Precisely 101 years ago this month, American women got the constitutional right to vote.
A century on, what promised to be a watershed moment both for women in America and around the world, has failed to spark the changes necessary to deliver true gender equality.
If we look to today, it will likely take a combination of governmental, corporate, investor and broader societal efforts to create lasting change.
That’s not to say progress hasn’t been made.
More girls are going to school around the world today, and, in turn, there are more women in the workplace and in leadership positions. Many companies have policies in place to advance gender equality and to ensure equal opportunities.
However, there is still a large disparity in global labour force participation rates. For women, it is close to 49%, and for men, it is 75%, according to the International Labour Organisation. Today, on average, women earn just 68% of what men are paid for the same work, and just 40% on average in countries with the least gender parity.
On top of this, there are signs that the limited progress made to date on gender equality have been set back even further by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, with much research pointing to the pandemic exacerbating existing inequalities for women, especially women of colour.
Governments clearly have a role here. If we take the difference in pay between men and women, regulation on disclosure can lead to improvements. In the UK, employers with more than 250 people are required to disclose the difference in average earnings between women and men.
A recent study by the London School of Economics and Political Science found that employers affected by the legislation have narrowed the wage gap between women and men by around a fifth, on average. Holding employers accountable by requiring them to publicly report has encouraged them to take action to narrow the gap.
There are concerns that some of this progress has been set back as the UK government suspended gender pay gap reporting requirements in 2020 and delayed this year’s deadline to October. This was to help reduce the reporting burden for companies dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
Turning to gender equality in the boardroom, the number of female directors in UK listed companies has increased substantially in recent years, perhaps spurred on by the government-backed Hampton-Alexander review. The five-year initiative came to a close last year, with its target of a third of women in board positions achieved on average across FTSE 350 companies.
There is now talk of a new initiative to push for UK companies to have at least 40% female directors, with the remit possibly widened to beyond the FTSE 350 to large, unlisted companies.
Yet, to truly advance gender equality in both boardrooms and the wider workforce, investors will be key – and in recent months there have been some encouraging developments.
The influential proxy advisory firm, Institutional Shareholder Services, said it recommended voting against nomination committee chairs where boards do not meet minimum gender diversity thresholds.
The City watchdog – the Financial Conduct Authority – is consulting on a proposal to change listing rules to require companies to disclose whether they meet specific board diversity targets and to publish diversity data on their boards and executive management. The proposed requirements could see companies with too few women on their boards having to explain themselves. So, if an employer has fewer than two out of five female directors, it may be required to provide an annual statement to investors on why it has fallen short.
Expectations in wider society too, have increased. The UN Sustainable Development Goals, which 193 countries have committed to, include a target of achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls everywhere by 2030.
Companies have a big role to play in meeting this target. It is simply not enough for companies to make a commitment to address gender inequality, they must take tangible actions to deliver real change.
The push for gender equality that led to women getting the right to vote more than a century ago is as necessary today as it was then. The difference today is that there is a groundswell where we have governments, regulators, investors and companies, in addition to broader society, all pushing in the same direction.
Never before have we had such an opportunity to deliver the pace and scale of action that is needed to get back on track to achieve true gender equality.