Let’s Make Women’s Power Culturally Acceptable
Twenty-five years on from the Beijing Platform, the world has made important advances in gender equity. The next step is to ensure that women claim their rights not just in theory but also in practice.
Twenty-five years ago this month, delegates from 189 countries descended on Beijing to participate in the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women. This meeting was notable for many reasons, not least because it was, at the time, the largest gathering of women’s rights advocates in history: In addition to official government delegations, some 30,000 activists from around the world attended the conference. The rallying cry that emanated from Beijing, “Women’s rights are human rights”—famously proclaimed in a speech by the United States’ then-first lady, Hillary Clinton—still reverberates today.
At the conclusion of the summit, years of activism culminated in a historic inflection point, as governments meeting in Beijing agreed to the most ambitious Platform for Action on women’s rights in history, one that called for the “full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life.” Perhaps less well known, but just as important, was the formation of a network of civil society activists relegated to run-down buildings in Huairou, a muddy, far-off suburb of Beijing, by a Chinese government fearful of their power—who shared plans to implement the platform and address the issues that women faced around the globe. From gender-based violence to restrictions on access to health care, and from unequal responsibility for caregiving and household labor to laws preventing ownership of property, access to credit, and fair pay, women found common cause in a universal set of struggles. They left Beijing buoyed by the global recognition that violations of women’s rights and dignity—practices once seen as cultural—contravened fundamental human rights.
In the two and a half decades since, women’s rights activists have used the Beijing Platform as a springboard from which to press for legal and political change. In some respects—most notably in the areas of legal rights, health, and education—they have succeeded. In 1995, only 13 countries around the world had laws criminalizing domestic violence; today, more than 150 nations do, and 85 percent have provisions enshrining the promise of gender equality in their constitutions. The scourge of maternal mortality, which previously stood at half a million women per year, has dropped by almost 50 percent. And the gender gap in access to primary schooling has virtually closed on a global level, meaning that an entire generation of girls now has the chance for an education that was too often denied to their mothers or grandmothers.
But in other areas—including the economy, politics, and security sector—women have made far less progress and in some cases even regressed. Despite the gains in girls’ education, women’s participation in the labor force actually dropped during the post-Beijing era, from 51 to 47 percent globally, even before the onset of COVID-19 decimated jobs disproportionately held by women. Although the proportion of women in political power has risen slightly—from 10 female heads of state or government in 1995 to 21 today—women remain dramatically underrepresented in politics in almost all 193 U.N. member states across the globe. Two decades after the U.N. Security Council recognized the importance of women’s contributions to security processes, only two women have ever served as chief negotiators of a peace agreement. And women’s power to control their bodies and lives continues to be undermined by pervasive sexual harassment, gender-based violence, and restrictions on access to reproductive health care.
The coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis that followed have added to these challenges. Because women are more likely to be employed in the hardest-hit industries, such as retail and hospitality, their already tenuous place in the global economy has worsened. Even those who are employed remain saddled with a double burden of caregiving and household work—a responsibility that disproportionately falls on women everywhere in the world. As stress levels rise amid the pandemic, so has the incidence of intimate partner violence, jeopardizing the safety of women confined to their homes.
Meanwhile, in this moment of upheaval that has further threatened progress toward gender equality, the global women’s movement is growing rapidly. While the Beijing conference welcomed women by the tens of thousands, today technology has permitted women to join forces by the tens of millions and to organize with remarkable speed. And while the Beijing summit was five years in the making, the Women’s March of 2017—the largest global women’s protest in history—was organized online on every continent in only six weeks. In the fall of 2017, the #MeToo movement exploded, ultimately reaching more than 100 countries. And this year, COVID-19 and racial unrest have sparked new uprisings, from moms protesting in Portland to women marching in Minsk, adding to the tinder that has burned over the past several years. This digital activism has also fed political organizing: Women around the globe are running for office in historic numbers and campaigning for gender and racial equality.
The need for this new wave of women’s activism demonstrates that many of the important rights won since Beijing—to prosecute abusers and harassers, fight discrimination, and compete in the economy—are too often unenforceable. And while there are still many places where gender inequalities remain enshrined in law, frequently even women who have won rights on paper are unable to apply them in practice, in part because of deeply embedded cultural norms. It is no accident that the areas where women have made the least progress—including the economic, political, and security sectors—have been historically male dominated. Twenty-five years after the world first recognized women’s rights as human rights, staggering numbers of people remain deeply uncomfortable with women wielding power in areas traditionally reserved for men: About half of the people surveyed across 75 countries believe that men make better political leaders than women, notwithstanding clear evidence that women’s inclusion in public life makes democracies stronger, more representative, and equitable. More than 40 percent of those surveyed also believe that men make better business executives, disregarding research confirming that women’s participation on corporate boards and in the C-suite improves the bottom line.
Certainly, legal barriers remain, and more political will and resources are needed to pass, implement, and enforce laws. Yet even where laws no longer limit women’s ability to compete for political office or in the economy, local and cultural norms hold women back, contributing to their dramatic underrepresentation in politics and corporate leadership and their overrepresentation in low-wage work. And cultural limits on women’s personal autonomy—to resist sexual harassment, make reproductive choices, and share caregiving burdens—create barriers to equal opportunity at work and at home. If the 25 years since Beijing have been about women naming their rights, the next 25 must be about amassing sufficient power to claim them.
Changing these underlying dynamics will require a cultural shift. Societies need to shift the expectations and attitudes that undergird the resistance to women’s power. Though persistent, norms are mutable: Consider domestic violence, which was largely viewed as cultural or a private family matter a generation ago and today is recognized globally as a crime. This breakthrough was achieved through not only advocacy for laws, policies, and treaties but also a revolution in attitudes.
To effect cultural change, we need to name and reframe the norms that still hold women back from reaching power and influence—which are outdated at best and debilitating at worst. There are many, but three in particular sap women’s power. First, stereotypes about the motives, authenticity, or so-called likability of women seeking power have hampered those running for elected office or rising in the private sector. Second, preconceived ideas that peg women as caregivers and men as breadwinners have fueled the undervaluation of care work and limited women’s labor force participation, with dramatic consequences for their own financial security and for global economic growth. Third, tolerance of sexual harassment has been a cause and a result of a power imbalance, which in turn has left women in the workplace—particularly low-paid women and women of color—unprotected and underpaid, undermining their collective potential.
The global women’s movement that has been flexing its muscles in recent years needs resources, a clear and coordinated message, and a concerted strategy—an air game enlisting cultural influencers as well as a ground game engaging grassroots communities to push back on outdated norms and divisions of labor. Campaigns to make women’s power culturally acceptable will help ensure that women have the leverage to claim their rights not just in theory but also in practice—and demonstrate that power may come in the form of a woman wearing a mask, rather than a man behind a desk or wielding an army. This recognition, in part, will help us finally realize the promise of the Beijing Platform—and unleash the full potential of both our daughters and our sons.
Rachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon senior fellow and the director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.