Half the world

Worldwide, gender parity remains a fiction. That’s bad news for us all, says head of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

In a short preamble before pledging $5m to UN Women in September, Jack Ma, China’s biggest e-commerce tycoon, paid tribute to the agency’s executive director. “This,” he said, sweeping a hand at a gathering that included Melinda Gates, Unilever CEO Paul Polman and Indian billionaire Naveen Jain, “this is the Phumzile effect.”

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is not yet a household name. But that may be changing. As the head of UN Women, Mlambo-Ngcuka has set in motion the biggest push yet to erase global gender inequality, setting an expiry date of 2030. Launched last year, Planet 50-50 is a clarion call to states, world leaders and citizens to commit to championing an equal world over the next two decades; for women, for men, for all. It is, says Mlambo-Ngcuka, who formerly served as deputy president of South Africa, a tipping point.

“Now is the time,” she says. “There is a moment here, and we can’t lose it. Every president must know; gender is on the agenda. And I will be breathing down their necks.”

UN Women is coming of age. At just 5-years-old, it is still the new kid on the UN block, with the weighty task of defending the rights of half the world’s population. The agency has wrestled with finding its political footing, and – despite being fêted by global leaders – a chronic scarcity of funding. At launch, UN Women had a target budget of $500m. It has yet to meet that goal. The notion that gender equality is neither free, nor cheap, seems difficult for some governments to accept.

“It is no coincidence that in almost every country, rich or poor, the women’s agenda is underfunded,” Mlambo-Ngcuka says. “There is support for us, lots. But when it comes to putting money on the table, there is a sense of ‘Go and bake the cakes’. It’s a key, limiting issue for us.”

The UN does no better. In the annual act of parceling out cash to its micro-agencies, it provides less than 3 per cent of UN Women’s budget.

The tide must turn. At the breakfast meeting, co-hosted by Ma, private sector leaders and philanthropists raised $20.6m. A day later China pledged $10m, alongside joining more than 80 states in committing to bridge the gender gap, and trigger a cultural shift in their own societies. Among those to speak was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who aimed a jab at those supporters slow to back their platitudes with deeds. “Commitments are good,” she said crisply. “Action is better. Let us take action.”

"It is no coincidence that in almost every country, rich or poor, the women’s agenda is underfunded"

The state of play on women’s rights is tricky to gauge. Globally, women have made tangible strides. Women are more educated, are living longer and marrying later. More women hold political office, and fewer are dying in childbirth. In almost all rich countries, and half of developing ones, more women than men progress past high school. But it is still a man’s world. Women remain more at risk of violence, poverty and hunger, are more likely to be illiterate, and to be trapped in work that pays little or nothing – if they can work at all. In more than 100 countries, sexism is still enshrined in law. Some 37,000 girls are forced into marriage each day. Economic equality remains a myth.

“You cannot neglect half the population and achieve the sort of ambitious results the world is hoping for, in poverty, hunger, disease and climate change,” says Mlambo-Ngcuka; a nod to the UN’s goals for the next 15 years, which call, among other things, for hunger and extreme poverty to be eradicated. “Let us be clear: women are a precondition for success.”

And sexism costs. Fixing it would see the global economy balloon by a huge $28 trillion, according to the McKinsey Global Institute: roughly as much as the combined GDPs of the US and China. Equally, investing to tackle it is smart. Getting 10 per cent more girls into school triggers a 3 per cent uptick in GDP. For every $1 invested in family planning, a government saves $6. For every $1 given to a woman in the developing world, 90 per cent will go to her family; for men, the figure is 40 per cent. Closing the gender gap in farming could lift some 150 million people out of hunger, while among Fortune 500 firms, those with the most female managers deliver a 34 per cent higher return to stakeholders. For countries with ambitions of growth then, gender bias is not only a moral crisis, but an economic one.

“We need to change the narrative about whose business this is,” explains Mlambo-Ngcuka. “Gender equality is not only a women’s issue. It is not only the concern of gender ministers. It is an issue for the nation, and for the world. It is a matter of humanity.”

