Last January, I was invited to speak on a panel at the World Economic Forum at Davos for their 2008 Annual Meeting. Much of the Forum is focused on economics, finance, and business. I was voted "most likely to fall asleep in finance class" at my business school, so these were not subjects I was fluent to speak on.
This time, the topic was "What has the World Achieved in the 20th Century"-- not a small topic to put into a two-hour session. Therefore, the lens I used for that topic was that of gender. What has the world achieved for women in the 20th century? I found it an interesting exercise and one that was never unvarnished in its accomplishment. My list had a positive and a negative column, a ying & yang. Here is my list; I'd be intrigued if you told me yours. In no order of chronology or scope of impact:
• Achievement: most women's lives were vastly changed by access to the ability to plan their own reproduction
• Challenge: Contraception is not available to all and has become a political football, a symbol beyond this straightforward product.
• Achievement: Women's voices and political say created strength of presence: women are now entitled to speak for humanity, as men are entitled too.
• Challenge: Not all countries provide suffrage for women yet, and no country has gender parity in politics.
3. Mechanical inventions:
• Achievement: The refrigerator, the washing machine, the car, the cell phone, the internet all have freed up women from the tyranny of chores, allowing far more flexibility to be an actor outside the home.
• Challenge: Women around the world still do more housework and childcare than men. No gender parity yet. Women do more housework, freeing up men's time. Women subsidize men's ability to work longer hours to advance career, to entertain clients at night, and to sit around coffeehouses and talk politics
4. Title IX (US centric -- a law generally requiring equal support for girls and boys, particularly in sports):
• Achievement: Sports develop self-confidence, teamwork, win/lose and survive -- it's competing and cooperating. Girls have the opportunity to do that more. As a member of a committee appointed by the Secretary of Defense, I heard generals say they noticed a big difference between pre and post-Title IX female recruits into the military.
5. UN Conferences:
• Achievement: There was a huge secondary effect of the UN World Conference on Women, four of them over 20 years' time. These summits, the last held in Beijing, were a huge catalyst for women to meet, organize, and learn from one another.
• Challenge: CEDAW
6. Female Literacy Rates:
• Achievements: This is a good news story in many ways. Literacy amongst children has increased with corresponding increase in health and welfare. The gap does still exist in many developing countries between boys and girls' literacy, particularly as you look at secondary and tertiary education. Ironically, in some developed countries, the reverse is true. This is a useful moment immediately after International Women's Day to take note of progress.
Much has been achieved and more has yet to be achieved. The revolution is not over in any country, from countries which do not give women the vote to a country where a woman running for its highest office can be publicly called a bitch, a monster, and be told to go back home and launder her husband's shirts.