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Striving for gender equality
By now it’s a familiar cycle: Every year, International Women’s Day elicits grand statements from politicians and business leaders about empowering women and calls for greater efforts to improve gender equality.
But the momentum generated in early March often dissipates before April, so the same empty appeals are made once again a year later without much having changed. It shouldn’t be this way.
Ensuring equal treatment for women is beneficial to every aspect of our lives. From day-to-day relationships to the way we run our companies, we should always be aware of the issue.
Any effort to advance gender equality must start with basic equal rights. Women struggle for equality every day, in every nation, in both the developing and developed world. In many places, women are still restricted in their ability to make independent economic decisions, to travel freely, to drive a car or to file for divorce.
And of the world’s almost 800 million people aged 15 and older who are illiterate, about two-thirds are women, a proportion that hasn’t changed for two decades.
The struggle for equal rights extends all the way to corporate boardrooms, where only 5.8 per cent of CEOs in the S&P 500 are women. As long as women are excluded from leadership positions, companies fail to draw from the widest talent pool to ensure that the best people are hired. That’s unacceptable and irresponsible.
The World Economic Forum predicts that the gender gap—measured in health, education, economic opportunity and political empowerment—won’t close until 2186. That’s 169 years from now. In the same time span, humankind went from the steam engine to Cassini’s trip to Saturn, and from carrier pigeons to the internet. I’d like to think that we could achieve universal gender equality much faster than that.
And equality should not be considered just a woman’s issue, either. Everyone should be taking action to help achieve parity more quickly, and we will all be far better off once we do.
One way to start is for governments to introduce gender budgeting, which takes into consideration the ways in which policies differently affect men and women. We’ve ignored this for far too long, but there are some great examples of countries moving in the right direction.
For instance, Rwanda’s investments in basic sanitation over the last several years have led to better health and hygiene and have increased the enrollment of more girls in schools. Austria has enacted reforms that adjust taxation on secondary earners, which had previously impeded the participation of women in the labour force.
And Sweden, as a pioneer in this field for over a decade, has been marked as the best country in the world for women. Gender equality remains one of the cornerstones of the country’s society, which has seen its government repeatedly adjust its budget to address challenges such as violence toward women and disparities in pay and economic participation. In addition, the five Scandinavian countries’ legislation of quotas for women on company boards seems to have worked very well.
But it’s not just our governments that can foster effective change. Businesses can and must do much more to promote equality, respect and fairness. Removing barriers like discrimination through education and training is a necessity for business success. This can be done through a variety of company policies, from accommodating the parental demands on both genders to leadership and mentoring programmes for women.
I was particularly impressed to read an announcement in February from the Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido—which has maintained childcare facilities in their factories for more than a decade—saying that they would be helping other companies set up in-house nurseries through a new venture. The move helps to address the growing issue of women not having children in order to stay in the workforce.
The Sri Lankan-based apparel provider MAS Holdings also sets a positive example with its Women Go Beyond scheme, which has enrolled women in classes on domestic violence awareness, financial management and computer literacy since 2003.
At Virgin, we know that the most successful businesses are the ones that promote a climate of diversity and inclusion. We recognize and celebrate the amazing contributions that women are making in our workforce everyday, and we know that we are a much better business for it. Competing in quite a few sectors that have been dominated by men for decades, many of our businesses are now led by women and employ women in senior roles. Virgin knows that diversity is our strength.
But much remains to be done, and we have identified a number of areas where we could do better. Making gender equality a business priority is the first step toward establishing an environment where all people can thrive because of who they are, not in spite of it.
As governments, businesses and individuals, we must work to foster inclusive markets and societies. Standing up for gender equality should be at the centre of this effort.
(Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more about the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.) (Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to Richard.Branson@nytimes.com. Please include your name, country, email address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.)