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The topic of gender equality has been in the news this week as the world’s elite gather at the World Economic Forum (WEF) to talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution: the future of jobs, and what it means for global citizens, businesses and politics.  But, is it not time to look beyond the economics?

The conclusions from WEF’s Future of Jobs report is that disruptions to labour markets brought about by this so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution may have a disproportionately negative impact on women than men. The ‘good news’ is that the proportion of women expected to progress to medium and senior roles by 2020 is set to rise by nearly 10% (!). 

Once again the point is made that female talent remains an underutilised business resource - either lost through lack of progression or untapped from the onset. Although women are, on average, more educated than men globally (taking account of notable countries where women still need to fight for an education). Although women now participate more fully in professional and technical occupations than 10 years ago, as of today, their chances to rise to positions of leadership are only 28% of those of men globally. Women continue to make up less of the labour force overall than men, and where they participate in the formal economy their earnings for similar work are lower. You might consider that the talents of half the world’s potential workforce are thus often wasted or underutilised due to barriers on the path to women’s successful integration into the workforce – but this considers the formal labour market only. The informal market, where women play pivotal roles in making sure our societies function through child rearing and other caring responsibilities are equally as valid, even if not easily monetised.

In the same week in which Oxfam reported that 62 people own half as much as the entire global population the extent of growing economic inequality in the world - and women’s potential to right that wrong - no doubt contributed to the first-ever High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment. But the point here is about choice. Are men and women able to choose freely whether and to what degree they enter the labour market, and on an equal footing (in terms of pay and rewards)? In her blog, my colleague Charlotte Alldritt highlighted the difference between male and female labour market participation in Chile, driven by cultural factors preconditioning the role of women in society. It is these cultural factors that have a knock on effect in terms of gender equality across the board – and that I feel are often overlooked.

So, although important, is focusing on economic empowerment really enough to shift the way we think and behave when it comes to gender?

What I read about gender equality seems to be incessantly focused on the labour market, jobs and economic trends. Whether it’s leaning in to succeed professionally, how long it’ll take to close the gender pay gap or the fact that women are disproportionately in low-paid, informal work around the world, it’s always about a lack of economic empowerment without a deep analysis or effort to assess why this is the case.

It’s time to talk about the barriers that contribute to poor economic empowerment, like how we perceive men and women in our culture, and how this shapes our norms, expectations, behaviours and, ultimately, the institutions that keep women from achieving equality. I’m not saying that the economic case isn’t compelling, just that a different starting point might have greater impact.

In his article for this quarter’s RSA Journal author Jesse Potter talks about how the world of work is changing in developed countries, moving away from secure 'onwards and upwards' career progression. Life is more precarious, but sometimes more rewarding when people have opportunities to carve their own path. To an extent this is nothing new for many developing countries, where secure employment either comes at significant personal cost (think factory production lines in Vietnam) or doesn't exist at all (in countries that typically rely on exporting commodities).  However, could we be seeing an opportunity for the gender debate to embrace a deeper debate about how we live our lives, and the values we hold dear, rather than constantly strive for money and power? Yesterday, a friend of mine told me how put off she was from applying for a senior position within a law firm but the job description stated ‘extensive working hours likely’. A highly accomplished accountant with a top-class MBA, the role just didn’t align with her values.

Gender equality has been part of the RSA’s identity for over 260 years.  Women were admitted into the Society from its inception and in 1871 the RSA pioneered girls’ education for all classes. But even the RSA, with such a trail-blazing history, cannot say that it has actively sought to address gender equality in its research, public lectures or Fellowship network (the gender split of 70/30 male to female in the RSA Fellowship being a useful indicator). And yet, one of the RSA’s most successful blogs in 2015 was Sex, gender and the myth that boys don’t cry

So we are reopening the discussion on gender and inviting Fellows and readers of this blog to contribute: help us to explore the role gender plays in creating a 21st Century Enlightenment.

My personal take, for what it’s worth, is that gender equality is less about the attributes that make us biologically different, but more about the values we hold dear as a global society and how these values, shaped by our cultures and inherent to human progress, can pierce the cultural and historical perspectives of what masculine and feminine mean. Until we open the discussion on how society views and treats men and women, we will always be having a binary debate.

This blog is a call-out to people who care – irrespective of the gender you may or may not subscribe to – tell us your perspective of how we can collectively address gender inequality to deliver human progress for all, help us to shape our thinking by viewing our thought-leadership through a gender lens and hold us to account if we are not doing enough to make a difference. We don’t want to add to the noise, nor fall into a one-sided camp that doesn’t ask the hard questions. We want to promote a deeper understanding and explore set of values that will make a real impact in ensuring that men, women and other – collectively – move towards living fulfilled lives around the world.

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