Invisible Women: Where Is Half The World’s Population?

where_women_2.jpg“I hadn’t thought about it,” said award-winning science writer Jessa Gamble.

We sat side-by-side in the theater at Ted Global 2010 in Oxford, UK, chatting as we waited for the next in a lineup of stellar speakers (of which 29% were women), at one of the world’s premier conferences (TED basics here: TED 101 (Or TED For Dummies)).

Gamble told me she planned to organize a TEDx event in the Canadian North, where she now lives. My gender-parity curiosity was piqued.

I asked if she intended to invite women to speak, and if so, how many. Her reply was telling – like most conference organizers around the world, she hadn’t given it much thought.

I, on the other hand, have been a vocal proponent for more gender parity on TED stages for almost two years. So far, my voice, and those of like-minded others, seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

When the TED 2011 speaker lineup was announced, I was again disappointed by the lack of women on the slate: only 15 of a total of 53 speakers, or about 28%, were women.

(That said, the women who did make it to the TED 2010 stage were awesome in every way. See for yourself here: 15 Trailblazers Take The Stage (A Feminist’s Guide To TED 2011))

Gender Parity Indifference

When I bring up the issue of gender parity, more often than not I run into a wall of indifference. “So what?” people say, “It doesn’t matter. What is said is more important than who says it. Why do you keep trying to make this about gender when it’s not?”

Well, it DOES matter. It matters A LOT. It matters because this kind of gender inequity isn’t unique to TED. It’s pervasive, and it’s problematic. Not just for women, but for the whole of humanity. And at the most fundamental level, it is ALL ABOUT gender.

It matters because of the huge gender imbalance that exists in almost every sphere of human activity – slews of statistics clearly demonstrate the massive gap.

Here’s a smattering of examples:

  • There are 193 widely-recognized sovereign nations in the world. Of those, only 13, or about 7% are actively (not figuratively), currently led by women. Only 33 of the 193 (17%), have ever had a woman head of state at any time in their history (Wikipedia)

  • As of 2008, 18% of national parliamentarians worldwide were female (somewhat encouragingly up from 12 % in 1995, but still unacceptably low). (UN Women)
  • The percentage of women in board positions on Fortune 500 companies is only 15.7% (it has taken 17 years to rise by seven percentage points from the 8.3% at which it stood in 1993) (Catalyst Inc)

  • The Female FTSE Report 2010 annual from the Cranfield School of Management reveals that female representation at senior levels in FTSE companies has plateaued in recent years. It was 12.5 per cent in 2010, compared to 12.2 per cent in 2009 and 12 per cent in 2008.
  • Studies that even Canada (by many measures one of the most desirable places in the world to live), falls shor in its treatment of women. In 2007, those with post-secondary education made 63% of what similarly educated men made. Meanwhile, white Canadian men are 4.5% more likely to receive promotions at any level of an organization than white women, and 16.1% more likely than minority women with equivalent education and experience. (Pamela Jeffery, Founder, Women’s Executive Network, in a Financial Post Magazine article featuring Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women).
  • Women represent only 30% of European researchers and only 18% of full professors, according to “She Figures 2009”, a survey on statistics and indicators on gender equality in science published in November 2009 by the European commission. The report says: “the underrepresentation of women in scientific disciplines and careers remains a serious challenge in Europe.”

So What?

So? The pundits say. So, I reply, not only is this imbalance morally and ethically wrong, as a matter of basic human rights for both women AND men, it’s also proving to be a less-than-effective way of running the world.

It matters because we’re underutilizing, nay, wasting, HALF the world’s human resources. And it matters because empowering women is one of the cornerstones to making this planet a better place for future generations. That’s why I will not be silent. I have a voice, and I will continue to use it until these kinds of statistics are ancient herstory.

Lest you think it’s just ‘lil ‘ole feminist me who deplores this abysmal state of affairs, think again. No ma’am. Worldwide, the powers-that-be agree the situation is both undesirable and untenable.

According to the United Nations, gender equality is a “basic human right” the achievement of which has “enormous socio-economic ramifications.”

In short, the UN says:

“Empowering women fuels thriving economies, spurring productivity and growth.”

Tragically, it also reports that:

“…gender inequalities remain deeply entrenched in every society. Women lack access to decent work and face occupational segregation and gender wage gaps. They are too often denied access to basic education and health care. Women in all parts of the world suffer violence and discrimination. They are under-represented in political and economic decision-making processes.”

Globally, women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, and produce 50 percent of the food, but earn 10 percent of the income and own 1 percent of the property. (See more UN facts & figures on women, poverty and economics here.)

This is why one of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is to promote gender equality and empower women and three others are indirectly related to women’s empowerment and gender equity.

