In September 1995, 30,000 activists and 17,000 participants streamed into Beijing for the opening of the Fourth World Conference on Women. For the next two weeks, representatives of 189 countries discussed and developed historic commitments on gender equality and women’s empowerment around the globe. The final product of the conference was the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. It was a blueprint for advancing women’s rights and it set forth thorough commitments under twelve key areas of concern, including women’s health, education, violence against women, and women in the economy.
Unfortunately, over 25 years later, no nation has achieved gender equality in all dimensions of life, as originally envisioned by the Beijing Declaration. Nearly one third of all women suffer from physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Without adequate healthcare, nearly 800 women die giving childbirth every day. Over 80 million women globally have no legal protection against discrimination in the workplace. Not a single country is on track to achieve gender equality by the year 2030. But it seems we hear statistics like these all the time. Why, then, does gender equality remain an unattainable target?
Elisabeth Kelan, Professor of Leadership and Organization at University of Essex in the United Kingdom, has coined the term ‘gender fatigue’ to help explain why gender parity has been so difficult to practically achieve. Gender fatigue is the notion that gender inequality exists, but not in one’s own immediate environment. Sometimes people rationalize that gender inequality exists in developing countries, but not places like here in the United States. Others believe that gender inequity was a problem historically, perhaps in their parents’ generation, but that it doesn’t remain as significant a barrier today. Yet others feel that women have advanced significantly in the workplace, so the lack of parity couldn’t possibly be that bad.
The paradox of the relative progress women have made in society is that these advancements allow us to feel that not much else remains to be done; they blind us to the systemic and structural inequities that still very much exist. In essence, gender fatigue allows us to distance ourselves from the issue of gender inequality. Yes, it exists, but not in my life; it might be a problem, but it certainly isn’t mine.
Fighting against gender fatigue, then, cannot be left to world leaders or large corporations. It requires a deep shift in societal attitudes. It requires individual people to recognize and understand how gender plays a role in all dimensions of daily living. Unless we begin tackling these inequities on a micro level, the macro level changes cannot and will not work.
Until we are able to prioritize gender equality as a global society, women will continue to fall behind. It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic, too, has disproportionately affected women. The pandemic led to a significant increase in unpaid care work of both children and elders, the burden of which fell mainly on women. Around the world, women were also forced to lockdown at home with their abusers, with limited access to support services. In December 2020 in the United States alone, over five million women lost their jobs — the majority of them Black, Hispanic, and Asian. The pandemic has only underscored that it is a man’s world, and women are merely fighting to live equally in it.
March 8 is International Women’s Day. But today, I don’t just want your empty wishes. One day of celebrating women is not nearly enough, and I’d rather your daily actions show a consistent commitment to equity instead. I want to hear men being taught to respect women as much as I hear women being taught to “stay safe.” I want women in the workplace to take up space and own their contributions with the support of male colleagues who elevate their voices. I want my emotions to be validated instead of reduced to she must be on her period. I want to stop being asked if I plan to have children because how could you possibly manage that with a demanding career in the law? I don’t just want to hear today how much you appreciate your mother and sister and the women in your life. I want you to recognize that all women, everywhere, deserve respect and equality simply because they are human beings. I want everyone around me to see gender equality as the salient issue it is.
Over 25 years after the Beijing Declaration, we’ve fallen embarrassingly short of meeting those goals. It would be such a shame if in 2050, we found ourselves saying the same again. If we want any chance of a more equal world for future generations, we must make gender equality our collective mission starting at the individual level. As the activist and advocate Malala Yousafzai has so simply stated, “we cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”