Global Update on Gender Issues: Signs of Change

Women in different parts of the world have both similar and different experiences. Here are some updates from South Korea, Nigeria, Spain, France, and Saudi Arabia on workplace barriers, the #MeToo movement, and domestic violence.

South Korean Entrepreneurs

Women in South Korea, frustrated by a lack of opportunity in male-dominated corporations, are starting their own businesses at a record pace. Michael Schuman, writing for the New York Times, cites Park Hee-eun, principal at Altos Ventures, as saying, “In education we are equal to men, but after we enter into the traditional companies, they underestimate and undervalue women.” Schuman adds that only 10 percent of managers in South Korean companies are women and, in a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the pay gap between men and women is the widest among countries studied.

Schuman reports that women in South Korea are taking matters into their own hands. A Mastercard report on fifty-seven global economies found that South Korea shows the most progress in advancing women entrepreneurs and that more women than men are engaged in start-ups. Despite slow changes in societal attitudes about gender roles, difficulties in being taken seriously by male bankers, investors, executives, and employees, and constant discrimination and sexual harassment, more than 12 percent of working-age women in South Korea in 2018 were involved in starting or managing new companies. Go, women of South Korea!

Nigeria and the #MeToo Movement

Julie Turkewitz of the New York Times reports that the #MeToo movement came to Nigeria in February 2019, when a young pharmacist in the north took to Twitter to describe a sexual assault by her boyfriend. “Stories of abuse soon flew around the internet, many of them tagged ‘#ArewaMeToo,'” or #MeToo in the north. A few months later, after years of silence, Busola Dakolo came forward to accuse her pastor, a famous and powerful religious leader, of raping her when she was a teenager. Many more women came forward to accuse this same pastor, government officials, other church leaders, and university professors of abusing their power to solicit sex or commit sexual assault.

As in Europe and the United States, the backlash has been strong against the #MeToo women of Nigeria, who receive death threats and threats of criminal charges. Breaking their silence is particularly hard for Nigerian women, who fear shaming their families, scaring off potential husbands, and taking on the region’s most powerful men. These women are courageous, as are all women who speak out about sexual assault.

Spain and France on Domestic Violence

On Monday, November 25, 2019, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which was established twenty years ago by the United Nations, Spain and France moved in opposite directions on protections for women. Violence against women remains a serious problem in both countries:

On November 25, 2019, in France, the prime minister unveiled comprehensive new measures to combat domestic violence. While criticized for underfunding these initiatives, the government at least recognizes the seriousness of the situation. In Spain, however, the secretary general of the recently elected far-right Vox party took the opportunity to reaffirm his party’s intention to repeal a fifteen-year-old law intended to stop violence against women. Instead, the secretary general of Vox gave a speech about men who have been killed by women, as well as women who have suffered “violence from their lesbian partners.” This is a sad state of affairs.

Saudi Arabia and Women’s Rights

Mixed messages are coming from the leaders of Saudi Arabia about whether women actually have more rights. Megan Specia writes that the notoriously repressive country has long enforced an interpretation of Islam that restricts every aspect of life for women. While Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, took steps in 2017 to lift some restrictions for women, including allowing them to drive, the government also recently released a video that listed feminism, homosexuality, and atheism among ideologies that are considered to be “extremism.” While the video was taken down and declared by bin Salman to be a “mistake,” Saudi Arabia’s top women’s rights activists are still imprisoned, tortured, and subjected to physical and sexual violence. Definitely a mixed message.

We need to stay awake to all the progress and regression taking place globally so we can be ready to support each other.


Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

International Roundup: Women Are Making Progress

Inspiring news about women’s progress comes from many parts of the world. We all need some good news these days, so I am glad to shine a spotlight on a few of them: Iceland: Katrin Bennhold, writing for the New York Times, identifies Iceland as practically a gender utopia. She explains that

  • Selling pornography has been banned in Iceland since 1869.
  • Iceland directly elected the world’s first female president in 1980.
  • Iceland elected the world’s first openly lesbian prime minister in 2009.
  • The World Economic Forum (WEF) has ranked Iceland first for gender equality for nine years in a row, using an index that includes educational opportunities, life expectancy, pay equity, and other factors.
  • Eight out of ten Icelandic women work.
  • The pay gap is due to be closed in 2022, while globally, the WEF says it will take 217 more years to close the gender pay gap.
  • A new law went into effect in Iceland on January 1, 2018, that requires organizations with more than twenty-five employees to prove they are paying men and women equally. Despite many measures of success in terms of gender equality, a gender pay gap has stubbornly persisted in Iceland and the government determined that additional measures are required to eradicate it.
Iran: Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times reports on a small number of Iranian women who are staging public protests against the government’s strict enforcement of Islamic law since 1979 concerning women’s clothing. These brave women are removing their head scarfs in public places, placing them on a stick, and waving them for all to see. Some have been arrested. More and more small groups of women are staging these public rejections of authority. As one woman stated, “If a lot of people do this, it will have more influence,” and the numbers are growing. Oxford, England: Stephen Castle writes in the New York Times that for the first time in the thousand years of Oxford University’s existence, incoming female students outnumber their male peers. He notes that this change could reflect the growing proportion of female academics at Oxford who could be positively impacting the unconscious bias that previously screened women out of the selection process. Castle cites Sam Smethers, chief executive of a gender equality charity, as saying that this may be only a step on a longer road. “What matters is . . . what happens when they leave,” she says. “We know that women are still underrepresented in math, science and engineering subjects, and female graduates experience a pay gap on entering the workplace.” Yes, but this is still an important step. South Korea: In South Korea, the #MeToo movement has broken down a wall of silence as sexual harassment complaints now trickle out on social media, reported by Choe Sang-Hun in the New York Times. A strictly hierarchical societal code and a command-and-compliance work culture leave women in South Korea particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault. The WEF ranks this country 118 of 144 in terms of gender equality, yet public accusations from actresses, a female prosecutor, factory workers, nurses, and writers in publishing houses are giving other women courage to speak out and demand change. Canada: Ian Austen and Catherine Porter of the New York Times write that thanks to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in the United States, “Canada is reeling from a maelstrom of accusations of sexually inappropriate behavior against men in positions of power, and their swift removal.” One big difference between Canada and the United States is that Canadian politicians from all parties are calling for change and supporting the victims, unlike the government in Washington. Women in Canada are not only emboldened by the #MeToo movement, but they are also galvanized by the election of President Donald Trump. They are determined to speak out to ensure that they do not ever end up with a prime minister who is accused of (and taped bragging about) sexual assault as is the case with Trump. In fact, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been leading the push for change and his government introduced a broad definition of sexual harassment as “any comment, gesture or touching ‘of a sexual nature’ that could offend or humiliate an employee.” Have you heard more good news for women in other parts of the world? Please share your stories.   Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera English (CC BY-SA 2.0)]]>