.