Ask Deborah: What Are the Biggest Challenges Facing Women and Girls Around the World?

March 2, 2015Our President & Chief Executive Officer Deborah Gillis is the fourth President in Catalyst’s 52-year history. In this month’s Ask Deborah, in preparation for International Women’s Day, we posed a reader’s question about the biggest challenges facing women and girls around the world today.

Click here to read the last column in this series! And please send questions for Deborah to [email protected]—your question could be featured on our blog!

What are the biggest challenges facing women and girls around the world today?

In the business world of the Mad Men era, before and during the second wave of the women’s movement, sexism was rampant. Job listings were sex-segregated, women were asked at job interviews whether they intended to have children, and women were openly told they were being paid less for the same work because men had families to support.

While women have made great strides in recent decades, they still face barriers to success in the corporate world today. But these barriers are more often the result of unconscious biases than overt sexism. Even those who believe in gender equality have biases that can hold women back. As Nicholas Kristof argued in a recent New York Times column, a bigger problem than “die-hard racists and misogynists” seems to be “well-meaning people who believe in equal rights yet make decisions that inadvertently transmit both racism and sexism.”

I’ve encountered many real-life examples of this phenomenon in many different parts of the world.

I once met a young woman in India whose boss expressed great confidence in her, yet always seemed to offer big assignments to her male colleagues. When she asked him why, he told her that he had safety concerns about her working the late hours required by those roles. As long as violence against women is commonplace, staff safety must be a consideration—but women’s careers shouldn’t suffer because of it.

The woman I met needed her boss to give her real opportunities to gain mission-critical experience and visibility. And she needed her company to step up and address its safety concerns by providing private transportation home, as one of this year’s Catalyst Award-winning companies, Procter & Gamble, does for workers at its India plant.

I’ve met women in different countries who were passed over for promotions because they had young families and their bosses assumed they wouldn’t want more time-consuming jobs. Instead of assuming a woman with children wouldn’t be interested in a high-profile assignment or in relocating for an exciting new role, managers should ask! Let’s trust women to make the decisions that are right for them and their families, instead of choosing for them. 

How can someone prevent biases they’re not even aware of from affecting their decision-making? By getting educated about persistent inequities at work and making ongoing, good-faith efforts to ensure that their treatment of people matches their stated beliefs.

It’s equally crucial for girls to know what they can achieve. Back in my old life in politics, I was canvassing in Nova Scotia when a mother came to the door with her young daughter, explaining that I was a candidate in the upcoming election. “I thought only boys did that,” the girl said.

It was the first time I understood how important it is for girls to see women in leadership. I know from Catalyst research and my own experience that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Girls need role models in their chosen fields to show them success is possible—and they need personal champions, or sponsors, to commit to helping them get there.

Finally, I know from recent Catalyst research that avoiding stereotypes and consciously practicing inclusive leadership can go a long way toward rooting out the biases that are holding women back today.

The Mad Men era is over. Let’s put an end to the Age of Unconscious Biases as well.



The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.