Equality Now’s Global Executive Director, S. Mona Sinha, presented the following remarks on the interconnectedness between business and equality at the Columbia Business School Tamar Center Award Ceremony on March 16.
In the 1990s, gender equality and justice frameworks were not something we were encouraged to consider as business models. Today the Tamer Center shines a light on the interconnectedness between business and equality, and I enjoy saying that I am now in the business of equality.
Work worth doing is never easy
As we all know, no work worth doing is ever easy. But it has been well documented that in every corner of the world, women’s work is the hardest work of all. Because women’s work – defined not as those roles routinely relegated to women but rather as any work that women are doing – is inevitably shaped by the many layers of inequities that continue to drive women’s choices and define women’s lives.
Today’s broad picture in regard to gender equality and the status of women across the globe brings to mind an old saying with which I’m sure you’re all familiar: “The truth will set you free.”
We do ourselves no favours in denying or air-brushing the realities women are facing. If we don’t explore and acknowledge the truth about the status of women and how this impacts all of humanity, including men, we will not make sustainable progress. Not in technology where women founders receive only 3% of venture dollars, or climate change where only four women stood with the hundreds of men at COP 27; not in education where women are 60% of college students yet 30% of academic leaders, or medical research and healthcare which have just 25% of women in leadership and where automakers started safety testing on female dummies only in 2022; not in any of the critical areas in which the need for bold, lasting innovation is so widespread, and urgent.
The truth about gender equality globally and at home is currently as upsetting as it is encouraging. Because no matter where you look, while there has been enormous progress, we still have far to go. As Gloria Steinem has said – “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off!”
There is still progress to be made
The pandemic, for the first time as long as I can remember, raised a global understanding of how women, especially those who were poor or came from marginalized backgrounds, suffered disproportionately. I felt some hope in seeing that the media covered women’s exodus from the workplace as a risk factor to economies around the world. Research by the World Bank put a figure on lost earnings because of the burden of school closures and childcare – $300,000 over a lifetime. In America, women, with no federally mandated paid family leave and no constitutional right to abortion, receive worse healthcare than women in any developed country, from a system biased against them – accompanied by a price tag many of them can’t afford.
Women globally still have only three-quarters of the legal rights of men. In other words, at this very moment, nearly 2.4 billion women of working age do not have the same legal rights as men. And to be clear: This is not the case somewhere “out there.” This is right here, in the US where let’s not forget, men continue to be paid 27% more than women for the same work. As we are starting to look at the pandemic in the rearview mirror, the short focus on women and their role as equal contributors who are multitasking while caring for elders and children but also creating $1 billion venture funds has become yesterday’s news. The media has moved on to discuss inflation and interest rates.
The 2023 State of Women Report, a study of 4,500 American women (on behalf of The Skimm), found that Millennial women feel more in control of the weather than they do the laws governing them. Can you imagine? Even in the midst of climate change! But how can we be surprised by this when only 5% of CEOs are women; only 28% of corporate board seats are held by women; and where women holding barely a quarter of all congressional seats is actually a record?
Women are understandably disheartened by this and the reversals of some key equities it took generations to gain. But they are anything but resigned. In fact, women in the US and throughout the world are increasingly exhibiting agency over their futures as never before. And we invite men to join this effort because the impact is felt by every single human being.
Lasting change takes a concerted effort
Equality Now and our partners are right there to make change happen. We believe that gender equality is a core characteristic of any just and fully functioning society. Our organization’s commitment to the global equality movement over the last 30 years has never wavered. In fact, it only deepened as women throughout the world shouldered their unfair share of the pandemic’s disruptive burdens. And it is modelled together by women and men.
For more than three decades, the importance of our work has been unwavering and important as we imagine a world in which everyone enjoys equal rights, freedoms, and respect regardless of their gender or intersectional identities. Equality Now is relentless in its pursuit of it. And that work has always been based on the principle that the foundation of equality rests with the law.