Visibility Is A Key Issue

So how do we go about doing that? There are a multitude of strategies and tactics, including education (critical!), micro lending, changing laws, implementing quotas, etceteras.

Topping the list of “to do’s” in my opinion, are: 1) improving women’s self esteem, and 2) convincing men that empowering women is as much to their benefit as it is to ours. I’ll leave the latter for others to tackle…

One way to help improve women’s self esteem is to provide visible role models that clearly demonstrate that there are no boundaries to that which we can aspire and achieve. (Featuring such role models is one of the main purposes of this website – surprise, surprise!)

So far, our collective record on “visibility” is appalling on all fronts. In addition to the statistics mentioned thus far, consider these diverse and typical examples:

  • The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2006 and sponsored two academic studies of children’s movies released between 1990 and 2009. Both reached the same conclusions. Of the 5,554 speaking characters studied, 71 percent were male and 29 percent were female. That’s a 2.42 to 1 ratio, which has not changed much in 20 years. (See more in this interesting NYT article on what motivated Davis to found the Institute)
  • Bloggers at 17percent aver on their “about” page: “Only 17% of UK-produced plays are written by women. Yet women make up 52% of the UK’s population, and 65% of theatre audiences. Something is badly skewed.”


The lack of women in media is not going unnoticed by some consumers. In a scathing open letter to The New Yorker, subscriber Anne Hays laments the lack of female authors after the magazine went two full issues with only two or three contributions by female writers, in a close-to-150-page magazine. Hays writes:

“…we are baffled, outraged, saddened, and a bit depressed that, though some would claim our country’s sexism problem ended in the late 60s, the most prominent and respected literary magazine in the country can’t find space in its pages for women’s voices in the year 2011.

(Read the whole letter, and more on the unbelievably poor gender-parity performance of other leading US magazines such as The Atlantic, The Nation and Harper’s.)

Don Hazen, Executive Editor at alternative news-gathering portal Alternet, commented on the New Yorker situation noted above in fundraising material that would help non-profit Alternet invest in “recruiting, assigning to, and developing emerging women writers, especially in areas where they are most underrepresented, such as politics, economics, and foreign affairs.”

Hazen writes:

In late 2010, Ms. Magazine started a campaign against the New Yorker. It’s not just the New Yorker. January’s issue of Harpers has only three out of 21 stories by women. The Nation’s latest print issue has four and a half female bylines out of 17 articles. The Atlantic did a little better, featuring five and a half female bylines, of 18 total stories.

Hazen goes on to say that AlterNet wants to invest money in women writers, but is having a hard time raising the required funds.

Out Of The Shadows & Into The Limelight!

Likewise, I’m not the only one to have noticed the paucity of women speakers on conference stages, because the imbalance isn’t unique to TED. Another few examples amongst many:

Which brings me back finally to the world’s stages, including those at TED and TEDx conferences in particular.

During the last five years TED has become a well-recognised and highly respected global force for spreading creative, innovative, and powerful ideas. As an organisation, its intentions are clearly noble and good. It generates a constant stream of new and interesting ways to engage its rapidly growing international community in thought-provoking conversations that initiate positive change.

Through its individually licenced TEDx events, as well as other novel produts and forums, it’s reaching an ever-widening global audience.

While each of us can (and should!) initiate small changes within our own spheres of influence, TED is perfectly placed to lead by example on a global scale on the issue of gender parity. It’s ideally equipped to spark a paradigm shift, and thus to help bring greater balance to a what is clearly a gender-imbalanced world.

Where is half the world’s population? Holding up Half The Sky, as everyone knows. Too bad too few recognise us for doing it.

But we ARE here. Waiting in the wings, it would seem, for our time on center stage. Not for long though. All of us – women, men and children – will benefit hugely when the world’s invisible women are invited, encouraged and applauded for stepping into the limelight.

And the time to take that step onto the stage is now.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, this is a personal invitation from me, on behalf of millions of amazing women around the world, to TED, and to the world’s governments, corporations, NGOs and individual people like you to carefully consider gender issues, gender parity, and their potential impact on the future of the human race.

Give it some thought.

Related information:
Alternate list of 10 essential books as suggested by Andrea in a comment on the Flavorwire list; she says:

Only one of the top 10 is by a woman?! WTF?! Here’s an alternative list of books equally (or more) critically acclaimed as the one above, although equally idisyncratic:

Toni Morrison, Beloved
Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club
Mary Gaitskill, Bad Behavior
Mary Morris, Nothing to Declare
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Alice Munro, Hateship Loveship Courtship Marriage

Kate Walbert, A Short History of Women

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home
Patti Smith, Just Kids

P.S. Since someone else already mentioned A Handmaid’s Tale, I left that off.