Global Development Institute Blog

Anifat Ibrahim, PhD Candidate: Development Policy and Management

Last week, the world celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) – an annual celebration of women’s social, cultural, and political achievements, as well as a chance to raise awareness of issues surrounding gender-based discrimination across the globe.

In our latest blog post, PhD candidate Anifat Ibrahim marks IWD by reflecting on women’s continued underrepresentation in prominent roles and leadership positions. She explores the obstacles surrounding women’s participation in the workplace, as well as how we can advocate for women’s social and economic empowerment.

What does it cost women to be in the room? Whether the room is a boardroom, a research laboratory, or a government institution, what barriers do women face when it comes to participation in economic and public life? How can we help to make the costs bearable? And how can we facilitate women’s continued participation in professional spaces?

This year’s International Women’s Day Theme – ‘Inspire Inclusion’ could not have been more timely. We live in a world where women are underrepresented in different economic spheres – a world in which girls do well in school but, as women, are rarely present in boardrooms. As much as the world has made some progress in gender equality, the share of women in leadership and management positions is relatively low. Based on global data from LinkedIn, women’s representation in senior management positions (Director, Vice President (VP) or C-suite) was 32.2% in 2023. The data further shows that women’s representation drops along the career ladder, with women making up 46% of entry-level positions compared to 25% in C-suite positions.

Moving beyond the corporate world, research has shown that women have a hard time surviving in business. Women-owned businesses have shown lower profitability and productivity and less chance of survival than male-owned ones. What’s more, women continue to face economic disempowerment around the world, experiencing greater levels of food insecurity than men, as well as lesser access to social protections. As such, now has never been a better time to address the issue of gender equality by inspiring inclusion. But how do we inspire inclusion sustainably so the future generation of women can continue to benefit from the good fruits of our activism and advocacy? The answer is simple – by encouraging women to tell their stories.

When we find women doing well or struggling with their careers or businesses, our first reaction should not be to celebrate the high-performing ones while neglecting those who are struggling. Rather, we should first appreciate all the women for showing up, whether they are inspirational in their chosen fields or not. It takes a lot for women to show up and contribute meaningfully to any economy. In many parts of the world, women continue to be more involved in unpaid childcare and domestic responsibilities. Even when women do not have children or other caring responsibilities, they still have to grapple with certain disempowering social norms that limit the kind of occupations they can engage in and how far they are supported in their businesses or careers.

In recent times, we have done a laudable job of encouraging girls and women to shatter the glass ceilings in their fields, but we have not made the time to listen to the stories of these trailblazers. For every woman who achieves an impressive feat, we need to ask her about the costs of becoming who she is. Success for women does not come on a gold platter. Women who have their seats at the table are not just there to fill some Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) quota, as some are made to think. We would be delusional to think that women make it to the top without any struggles.

Women who are inspirational in their chosen fields usually have to pay a price – the price of becoming. These women make sacrifices beyond what meets the eye, but we can only hear these sacrifices when we listen to their stories. For example, some women have to pay for expensive childcare while they are away for work. Some women have to wake up extra early and sleep very late at night to combine their work and family responsibilities – working longer hours. For many women, slowing down is not an option. They need to juggle work, family, and social responsibilities and always act their best. Many women do not want to drop the ball in any area of their lives, even when they are stressed. Every woman on the path to economic empowerment usually bears some ‘cost of becoming’. Every woman who decides to set up a business, move up the corporate ladder, or earn a graduate degree is often required to pay some non-financial costs, and it is worth listening to their stories.

It gets lonely at the top, especially for women, but we can encourage young women to aspire for success because whatever hurdles they face on their way to the top are surmountable. There are women who have been able to navigate the challenges of gender inequality; all we have to do is learn from these women and pass their stories from one generation to another.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, let us inspire inclusion by hearing the everyday stories of women around the world. Let us listen to the stories of the female business executives who we want as role models for our girls. Let us ask them what it costs them to be who they are. Let us listen to the everyday stories of women struggling with their businesses or careers but keep showing up. We can glean some wisdom from their stories of resilience and hope. Let us listen to the everyday stories of women who have given up their pursuit of economic empowerment for other areas of need in their lives. Let us listen to these stories with empathy and willingness to take action on how we all can work collectively to foster a more inclusive economy for women.

Every time we have women present in the room, let us ask them these three questions: What does it cost them to be in the room? How can we help to make the costs more bearable? And how can we make them stay in the room longer? By asking these questions, we will find practical ways to improve women’s economic empowerment and recruit, retain and develop female talents. #inspireinclusion.

Happy International Women’s Day 2024!

Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.

Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

Please feel free to use this post under the following Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Full information is available here.