We believe that if we have strong gender-equal laws around the world, the rest will follow. Legal equality is the linchpin of gender equality. So, we combine legal expertise with strategic advocacy and constructive collaboration to achieve systemic change across four primary areas:
- Ending legal inequality, such as those rooted in family and religious laws.
- Ending sexual violence, such as honour killings, incest and rape
- Ending sexual exploitation and sex trafficking both in the physical and digital worlds
- Ending harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation
Equality needs both men and women to uphold
You may ask, what does this have to do with business?
Think about it: If women are forced to deal with the physical and mental trauma of rape, sex trafficking, child marriage, honour killings, discriminatory inheritance rights, and so much more that unequal laws do not protect them from, their ability to engage in work or society is fundamentally compromised.
Violence is a multi-billion industry all on its own. The sex trade for example, at 1$80 billion, is second only to the arms trade and controlled by powerful men which can explain which it is so difficult to end and find an economic alternative for women that does not result in bodily harm.
Meanwhile, laws that enable equal futures have myriad benefits:
- Greater engagement of women in society and in the workplace allows organizations to consider a full range of perspectives and experiences, leading to a better understanding of their customers and better decisions. For example, engaging indigenous women who represent 5% of the population but care for over 75% of biodiversity can help find solutions to climate change.
- Gender-equal laws can help businesses and their leaders mitigate legal and reputational risks. Goldman, Sachs could have had greater transparency in pay equity which would have saved them a lawsuit and $215 million in payments.
- Eliminating discriminatory practices to shape an inclusive workplace around aligned values helps attract and retain top talent, increase productivity, and build employee morale.
I could go on, but the bottom line is this: Equality is an imperative that needs both men and women to uphold and champion. In business as in life, treating every human with respect and dignity is simply the right thing to do. Without it, individuals cannot thrive, and, by extension, businesses will not either.
Our impact, so far…
Despite the clear data supporting this work, it is an uphill battle. But Equality Now has won some sweeping victories and has successfully changed about 70 laws around the world – including one just recently. In January, after years of tireless effort, a young Bolivian woman Brisa de Angulo and her legal team scored a stunning win when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights made a landmark ruling in her favour. The outcome was extraordinary, but Brisa’s journey was horrific.
At 15, she was raped by an adult cousin repeatedly for months, all while being threatened and brainwashed into believing that if she revealed what was happening, only more damage and harm would come to her and her family. When Brisa finally talked to a therapist about it, and then her parents, they supported her efforts to seek justice. Yet, throughout three trials, Brisa’s quest for justice was repeatedly denied.
Brisa’s experience in Bolivia was typical of the struggle adolescent survivors of sexual violence face across Latin America, the Caribbean, and North America. Bolivia has the highest rate of sexual violence in the region, with 70% of Bolivian women experiencing physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime – a third before the age of 18. Yet, there is only a 2% rate of conviction for sexual assaults on children. With an explosion of the digital space, sexual violence is growing disproportionately and uncontrollably in this area too.
When Equality Now joined Brisa’s legal fight in 2014, we knew that the case was important, that its impact would extend far beyond Brisa and her family.
[From the moment Brisa reported her rapist, that system tried to shame and silence her. So, in addition to providing committed, long-term legal expertise, intent on bringing her case to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, we knew Brisa would need our broader support and understanding.]
In the decade that Equality Now worked on her case, we co-produced and published numerous studies and reports that were submitted to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. We organized a group of experts that was instrumental in supporting the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and other partners to create a global model law on consent and provided technical legal support to the follow-up mechanism for the Belem Do Para Convention on the concept of consent in cases of gender-based violence against women.
It was incredibly gratifying in 2022 when Brisa’s case became the first to be heard involving a state’s violations of an adolescent rape victim’s human rights. That was a breakthrough. But it was surpassed in January when The Court ruled in Brisa’s favor, finding that Bolivia violated her rights and subjected her to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment by judicial personnel.
The ruling stipulates a requirement for Bolivia to publicly acknowledge its culpability and to implement numerous legal and procedural changes as “non-repetition” measures. These include a consent-based definition of sexual violence crimes; acknowledgement of incestuous violence in the criminal law; compulsory sex education in Bolivian schools alongside a public awareness campaign designed to help minors identify and report sexual crimes while also informing and sensitizing those around them so they have broader support.
