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Slow progress

by Eva-Maria Verfürth
Worker in a Bangladeshi rice mill

Worker in a Bangladeshi rice mill

“Neither of us looks exactly like the leaders who preceded us,” US President Barack Obama said when Germany’s Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel recently came to Washington. Germany’s first female head of government took office only a few years before the USA first saw an African-American move into the White House.

Long before Germany, other countries had entrusted a woman to lead them, including developing countries like India, the Philippines or Liberia. Indira Gandhi, Corazon Aquino und Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, however, always remained exceptions. Whether in rich nations or developing countries, it is still quite rare for women to climb to top leadership positions in politics and business. Labour markets discriminate against women too, and decades of campaigning have not improved matters much. The UN’s “International Women’s Year” was 1975.

However, women are working quite as hard as men; their incomes are crucial for the maintenance of their families and the progress of their countries’ economy. The big difference between women and men is not productivity or prowess – it is the opportunity to get decent work, good pay and attractive careers. Women tend to make less money than men in spite of having the same education even in advanced nations and they do rarely reach high level positions. In developing countries, more­over, the problems are compounded because many women work in informal jobs, private households or special economic zones. Their jobs tend to be insecure, badly paid and do not go along with social protection. In some countries, women have less access to education. Where such access is more or less equal, girls on average do even better than boys in schools and universities. Nonetheless, men are better off in the labour markets. The reasons include conventional understandings of gender roles as well as women’s preference for school and university courses that are not in high labour-market demand.

The greatest and ultimately unremovable obstacle to equal job opportunities, however, is probably motherhood. To bear children, women have to quit the labour force for some time, and the mere fact that they may do so undermines their career opportunities. In most countries, moreover, women are fully responsible for households and families. For all these reasons, it is important to introduce labour laws that protect mothers, provide day care for children and safeguard social protection in cases of illness or unemployment.

By passing prudent laws, governments cannot overcome traditions over night, but they do trigger social change. In working life, women deserve to be protected and promoted. Without their efforts in professional life as well as at home, entire societies would fall apart. For instance, women are more likely than men to accept tough working conditions for rather little pay in social sectors like healthcare.

According to Obama, his and Merkel’s ascent to power “is a testament to the progress, the freedom, that is possible in our world”. True – but progress remains slow. Women’s share in parliaments around the world is still not even 20 %, even though it has been rising in recent years. The more women succeed in making their voices heard and having impact on politics, the more they will be able to promote causes that matter to themselves.


An old wish of the editorial team has come true: from now on we will publish our photographs in colour.