How to make gender equality work for everyone

By Laura Parry-Davies, Digital Communications Officer, OECD Development Centre

The pandemic has set equal rights for women and girls back significantly. What can the international community do to reverse this trend and put social, economic and physical equality back on track? 

Experts from UN Women, London School of Economics and Political Science, MenCare Global Fatherhood Campaign, and the OECD gathered to discuss next steps for empowering young women and girls as part of the OECD Development Centre’s 60th Anniversary Dialogues

In today’s world, women make up only 26.4% of the world’s parliamentarians. While this demonstrates some progress, it is not enough. 

If we want young girls and women to aspire to leadership and change-making roles in society and government, we need to find more and better ways to demonstrate that it is not only possible but also accepted and expected. 

Unseen drivers of discrimination 

The roles we are taught to associate with men and women, and the interactions we are taught to accept – from a young age – drive many of the restrictions and inequalities that are currently holding women and girls back in society, Hyeshin Park, Economist and the OECD Development Centre’s Gender Programme Coordinator explains. 

Gender gaps in labour force participation, pay gaps, and unequal access to health care and reproductive rights are all symptoms of deeply entrenched discrimination in society and in what we call social norms and institutions, she explains. 

To address these, we need to identify cultural projects that activate positive change and employ “whole-of-society” approaches, in addition to creating supportive legislation and commitments. 

Leveraging early education and social media  

Teaching boys and girls equally – and building equality into daily interactions – from an early age, can be a game changer says Naila Kabeer, Professor of Gender and Development at the Gender Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science. When we do this, “we see ripple effects across communities as a whole”. 

Social media, while too-often a tool for dragging women down, can also be used as a platform for building support-systems and connecting like-minded people, Kabeer adds. We need to find ways of making these platforms safer for women – and to champion their use for accelerating kinder and more gender-equal political environments. 

Laws as tools for social change  

Not all legislation is written equally – or account for social bias. While in many countries, paternity leave is a legal possibility, many new fathers feel social pressure when they take it. Caring for children is still seen in many parts of the world as “a woman’s job” and even when there are legal frameworks supporting paternity leave, a vast majority of men either do not take it or transfer it to their partners. 

As many women spend up to ten-times more time on un-paid care-work than men do, to the detriment of their careers and pursuits outside of the home, we need to make it easier for men to take on their share of care-work and parental responsibilities. 

To do this, legal reform must be combined with social norm creation. In 2000, Iceland did just that: increasing their paternity leave from 2 weeks to 3 months, and importantly, making a portion of this leave non-transferable to their partner. 

According to Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, Senior Advisor, Women’s Leadership, UN Women; Chair, Reykjavík Global Forum Board, “allowing men to leave their work to take care of their kids, in the same way as women,” is the number-one thing the world can learn from Iceland in terms of gender equality. Seemingly overnight, it became normal and expected for men to take paternity leave, because, if they did not, they would be losing free childcare. 

* In 2021, the law changed again so that each parent is now entitled to 6 months of maternity/paternity leave, of which only 6 weeks are transferable to the other parent. 

In other parts of the world, Equimundo and partners are championing the MenCare Commitment as an advocacy tool for policy change, aiming to make gender-equal care giving and co-parenting easier and more practical on a daily basis. Its five commitments address many of the social and economic barriers currently blocking men from taking on stronger caretaking-roles at home, Wessel van den Berg, MenCare Officer at Equimundo, explains.  

The Commitment asks states and members of parliament to prioritise: 

  1. Equal, fully paid and non-transferable parental leave for all parents. 
  1. State-supported and high-quality childcare. 
  1. Policies in the health sector to engage men in prenatal visits, childbirth and postnatal care. 
  1. Establishing national care policies and campaigns that recognise, reduce, and redistribute care-work equally between men and women. 
  1. Expanding social protection programmes to redistribute care equally between women and men who are unemployed or working in the informal economy, while keeping a focus on the needs and rights of women and girls. 

Data to track progress 

To ensure that policies are practical, and implementable on a daily basis, we need to be able to track the response to them “on the ground”, and make necessarily adjustments for different local contexts. This requires countrywide systems for consistent and comparable data collection.  

The OECD Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) helps countries with this by working with local entities to measure formal and informal laws, social norms, and practices holding women back, across 180 countries. 

If this discussion collectively brought forward one priority, it is this: Working on gender equality can be a win-win scenario for all but, to be effective, we need to design interventions that are fit-for-purpose in country-specific-contexts; interventions that work in day-to-day life, activate social acceptance, and allow people to come together to amplify their efforts. 


This blog reflects the views of this DevTalks’ speakers, as put forward by them on 11 October 2022, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise.