International Women’s Day: Global Misperceptions of Equality and the Need to Press for Progress

To mark International Women’s Day, and in the wake of the #metoo campaign, a new global study by Ipsos in collaboration with International Women’s Day across 27 countries highlights the level of concern people around the world have about a number of equality issues.

The author(s)
  • Kully Kaur-Ballagan Public Affairs, UK
  • Suzanne Hall Public Affairs, UK
  • James Stannard Public Affairs, UK
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Sexual harassment is seen as the top issue facing women…

Three in ten people (32%) globally believe that sexual harassment is the biggest equality issue facing women and girls in their country – the top answer picked out from a long list of equality issues. This figure rises to 58% in Peru, and around half the people in Malaysia (51%) Turkey (51%) Mexico (48%) and India (47%). At the other end of the scale it is considered much less of a problem in Serbia and Russia (7% respectively) and around one in five say it is an issue in Poland (18%), Saudi Arabia (19%) and Japan (20%). The second most picked out issue is sexual violence (by 28%).

…but people underestimate its prevalence and half still think that reports of sexual harassment are ignored

Even with these high levels of concern about sexual harassment though, people underestimate just how common an occurrence this is in each country where we asked this question. For example, 68% of women in Britain say they have experienced sexual harassment at some point – but the average guess is that 55% have. The biggest gaps between perceptions and reality are in Sweden (where 81% of women say they have experienced harassment, but the guess is 56%) and France (where 75% say they have experienced harassment, but the guess is 51%).

In contrast, people overestimate women’s experience of physical or sexual violence from partners or former partners. Overall, across all countries, the average guess is that 41% of women have experienced this, when the actual proportion of women that say this has happened to them is 25%.

Despite this, the study finds that in spite of the #metoo campaign and high profile cases shining a light on the issue of sexual harassment, in many countries people still believe that women who come forward will not be taken seriously. Across all 27 countries, half (50%) agree that, these days, reports of sexual harassment are generally ignored compared with 40% who disagree. Indeed, in sixteen of the countries, the majority view is still that reports of sexual violence are ignored including Peru, Turkey, Mexico, Chile and South Korea.  Conversely, in Japan, Great Britain, Sweden, Australia, Germany, Canada, the US and Hungary more people disagree than agree that reports of sexual harassment are ignored. And despite the high profile public debate on sexual harassment few people say they are talking about the issue with their family; only 15% say they are talking about it ‘a lot’ compared with twice the proportion (30%) who say they aren’t talking about it at all.

However, there is strong support for a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment; three-quarters (75%) of people around the world feel that this is essential to bring about change in society. Just one in six (16%) disagree. A third, however, shift the responsibility to women; (32%) agree that sexual harassment would end if the women simply told the man to stop, which rises to 57% saying this in India.

Violence, domestic abuse and equal pay are also highlighted as key issues

Sexual harassment isn’t identified as the only issue facing women. Around one in five say that physical violence (21%), domestic abuse (20%) and equal pay (19%) are issues. On issues of harassment and violence, there is little difference between the views of men and women. However, women are slightly more likely to cite equal pay as an issue than men (20% vs 17%) as well as balancing work and caring responsibilities (17% vs 13%) and the amount of unpaid work women do e.g. cooking, cleaning and childcare (14% vs 8%).

People are wildly over-optimistic about the pace of change on pay and economic equality…

Nearly half of people globally (47%) think that equality between men and women will be achieved in their lifetime compared with 37% who disagree. However, the study shows that we are wildly over-optimistic about the pace of change. In the US, people think women will be paid equally with men by 2028 – whereas, at the current rate of progress, this gap won’t be closed until 2059 (a difference of 31 years). In Britain, the difference between perceptions and reality is even wider; people think equal pay be achieved in 2035 whereas in fact it will be in 2117 (a difference of 82 years). 

And people are even further out in their estimates of when we will achieve economic equality between women and men across the world. The reality, according to The World Economic Forum, is that this will not be achieved for another 217 years, at the current rate of progress – but the average guess across countries is that it will be achieved in 35 years, with a large number of countries thinking it will be 20 years or less.

…and we hugely overestimate women’s representation in business leadership

Misperceptions about reaching equality may be influenced by the fact that we think that aspects of women’s lives are better than they actually are. In particular, we hugely overestimate the extent to which women are represented in business leadership; we estimate that, of the world’s top 500 companies, one in five (19%) has a female CEO – when the actual figure is just 3%.

People tend to be more accurate though when it comes to estimating the proportion of female politicians in their country. People in Malaysia, India, Brazil and China tend to overestimate the number of female politicians but in the majority of the countries, people actually underestimate the number – particularly in Spain, South Africa, Mexico, Belgium, Serbia, Germany and Argentina.

Even so, the majority view around the world is that women need to be better represented; six in ten people (61%) globally agree that things would work better if more women held positions with responsibilities in government and companies compared with 26% who disagree. Only in Russia do more people disagree than agree.

Most support achieving equality but close to half think things have gone far enough when it comes to giving women equal rights…

More generally, the vast majority of people (70%) across the world agree that achieving equality between men and women is important to them personally (and this figure rises to three quarters - 74% - of women, compared to two thirds - 66% - of men).

But views are split on whether things have gone far enough in their county when it comes to giving women equal rights, with 45% agreeing with this statement and the same proportion disagreeing. In eleven of the countries, the majority view is that things have gone far enough on equality, and across the countries there are similar levels of agreement among men and women.

Over half agree (55%) that there are actions that they can take to promote equality between men and women while almost three in ten (28%) disagree. People in Peru, Mexico, China and Chile are most likely to agree but significant proportions are less convinced this is the case particularly in Russia, Germany, Sweden and Hungary.

Over half (57%) define themselves as a feminist, someone who advocates and supports equal opportunities for women while three in ten (32%) disagree. There are variations by country, with agreement is highest in South Africa, India, Italy and China and lowest in Japan, Russia and Germany. However, when we ask if people define themselves as a feminist without providing an explanation as to what one is, then levels of agreement fall significantly. Overall just under four in ten (37%) agree compared with nearly half (48%) who disagree.  Only in India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Spain do more people agree than disagree, suggesting that the term feminist still carries fairly negative connotations across the globe.

In total 19,428 were interviewed between 26 January – 9 February, 2018. The survey was conducted in 27 countries around the world via the Ipsos Online Panel system (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, France, Great Britain, Germany, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the USA).
Approximately 1000 individuals aged 16-64 or 18-64 were surveyed in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Italy, Japan, Russia, Spain, Great Britain, and the USA. Approximately 500 individuals aged 16-64 were surveyed in Argentina, Belgium, Chile, Hungary, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Turkey.
The author(s)
  • Kully Kaur-Ballagan Public Affairs, UK
  • Suzanne Hall Public Affairs, UK
  • James Stannard Public Affairs, UK