International Women’s Day

Let’s Celebrate Women’s Gains, but Focus on Full Equality

By: Ron O’Hanley

March 2020

While International Women’s Day has been around for more than a century, it has taken on new significance in recent years as an annual moment to reflect on both the progress made and, crucially, the miles to go in the journey toward gender equality around the world.

Measuring gains is important, since what gets measured gets managed. However, even as we celebrate incremental improvements, we need to acknowledge that progress toward full gender equality globally is proceeding too slowly.

That is a loss for all of us, men and women alike. The case has long been made that giving women an equal seat at the table in education, the workplace, and governing bodies around the world would significantly boost global growth, economic resiliency, and all manner of diversity dividends for business and society.

Everywhere, especially in developing economies, providing full access to education for girls as the first step toward bringing more women into the workforce is widely recognized as the most potent force for social and economic development. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) notes that for some developing countries, this gender dividend from more female workers could boost their economies by as much as 35 percent.1  Achieving this gain requires attracting and promoting women at every level of business, including the boardroom.

This year our asset management business, State Street Global Advisors, reported that 681 companies that previously had no women on their boards have appointed at least one female director since our Fearless Girl campaign launched in 2017. Every company in the S&P 500 now has at least one woman board member. It is a start, but just one woman is far from enough.

To mark the third anniversary of our board diversity campaign, we have placed a living wall of plantings behind the Fearless Girl statue on Wall Street to emphasize the importance of continuing to nurture and grow the number of women in senior leadership. It is an ongoing cultivation to which we all must commit. Closer to home at State Street, we continue to make inclusion and diversity a key business priority, setting specific targets, linking them to performance assessments for our leaders, and recommitting ourselves to equal pay for equal work for men and women.

At the same time, Fearless Girl has taken on a life of her own beyond corporate boardrooms, symbolizing the hopes and dreams of countless young women around the world who want to create a future in which gender is no longer a barrier to opportunity.

Indeed, there are growing signs that this generation of young women is taking the future into their own hands.

Just think of what we saw last year alone from exceptional young women stepping up to lead: 16-year-old Greta Thunberg galvanizing the frustrations of young people everywhere over the lack of effective action on climate change; 34-year-old Sanna Marin becoming the world’s youngest Prime Minister in Finland  and forming a government of five parties, all led by women; 22-year-old Simone Biles becoming the most decorated gymnast in the world after winning her 25th world medal; the US women’s national soccer team filing a lawsuit to demand equal pay to men players (after two years of generating more revenue than in men’s soccer); and US astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch performing the first all-women spacewalk. The United Nations is recognizing the current generation of women who are pro-actively pushing ahead for equality with its International Women’s Day theme for 2020: “I Am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights.”

But there is still much more to do. According to the UN, women still earn 23 percent less than men globally and occupy only 24 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide. According to the IMF, only six countries in the world have a legal system in which no discrimination at all exists between men and women. Of the IMF’s 189 member countries, nearly 90 percent have at least one gender-based legal restriction, constraints on everything from what women can inherit to whether women can borrow money or whether they can take custody of their children.2 And violence against women is still far too prevalent.

Most importantly, we must ensure that the push for gender equality around the world includes women of color from all socioeconomic groups. While this year marks the centenary of the national right for women to vote in the United States, it is important to remember that right initially was largely reserved for white women only, due to state restrictions on women of color.

As we reflect on this International Women’s Day, we must also honor the sacrifices women have made over the last 100 years (and before that) to gain a voice in society. Carrie Chapman Catt, an early leader of the suffrage movement in the U.S., wrote about what it took to ratify the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution giving women the right to vote: “To get the word male out of the Constitution cost the women of the country 52 years of pauseless campaign…Hundreds of women gave the accumulated possibilities of an entire lifetime, thousands gave years of their lives, hundreds of thousands gave constant interest and such aid as they could.”3 She also could have referred to the hundreds of women who were arrested and those sent to prison who went on hunger strike and were brutally force-fed. While Tennessee provided the necessary 36th state vote in August 1920 to ratify the amendment, many other states took years to do the same. States were still ratifying the 19th Amendment into the 1980s!

So, while we applaud the progress that has been made thus far, all of us, men and women, must recognize we are moving too slowly and refuse to let another century pass before we achieve true, full equality for all women around the world, in every aspect of our lives.

1 “More Women in the Workplace Could Boost Economy by 35%,” interview with Christine Lagarde in The Guardian, March 1, 2019.
2 Christine Lagarde, Forbes Women’s Summit, June 18, 2019.
3 Failure Is Impossible, Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words, edited by Lynn Sherr (New York: Crown/Archetype), p. 28.