How long will it take?

A woman in Nepal spells out what is on her mind about women’s empowerment. Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank

By Jordan Teague

Not only is March Women’s History Month in the United States, but today, Tuesday, March 8, is International Women’s Day (IWD), celebrated every year since 1975. In many countries, IWD features exhibits, parades, and other public events.

How long will it take until women have equal rights, equal representation in politics, equal pay? The theme of this year’s IWD is “Pledge for Parity.” Why? Because the World Economic Forum recently announced its finding that, at the world’s current rate of progress, gender equality won’t be achieved until … 2133.

Of course that is much too long to wait. And it’s not necessary. Stronger political will – simply “deciding that we need to do it” — will generate momentum to help shrink that time frame.

The 2133 calculation takes into account the gender gap between women and men in four areas – health, education, economic opportunity, and politics. The good news is that in the 145 countries studied, health and education are approaching equality – 96 percent and 95 percent of the gender gap, respectively, has been closed.

Such broad numbers can’t tell us the whole story, of course. Some countries weren’t included because there wasn’t enough data, a problem illustrated in an interactive tool for the 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Thrive. Disparities within a country, often significant, aren’t reflected in the data. Neither are questions that go beyond the statistics gathered (e.g., once children start attending school, how much are they learning?), which groups need extra attention (e.g., child brides at greater risk of dying in childbirth), or what to do about problems that significantly affect women’s health yet are not generally seen as “health” issues (e.g., gender-based violence).

Until fairly recently, malnutrition was another such problem – not usually considered a health issue even though it poses a serious, often deadly, threat to human health. Among the most common nutritional deficiencies is anemia, which saps the energy of 500 million women globally and increases the odds of dying in childbirth. 

The U.S. government provides global nutrition programs to combat anemia among women along with efforts to improve the nutrition of women and children. This year, Bread for the World wants Congress to put $230 million into the State Department foreign operations appropriations bill’s Global Health Account, the account through which USAID’s nutrition programs are funded. This funding will be a down payment on the survival, health, and well-being of women around the world.

Yet the 95 percent and 96 percent figures are encouraging signs. The education gap has improved from 92 percent to 95 percent in just the past 10 years, and women are now the majority of university students in 97 countries. With each new generation, more women have at least the basics, which can open the door to lifelong learning.  

Economic opportunity is the category that reveals one of the major trouble spots – translating improved education into improved livelihoods. Creating jobs and ensuring equal opportunity for those jobs are major tasks for any country, but no country can afford to waste its human potential.

One of the most obvious signs that the United States has room for improvement on the economic opportunity front is the gender wage gap. “Equal pay for equal work” is not a struggle that was won decades ago. In 1963, women were paid 59 cents for every dollar paid to a man. Now, in 2016, it is about 78 cents to the dollar. At this rate, the pay gap will not be eliminated for more than 50 years.

The difference in what women and men are paid for the same work is a major cause of poverty among working women in the United States, particularly single mothers. In 2014, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research released a study showing that closing the wage gap between men and women would cut the poverty rate among working women and their families by half. The poverty rate for working single mothers would fall from 29 percent to 15 percent.

Politics has by far the widest gap, both worldwide and in the United States.  Only 23 percent of the global gap has been closed – although that is a significant improvement from the 2006 figure of 14 percent.

The current U.S. Senate has 20 female members, an all-time high, and the presence of more women, particularly more women in leadership positions, has made a difference at key moments. For example, in 2013, women senators were able to reach across party lines to end a government shutdown. As Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) remarked at the time, “Imagine what they could do if there were 50 of them.

Improvement in the economic and political realms has proven to be self-reinforcing, so there is hope that once some progress has been made, increased momentum will speed future gains. The idea of this year’s IWD theme, Pledging For Parity, is to spur faster change. If everyone, both men and women, pledges to take a concrete step toward gender parity, that will jump-start motivation for communities, countries, and global institutions to make the many improvements still needed.

Jordan Teague is the international policy analyst for food security and nutrition at Bread for the World.

Related Resources