Brisa bravely endured a nightmare the likes of which most of us will never know. This ruling was a dream come true. Because the Court saw fit to do more than change law. It demanded and created the infrastructure for a culture shift that will transcend Bolivia to impact the entire region.
Despite such high points, global progress toward gender equality in the law has decelerated to its slowest pace in 20 years. Today the UN estimates that at current funding rates of 1.9% of philanthropic dollars going to women and girls’ issues, it will take 300 years to achieve gender equality. That number a year ago, was 132 years.
We cannot let this stand. We will not. To do so would not only be counterproductive to global political and economic stability, but it would also be patently unconscionable. To put it in terms perhaps best suited for our gathering here today, denying women legal equality is incredibly bad business. In fact, any inequality is bad business.
There is still hope
So, where’s the good news? Mostly, it comes in the form of opportunity, which is all around us. For starters, there are some big opportunities coming up in 2023 for governments to support each other in making positive changes and to learn more from various stakeholders about what needs to happen. Already, advocates in other countries who were watching Brisa’s case are using the ruling to push their own governments to change discriminatory laws and practices. Properly implemented, Brisa’s ruling will address some of the root causes of inequalities and create transformational, sustainable change for millions of women and girls far beyond Bolivia’s, or even South America’s, borders. Corporates too are seeing an opportunity to invest in change.
This year, in the US, we will also mark the 100-year anniversary of the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment, which has still not been incorporated into the US Constitution despite being ratified by the requisite number of states. We look forward to leveraging this historic opportunity to inspire broader, more diverse, and more effective support for women’s rights and constitutional equality. The urgent need for this has arguably never been greater.
Legal equality pushes for lived equality. When we examine how the law translates into everyday life, we see that meaningful, lived equality comes through cultural change which good laws can push forward. This can often require us to hold difficult conversations across divisive lines and to respectfully navigate the complexities of tradition, religion, family, and community. We understand that whoever we are and wherever we are speaking from, power is rooted in who we listen to. Thus, we each have to use our power to connect with and move others.
At the same time, we know that those who are in the closest proximity to problems are often the ones who are best positioned to solve them. Perhaps that’s why it is usually the very people who are most harmed by gender inequality whose voices are marginalized – or dismissed – or even silenced. Changing this means elevating the voices of the women, girls, and activists on whose lives the impact of inequality has historically been most profound – women like Brisa. This, of course, takes tenacity and courage — and resources. It will take more people, of every background, race, and gender, in every corner of the world and sector of business, who make it their business to do more than care about equality but to act.
All of this begins with listening and learning — for us at Equality Now, for global leaders and decision-makers, and for each one of you, men and women in the audience today. For corporations, foundations and individuals to support equality by funding women. And for encouraging the media to publish 50% of all stories they report centering on women. There is room for you to step in, engage and make meaningful change. The business of gender equality is bigger than any one person, or any one organization, or any one sector, or spot on the globe.
Equality Now’s mission is to deliver gender equality through legal equality. This mission can be easy to oversimplify or overcomplicate, depending on who is describing it. Yet, its relevance to virtually everything that matters in a world intent on thriving is impossible to overstate or dismiss.
Inequality is arguably our greatest impediment to solving the problems that are poised to define our future. This is why equality is our business; let me make it yours. It is serious business. But that only makes every win more thrilling and more profoundly rewarding than I can describe.
As the leader of Equality Now, I am humbled and honored to be recognized for this work. But the greatest acknowledgement you can give would be to join us on the next phase of our journey toward a more just and equal world — for everyone.
In fact, as we leave here today, proud beneficiaries and stewards of this incredible school of business education, I hope you’ll ask yourself: If we are not about the business of achieving equality throughout the world, how can we credibly assert to be “at the very centre of business?” The answer, for me, is simple: We cannot.
Please help us to continue advancing this work. It is the great unfinished work of the world.