Women's Worlds 2011 interview: Nicole Schwab

Women's Worlds 2011 is a major international conference taking place in Ottawa-Gatineau from July 3 to 7, 2011. It is 'a global convergence to advance women's equality through research, exchange, leadership, and action' with speakers and performers from a diversity of backgrounds and countries. In the weeks before WW2011, interviews of some of the main participants will be published in rabble.ca. We are proud to be the exclusive online media sponsor.

Many of us would like to believe we live in an egalitarian society. That gender equality is a given, the rule not the exception. Unfortunately, we aren't there yet. Somehow, in what some call a post-feminist world in Canada, women still make about 70 cents for every dollar men make. Among Fortune 500 companies in the U.S., women make up three per cent of CEOs and, globally, women make up an average about 10 to 15 per cent of corporate boards. Without a doubt, the numbers of women dwindle the closer they get to the top.

Knowing all this, Nicole Schwab, co-founder of The Gender Equality Project, is actively working to change these global inequities and close the gender gap. By focusing on transparency and accountability, Schwab and The Gender Equality Project look at what is really happening within companies and corporations -- views and actions that work to either aid or hinder gender equity in the labour force.

Schwab and her co-founders analyzed and developed a standardized assessment framework, enabling enlightened companies to clearly see how they are doing in terms of gender equity and providing information that allows them to make changes accordingly.

In working towards a global standard in gender equality, The Gender Equality Project spent two years developing an assessment methodology which they tested on seven multinational companies. They set a global standard for gender equity that could be used as the basis for a corresponding certification system.

In order for a company to become certified they must meet the standard and certain listed criteria, including: the percentage of women at the board level, how well a company is able to keep their female talent, how employees perceive the company, as well as, of course, equal pay for equal work. The certification system focuses on five unique areas, including elements that are often ignored or marginalized by patriarchal capitalist work culture, such as work-life balance and company culture. Women's experiences in the workplace are very much impacted by these kinds of factors but are generally not prioritized in male corporate culture, which often functions based on an assumption that women need to "act like men" in order to get ahead. "Fitting in" is not always possible, nor should it be the norm.

According to Schwab, the three top barriers preventing women from attaining leadership positions in companies on a global basis are the gendered norms and cultural practices in the various countries, a patriarchal/male corporate culture, and a lack of role models.

It's not as though there is just a policy change needed, though, of course, policy changes are needed, but, it is that which is often denied and ignored which needs to be addressed: company culture alongside a national culture that, globally, is not equitable. Men and women continue to be expected to fulfill certain roles in our society and this does indeed extend into the work force. And while of course gender roles do vary from across the globe, there remains an ever-present thread of inequity.

Schwab sees one potential solution in the promotion and recruitment process, so ensuring that companies pay special attention to recruiting and training women, alongside a focus on the work-life balance. This focus on work-life balance Schwab speaks of affects women particularly (though, of course, it affects men too, it is just assumed that men don't need to have a work-life balance and that they are not as committed to their families and home life as women are or should be) as we know that women are often the ones working the ‘double-shift', meaning that they typically work full time in the labour force, and then come home and do a second shift of unpaid labour (i.e. domestic duties, child care, emotional labour, etc). So we also need to look at what is expected of men in terms of work. These rigid gender roles aren't doing anyone any favours, but women, in particular, get the short end of the stick, as they continue to face the "glass ceiling," named by feminists back in the 80s -- that invisible but obvious barrier preventing women from climbing the corporate ladder into leadership positions. Without taking into account various and intertwining factors as The Gender Equality Project does, this ceiling does remain invisible to a certain extent.

Schwab, points out that it is not simply a glass ceiling that prevents women from reaching those leadership positions. She quotes Alice Eagly by saying that what women's experience in their careers is closer to a labyrinth, that women struggle all the way through, rather than encounter a single obstacle once they get near the top rungs of the corporate ladder.

We need not only a change in policy, but a change in priorities and perspectives; a focus on the company, the workplace, and the culture, is, according to Schwab, catalyst for change.

Because we do live in a globalized world, Nicole Schwab and The Gender Equality Project saw and jumped on the opportunity to work with multinational companies and have a real impact on these issues globally. Certification gives companies the opportunity here to act as trendsetters, Schwab argues, providing leadership and setting an example upon which other countries may wish to model their workplaces after.

Nicole Schwab will be speaking at Women's Worlds 2011, a conference that, back in 1981, was the first worldwide interdisciplinary gathering to focus on research pertaining to women's issues. This year's conference takes place from July 3 to 7 in Ottawa.

For more information on Women's Worlds 2011, click here for the website, and here for the Facebook page.

Meghan Murphy is an intern with the rabble podcast network and is a regular contributor to rabble's F Word podcasts and The F Word Media Collective blog.

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