Imagine International Women's Day in 2035

With Cold War-style politics gripping Eastern Europe this week, it seems fitting that one of the most iconic Soviet holidays is upon us: International Women's Day, which began as a socialist celebration of women's economic, political and social achievements.

The holiday has become a modern-day marker of women's progress worldwide, such as the narrowing of the gender gap in workplaces and the fact that women outnumber men among university graduates worldwide.

But it is also a reminder of the work that still lies ahead, which raises the question: how will economic, societal and technological shifts impact gender equality in two decades? In other words, imagine International Women's Day in 2035.

Imagine an entire class of Sheryl Sandbergs: wealthy, globalized, highly skilled, digitized elites, the first ever generation of women to occupy the highest levels of the largest companies in equal numbers as men. As incomes continue to diverge, extreme wealth will be concentrated in the hands of a few - but for the first time in history it will be as equally in the hands of women as men. I call these women the "super class" of 2035.

They will be from all regions of the world, but they will likely have more in common with each other than with women in their home countries, just as a struggling single mother in Ohio shuttling kids to school while working two jobs can't relate to Sandberg's trajectory.

How will this happen? Big businesses are under persistent public scrutiny to address the current gender gap, in which women only occupy 5% of the top CEO jobs worldwide and the incoming pipeline of high-skilled talent is majority female. The companies that will remain at the forefront of the global economy in 20 years are already reforming steadily. And they are doing so because they are aware of the most basic economic argument: employing the other half of a labour force is good business. All of this will help ensure women reach the highest positions.

In addition, new big businesses will be created by entrepreneurs - both male and female - who carry a native consciousness about the gender gap. These companies will take on the gender gap organically, from conception. They will be keenly aware that with more women in university than men, their company's talent base is predominately female. And with women controlling most consumption decisions in families, appointing women to leadership roles is not just politically correct; it makes economic sense - an appeal to a shifting customer base.

This super class are also unlikely to have any major work-life balance issues. One of the reasons there are so few women at the top is that companies didn't put in place the right measures to address work-life balance issues 20 years ago. Today, more female CEOs than male CEOs are single and childless. Why? Because sophisticated structures around maternity leave or flexible work, facilitated by technology and a greater consciousness of gender equality, were not in place. Those who chose a career knew the consequences: it often meant not being able to have a family.

But the best of today's up and coming women executives are getting more and more opportunities to rise to the top without confronting that familial sacrifice. In 2035, today's mid-level stars will ascend to CEO level, and we will witness the harvest of today's hard-earned, but seemingly run-of-the-mill HR structures. In 2035, life at the top will be good.

For the middle class, International Women's Day in 2035 will be less festive than for the super class. Economists agree that in the past 20 years more people have been lifted out of poverty and propelled into the middle class than ever before. But women in this middle class will still be largely expected to juggle a job with caring for children and looking after ageing parents. The family of 2035 will not survive on one salary, yet middle-class women will still be expected to remain the primary caregivers. This presents an impossible dilemma due to one simple fact: in 2035, there will still be 24 hours in a day.

Unlike the super class, the middle class won't be able to afford an army of nannies or home care for their ageing parents. The burden of caring for elderly dependents cannot be overstated, what with current rapid rates of ageing. In 20 years, in Asia and Europe, the largest cohort in the population will be over 65. And government support will likely only get leaner, as a result of the burgeoning fiscal crises they already face and are likely to endure into future generations.

These middle class women will enter many more professions than they are today, including traditionally male-dominated ones like engineering. But the reverse will not be true: many more men will not become kindergarten teachers, nurses and join other "pink collar" professions. While we tell our daughters today they can be anything they want to be, we still largely tell our sons to strive for a very specific model of success. The "battle of the sexes" of the middle class will be more intense than ever as men face a crisis of masculinity, of their role in the world. And this might make family life tough for middle class women.

Among the global poor, International Women's Day in 2013 may be as bleak as any other day. The extreme poor - two billion or more people - will still struggle with access to education, income, safe water, contraceptives and dignity. Currently, two-thirds of global poverty is concentrated in girls and women, and that's not a trend that appears to be changing. There is hope that nascent social movements and new technologies could lead to a completely different way of fighting poverty and delivering access to finance, education, health and other services to the bottom of the pyramid. But it's too soon to tell if those who can best harness these technologies will do so at the scale needed for real change, especially for women and girls.

We know income disparity - the gap between rich and poor - is increasing. And gender disparity - not between women and men but between some women and other women - will follow that same trajectory. There will be huge gains for the super class. The middle class will see many more women in the workplace, but at the cost of difficult work-life balance trade-offs and deep changes to the fabric of families. And while the poorest will be better off than they are today, women will still be the disproportionate majority of the poor.

Predictions are only, well, predictions. In the absence of a crystal ball, we only have today's trends to rely on. The traditional view is that women don't help each other. Women at the top don't hold out a hand to those at the bottom, because conventionally they have limited access to power and once there, they are unlikely to help others because they are still in the minority.

There is also an alternative view, whereby women in power, provided they are there in critical mass, are in fact much more likely to give a leg up to others because they are recent entrants to wealth or power and know what it is like to be excluded in some way. And of course, the responsibility for empowering women lies with both women and men.

If you attend a high-profile International Women's Day event this year, it's likely to be packed with new-power women - women who I admire tremendously - and a few enlightened men. But the socialist ethos at the origin of International Women's Day has mostly vanished. Today, the sideline conversations are often about achieving gender parity at the top.

But what if 2035 brings a world where the pinnacle of power and money - and the ability to make change - is as equally female as it is male? Will the new super class of women be change-makers? Will they give a hand to pull up those below them, or simply enjoy the hard-earned gains they dreamed of for generations? What will be the zeitgeist on International Women's Day 2035?

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