How can ‘girls get equal’?

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An unequal world

How can the world ensure “girls get equal”? At the Reykjavik Global Forum 2019, a group of women leaders convened to hold a crucial discussion analysing gender inequalities and suggesting ways to eliminate them. The conversationists, Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, the CEO of Plan International; Maike Roettger, the CEO of Plan International Germany; Pearly Chen, the Chair of HTC and Shandana Gulzar Khan, the Chairperson of Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians, assembled to tackle one of the most pertinent discussions of our time, echoes of which continue to reverberate throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The session was moderated by Jennie Gustafsson, a youth activist and #Girl2Leader delegate, and organised courtesy of Plan International. The LeadersTalk struck at the heart of what the #Girl2Leader campaign seeks to achieve, namely empowering girls and young women to lead.

With Ms. Gustafsson at its helm, the LeadersTalk brought an intergenerational flavour to the question of addressing systemic gender inequality. There was a particular focus on dismantling the negative stereotypes that girls and young women face during their formative years. In order to tackle this, the panel spoke about what they felt leadership means to the future generation of women leaders; harmful legislative and social perceptions were also thoroughly examined. Ms. Gustafsson then posed a question to the highly-successful women on the panel about how girls can be better supported in the future to remedy differences in access to opportunities  between young men and women. 

Existing challenges 

Central to the contents of the LeadersTalk were the terms of Plan International’s ‘Girls Get Equal’ campaign. The campaign seeks to provide opportunities and pathways to school-aged girls around the globe, especially in regions suffering from high levels of poverty and female unemployment. 10,000 girls were asked to give their views to create the Taking the Lead Report, according to which 76% of girls aspire to lead in a political, social or financial capacity – and want to do so in an inclusive and collaborative manner. While education and high social standing elevate career aspirations, these opportunities are more seldom afforded to young girls around the world. In addition, these girls have to contend with barriers such as gender discrimination and, in some instances, the negative cultural impact of marriage on career ambition. Moreover, the report found that excelling in leadership is perceived to be harder for women, not because they are not capable or qualified but because they have to work harder than their male peers while dealing with discrimination.

Overcoming inequality

The panel drew upon the findings of the Taking the Lead report, and their own experiences, to give some best practice examples of how to reverse gender stereotypes. An important point to address is the way girls are treated in their households. This environment is crucial to their development and should be safe from violence and discrimination. Secondly, mentoring, messaging and legislation were seen as an optimum way to create new perceptions of leadership for young, ambitious girls. Next, the panel agreed that sexism needs to be challenged through both policy initiatives and grassroots campaigning. Lastly, education and youth programmes were seen as integral to creating pathways to career success. 

With Jennie Gustafsson shaping the discussion, and many Girl2Leader delegates in attendance shoulder to shoulder with women leaders in the political and business world, the LeadersTalk demonstrated the power of youth in combating gender inequality. It highlighted the challenges that young girls and women face in becoming leaders and the ways in which the public and private sector can surmount these challenges. 

One thing is certain: in today’s climate of crisis where pandemics, climate change, racism and inequality demand sustainable and inclusive leadership, reinforcing the ethos of #Girl2Leader by empowering young girls and women to lead is a necessity.