Breaking barriers

Gail_Rebuck.jpgGail Rebuck on the importance of education and literacy to women’s empowerment

The 104th International Women’s Day on Sunday gives us an opportunity not only to reflect on how far women have progressed but also how much more we have to achieve.

Important strides have been made towards greater equality, and many opportunities that are now taken for granted by young women would scarcely have seemed possible to their grandmothers when growing up. However, enormous issues of unfairness still need to be addressed, and cycles of inequality broken both in the UK and around the world.

There is no single solution but one factor which is crucial to tackling these challenges is ensuring that women have greater financial autonomy over their lives. This depends on the education they receive and the work opportunities available, which gives women the freedom to make choices, support their families and realise their potential. But women also need the role models, aspiration and confidence to take up opportunities – something that is difficult when they occupy so few of the top jobs in business, politics or entertainment.

Yes, more women are in work than ever before but they are overwhelmingly clustered at the bottom of the employment pipeline. This week we heard the astonishing fact that there are more CEO’s called John than there are women running America’s largest companies. As long as that remains the case, attitudes will be entrenched, the cycle of inequality unbroken and the aspiration gap as wide as it has ever been. 

I was fortunate to pursue my career in book publishing – an industry that pioneered promoting women to top positions. My generation felt they did break through a glass ceiling, often propelled by the memory of growing up with their mothers’ thwarted ambitions. But it is troubling that even publishing is falling short of this early promise, as senior women who have retired or move on tend to be replaced by men. Corporations have to consider what structural and cultural barriers prevent women from reaching the top, and – beyond targets – the training and help that can achieve a fair and dynamic spread of talents.

When I became a CEO in 1991, it was common for women to feign illness when a family matter interrupted their job. But what better reason is there to rearrange your work than a child’s event at school. A meeting can be rescheduled, a childhood cannot.

I have mentored several young women who are stunningly gifted and ambitious. However, after twenty minutes of discussing their professional situation, the conversation always turns to work life balance. So it is right and necessary that we reflect on the cost and availability of good childcare, company culture and lack of flexibility. We also have to recognise that while some women are struggling to climb up the ladder, others are fighting to get on it all together – a particular problem for those with low skills and lacking in confidence.

One important reason for low aspirations is poor literacy. A woman who can read confidently can find a better job, keep records and complete a training course. She can help her children with homework and learn how to protect her health. Whether in the UK or internationally, there is precious little opportunity to escape poverty, without the ability to comprehend the written word.

Increasing empowerment of women rests on the firm foundation of education, literacy and lifelong learning. Of the 781 million adults globally who cannot read, two-thirds are women. But an educated girl will contribute 90% of her income to her family, compared to 40% from men, and will be more likely to insist on her own daughter’s education. 

When we break these cycles of inequality, women will be a transformative force in the world. Or as 15 year old Priya powerfully put it when speaking to the global children’s charity, Plan: “Because I am a girl, every man in the corporate world puts a glass ceiling over my head. But because I am a girl, I have the power to shatter it”.

Baroness Gail Rebuck is a Labour Peer in the House of Lords and Chair of Penguin Random House. She tweets @gailrebuck

Published 5th March 2015

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