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Inclusive policies: a long way to go

Women’s right to equality may be established in principle, but there’s still a long way to go before real inclusion allows us to fulfil our true potential

It is just over 100 years since a select group of women first acquired the right to vote in UK general elections. After about 50 years of struggle by the women’s suffrage movement, property-owning women over the age of 30 were enfranchised in 1918. It took another 10 years, in 1928, for women to be given the vote on equal terms with men. Soon after, another important law removed many of the barriers keeping women out of civic and professional life.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 opened the door for women to enter public life by deeming it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender: “A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or for admission to any incorporated society (whether incorporated by Royal Charter or otherwise)”.

Women could now gain entry to professional associations such as ICAEW, which is what Mary Harris Smith did in 1920 at the age of 75. An accountant for decades, Smith had started her own firm in 1875. After years of rejection, she was finally admitted as a fellow of ICAEW and became the first female chartered accountant in May 1920.

We have much to thank pioneers like Mary Harris Smith and all the other women like her for. We have made huge strides, but the fight is not over. The gender pay gap still stands at 15-22% even in developed Western countries such as the UK, US and Australia. There are still far fewer women than men on boards and in executive roles. Female entrepreneurs receive only about 2% of venture capital funding. Women still face significant gender bias in some industries and sectors — this is especially so for women of colour. Childcare provisions and the opportunities afforded to working mothers are far from ideal.

And as #MeToo has shown, sexual harassment and assault are far too common. Aside from the fundamental issue of fairness highlighted by these inequities, there is an economic price we pay when women are excluded from opportunity: we all lose out when women can’t fulfil their potential. In 2015, a McKinsey report on advancing gender equality concluded that if women were given the chance to play an identical role in labour markets to that of men, global annual GDP could be increased by between $12trn and $28trn by 2025.

By removing the barriers to work still in place, women could contribute so much more to the economy and society in general. By giving women better access to information, networks and capital, women-owned businesses could generate even more employment and wealth. The Boston Consulting Group forecasts women will hold about a third of the world’s wealth, $72trn, by 2020. That figure is likely to increase over the next decade.

According to EY, women will control 75% of discretionary spending around the world by 2028. Women’s wealth is projected to grow at 7% annually. Women are starting businesses in ever greater numbers. The argument for gender equity is economic as well as social. Respect is growing for women’s contributions to commerce and society. We are also more aware of our rights now than even 10 or 20 years ago. We are less prone to let things slide or to stay silent. We have found our voices.

Our struggles have made us strong, and in our strength, we’ve found pride. We are asserting our place as equals in business and civic life. The fight for equality started long ago, as shown by the example of Mary Harris Smith. A century on from women’s suffrage and the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, we are again at a tipping point. Women are discarding the old rulebook and rewriting the rules.

Women can no longer be ignored. Governments must formulate more inclusive policies. Businesses need to listen to women. When we all start thinking about inclusivity and diversity as an opportunity, we will unlock a phenomenally powerful force for economic growth and social good. Women have fought long and hard over the past century to gain and secure their rights. For the good of the world, let’s hope we’re not waiting another 100 years to achieve gender equality.

Fi Bendall is the global CEO and founder of The Female Social Network

Originally published in Economia on 17 July 2019.