Yet it persists. The reasons why sexism is so pervasive are myriad and complex. Among them are the invisible barriers of tradition and culture, which hobble attempts to expand women’s rights. In some countries, the yawning chasm between legal theory and the reality of daily life means that even when laws are in place to protect women and girls, they seldom do.

“It has a lot to do with cultural pressure,” Mlambo-Ngcuka allows, “but culture is not static. There are lots of things in our countries that are changing.”

“It is a travesty that the capacity of so many to fulfill their potential is limited just by being born a girl”

Gender equality also isn’t a simple sell. Tackling the vast discrepancies in power, wealth and security between the sexes is a dizzying task, and the question of where to start can be daunting. It is almost understandable that some governments favour other, low-hanging fruit. It is partly for this reason that UN Women has pared its own goals down into bite-sized chunks. Parity is still the headline message, but the agency is now funneling its efforts into a clutch of strategic, catalytic gains – such as netting equal pay, and stripping discrimination out of legal systems worldwide – and is calling on its peers to do the same.

“We are asking for a focus on gamechanging interventions,” explains Mlambo-Ngcuka. “The opportunity is here. If we can prioritise actions that once achieved are irreversible, millions of women’s lives could change just like that. This is change that would cover the world.”

Success hinges on political tenacity – or its absence, says Mlambo-Ngcuka. She recalls a conversation with a head of state on female genital mutilation. “I asked, ‘Why is this so difficult to stop in your country?’ And he said, ‘If I really wanted to do this, I could. It is about greater determination. It needs to be one of the most important things I want to do’.”

It is for this reason that Mlambo-Ngcuka is taking her fight to the top. A key tenet of Planet 50-50 is that it targets world leaders, rather than the ministers tasked with lifting women from health and poverty traps. These ministers are “just as frustrated as I am” at the glacial pace of reform, she admits, but lack the clout to make real inroads into inequality.

“Now we are moving into a new circle of decision-makers because this issue won’t be addressed lower than heads of state. We need big hitters to gain momentum.” Her goal is to see gender parity rank alongside national security and disaster planning on state agendas, after years of watching it slide. “Because it is a catastrophic disaster,” she says firmly. “It is a travesty that the capacity of so many to fulfill their potential is limited just by being born a girl.”

"You will not change culture without men. To not have men as allies is a luxury we cannot afford"

UN Women is also taking aim at the other half of the population: men. Launched in 2014, the agency’s HeForShe campaign seeks to galvanise 1 billion men and boys to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with women in the fight for equal rights. To date, close to 600,000 men have signed the petition, including US President Barack Obama and the actor Matt Damon, pledging to fan the fire against sexism. Blue-chip backers include Twitter, PWC and Barclays.

The movement won a stratospheric boost at its launch when the British actress Emma Watson delivered a speech to the UN headquarters in New York, extending a “formal invitation” to men to join the battle and tackle gender stereotypes. To thunderous applause, Watson said feminism has too often become tied to “man-hating”.

“If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop,” she told delegates. “Gender equality is your issue too.”

South African-born Mlambo-Ngcuka knows better than most that grassroots backing is critical to winning the wider war. “Apartheid was not fought just by the people in the trenches and the black people affected by it. It was fought by people on the other side as well; people who had something to gain from an unjust system,” she says. “You will not change culture without men. To not have men as allies is a luxury we cannot afford.”

But more than that, UN Women wants advocates to push for tangible equality in their own lives. From the executive suite down, that means applying a gender lens to all aspects of society, and matching rhetoric with action.

“Invest in equality and really believe in it,” urges Mlambo-Ngcuka. “If you generate your money in business, take note of what is happening in your company. Are woman paid equally, promoted and able to occupy senior positions? Mirror the society you’d like to see.”

The end of sexism is no small task. And Mlambo-Ngcuka’s fear is that, a decade from now, progress will have flatlined, with the same issues rehashed and debated. “We must avoid that,” she says quietly. “Invest in me; invest in UN Women. We can create this world together.”