By Amy Clarke, formerly Head of Private Clients at CAF.

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” Virginia Woolf  

At this time of year, many of us look back on the year and reflect on the successes and failures we may have all experienced. It is human nature to look to the past. But as a wise person once said we should only look to the past as it helps inform our future. One must not dwell there.

This year saw the release of the movie “Suffragette” – possibly one of the most disturbing movies I have seen in a long time (along with Girl Rising, Virunga, and Racing Extinction; these are must watch movies over the holiday period). Suffragette was disturbing not for any new facts it brought to life, but for how graphically it portrayed the struggle for equality in this country. It left me, and a number of my friends, annoyed and frustrated.

I was educated at a single sex school, in the very town Emily Davison lost her life. I knew about this thanks to my mother who shared this with me when she deemed me old enough to appreciate the importance of the information. Not once in my years at school were we made aware of how auspicious our schooling was – both in terms of geography and in terms of history. The suffragette movement was not taught, no stories of Emily were shared and the global struggle for equality was not on the teaching agenda. I hope that has changed.

As we look to ‘balance the books’ with regards to gender parity, it is important we reference this past, not just here in the UK, but globally. We need to interrogate the causes of gender inequality (like all forms of inequality) and identify and isolate the triggers that feed it. Only in this way can we truly begin to understand the solutions we need to create balance.

McKinsey estimate that full global gender parity would add $12 trillion to the global economy. In 2014 the World Bank and IMF estimated the GDP of the EU to be just over $18 trillion. The maths is, therefore, quite simple. But it’s not just about the economic value add gender equality brings. In developing countries, women are predominantly responsible for food production, household water supply and energy for heating and cooking.

Given global environmental and climate change adversely affects the poor, and with 70% of the world’s poorest being women, the impact on women is profound. But the opportunity for women to positively impact this planet is significant. However, this potential can be, and regularly is, eroded by a lack of access to financial resources. So the very community we need to mobilise to help tackle global environmental change is prevented from doing so by a global financial system that is arguably exclusive, rather than inclusive.

Additionally, educating girls reduces unwanted pregnancies, breaks the cycle of poverty, increases their chances of earning a decent income, and has a greater community impact through the sharing of their successes with others. However, gaps in education still persist, with boys 1.55 times more likely in Africa and South Asia to complete secondary education.

In many countries around the world girls are being prevented from education as a direct result of the cycle of poverty their families are in. Girls are taken out of school or prevented from education outright so that they can work and contribute to the family pot. It doesn’t take much to join the dots and realise we are handicapping our development by excluding half the population.

Gender parity is not just a developing world problem. A cursory glance at the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index 2014 will prove this – whilst the Nordic countries win first, second, third, fourth and fifth prize for being the most gender friendly countries, Nicaragua, Rwanda, and South Africa all rank higher than the UK (coming in quite shamefully in 26th place).

What we may make up in equal opportunity we lose in equal pay. But the Nordic countries show us gender parity is possible. The Nordic model has long been marvelled at for its ability to sustain big welfare systems and competitive economies whilst being committed to sustainable development (being the birthplace of that early pioneer in sustainable development Gro Harlem Brundtland). 

What role does gender parity have in this? Given what we know about the role of women in global environmental change, community development, and wealth stewardship (women are twice as likely to invest for longer term advantage and will, therefore, deploy patient capital into the economy), it is reasonable to assume gender parity has played a significant role in the Nordic model’s success. What is equally interesting is that the 2015 World Happiness Report shows Nordic countries were again at the top with Nicaragua featuring as one of the top gainers. Make of that what you will! 

As we head into 2016, with half the global population still battling for equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunity, I can’t help but think of Virginia’s Woolf’s most famous of quotes and look back to Emily Davison’s fateful day at the Derby 102 years ago.

We are all born with a freedom of mind, but many of us are born without choice whether through economic, social or cultural barriers. It’s this choice that hampers us, and prevents us from reaching our true potential as individuals and a global community. Whilst the focus has been on gender equality, and quite rightly, it’s important to note that it’s not just girls and women who suffer from a lack of choice and opportunity.

There are boys and men also born into economic, social and cultural circumstances that can hamper personal development. It is important that as we look to this coming year, we recognise the importance of addressing gender parity by increasing access to opportunity, and removing barriers so that the freedom of our minds can be strengthened by the might of our wisdom, and compassion of our hearts.

Men and women must learn together, work together, develop together if we are to address the big challenges of our times and grow sustainably towards a bright and prosperous future. As wise character Dumbledore most famously said “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”


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