We asked thousands of women what’s holding them back. Here’s what they had to say

November 10, 2021, 12:03 PM UTC
The women who were interviewed called for an end to systemic discrimination and harmful gender stereotypes, equal career opportunities, and more decision-making power.

It will take the next 136 years to achieve women’s equality worldwide, according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum. That’s roughly four generations. Imagine a world in which our great great great grandchildren still don’t know what it’s like to see women treated equally in society, business, or in the eyes of the law.

Now, let that sink in.

As leaders in our organizations, we’ve witnessed the many complex challenges that women face in the workplace, and that has motivated us to champion Gender Equality and UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 in our spheres of influence. In this consequential moment, when “business as usual” will undoubtedly limit the full potential of far too many women and girls, we share a common conviction that we, meaning employers of all shapes and sizes, must do more to change the course of history.

The data is clear. When women have full access to dignified work on equal terms, it’s good for society and it’s good for business. But too often, women struggle with bias, discrimination, harassment, violence, and long or irregular hours, a particular burden for those that have a “second shift” at home caring for their families. Ultimately, the gains we’ve made over the last decades are fragile, and too many women today still aren’t heard, valued, or given the equal opportunity to thrive.

Addressing this tragic reality is what led Mars to launch #HereToBeHeard, a groundbreaking global listening study that asked women, “What needs to change for more women to reach their full potential?” The initiative intentionally sought out women from all walks of life—and at all intersections—in the hope that the power of their individual experience and collective voice would help push global business and society to more urgent and inclusive action on gender equality.

Their response was sobering. An astounding 10,319 women around the world shared their stories, their ideas, their ambitions, and their frustrations. The pandemic’s impact has been particularly devastating on mothers, caregivers, women of color, and so many others who are often not offered a platform to share their lived experiences.

More than 8,000 women (80%) called for an end to systemic discrimination and harmful gender stereotypes. With similar force, 79% called for equal career opportunities and 65% demanded more decision-making power. One in three women emphasized the need for more support as parents, and not just by employers extending paid leaves or providing childcare services, but by encouraging greater work/life balance and prioritizing mental and physical well-being.

We would love to say that these findings are new—but they’re not. And that’s the story. These are deeply systemic flaws that require businesses to not just break down the barriers they see, but to engage women of diverse backgrounds and experiences in an active dialogue to call out blind spots and challenge old ways of thinking. It’s the only way we can rebuild and reimagine a workplace that works for all women, not just a privileged few or those who are lucky enough to slip through the cracks in the glass ceiling.

Businesses often move quickly to offer solutions, but there is something quietly radical about asking an open question, taking the time to listen, and then acting with women, not just on their behalf. That’s why based on what we heard, gender equality experts from BSR—an organization of sustainable business experts that works with its global network of the world’s leading companies to build a just and sustainable world—and other partners developed eight calls to action as a starting point for any business committed to advancing gender equality in the new #HereToBeHeard report. These recommendations tackle making gender-balanced leadership a reality, enabling men to be active allies, and yes, stepping up parental leave. The data shows providing all new parents with adequate paid leave is one part, but getting them to take it is another. Especially men.

We encourage you to listen to their voices and digest the report.

Gender inequality is not a foregone conclusion, but it persists by design. Let’s rewrite the rules for all women through bold action, continued engagement, and a shared commitment to keep doing more.

Victoria Mars is the former chairman of Mars Inc. and one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women. Christine Svarer is the global lead for the Business for Social Responsibility’s (BSR) HERproject. 

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