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.

International Women’s Day: Global misperceptions of equality and the need to Press for Progress

  • Sexual harassment is seen as the biggest equality issue facing women around the world - but in Britain the top issue is equal pay
  • People across the world and in Britain have many misperceptions about equality: we underestimate women’s experience of sexual harassment, and are wildly optimistic about when pay and economic equality will be achieved.

Sexual harassment is seen as the top equality issue facing women globally.  In Britain it is the second most important issue, but equal pay is seen as even more important

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. In Britain one in four (24%) cite this as issue, just behind equal pay which is mentioned by 30%.  Sexual harassment is a particular concern in Peru (58%), and for 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 globally is sexual violence (by 28%).

Despite the level of concern about sexual harassment, people underestimate its prevalence and half around the world still think that reports of sexual harassment are ignored

Even with these high levels of concern about sexual harassment, people underestimate just how common it 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 who say this has happened to them is 25%. In Britain the average guess is 35% whereas the actual proportion of women who say this has happened is 29%.

The study also 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 Great Britain, Sweden, Australia, Canada and the US most people do not think that reports of sexual harassment are ignored (in Britain by 57% to 30%). 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.  In Britain, close to half (47%) say they are not talking about sexual harassment at all – the second highest of 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 (77% in Britain). Just one in six (16%) disagree. A third, however, shift the responsibility to women; 32% on average around the world agree that sexual harassment would end if the women simply told the man to stop, which rises to 57% saying this in India (although only 24% in Britain).

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 around the world say that physical violence (21%), domestic abuse (20%) and equal pay (19%) are issues.  In Britain there are similar levels of concern about domestic abuse and sexual violence, but physical violence is picked out by only 9%.  Instead, Britons are relatively more concerned about equal pay (30%) and the sexualisation of women and girls in the media (22%). On the two top issues in Britain, equal pay and sexual harassment, there is little difference between the views of men and women.  However, globally 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 suggests 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. Britons are slightly more realistic, not expecting equality to be achieved for another 100 years on average, although still underestimate the reality.

…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%.  Britons are again among the more realistic, with an actual guess of 12%, though this is still four times the actual picture.

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. Britons also slightly underestimate the reality, guessing that a quarter of our MPs are women, when in fact it is 32%.

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 (in Britain 63% agree).  Only in Russia do more people disagree than agree.

Most say equality is important but close to half around the world think things have gone far enough when it comes to giving women equal rights – although Britons think more needs to be done

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).   In Britain seven in ten women say gender equality is important to them – but only 58% of men agree.

But views are split on whether things have gone far enough in their county when it comes to giving women equal rights, with 45% around the world 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.  In Britain, though, most do not think things have gone far enough – only 20% of women (and 30% of men) think enough has been done to achieve equality between the sexes.

Across the countries, over half (57%) define themselves as a feminist, someone who advocates and supports equal opportunities for women while three in ten (32%) disagree – Britons are very close to the average. 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 – agreement also falls in Britain, again in line with the average.  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.

Commenting on the results, Kully Kaur-Ballagan, Research Director at Ipsos MORI said: 

One of the first steps on the path to achieving women’s equality is getting people to recognise that we still have a long way to go – but our unique new study shows many of us around the world have a very wrong idea on that.
We underestimate women’s experience of harassment, are wildly optimistic about when economic equality will be achieved and over-estimate their representation in business leadership.  There is a sense of complacency among many people and in many countries that we’ve already come far enough.  Britons are slightly more realistic than most – and do want to see further progress – but are still worried, especially about equal pay.
But the survey is not all bad news, far from it: the large majority in all countries see how important an issue it is to address, believe that they can take action to help and many are discussing it in their families – although more can be done to get British families talking about the subject.  We need to build on this importance to people to press for progress.

Reviewing the findings from a worldwide perspective, Glenda Stone, Partnerships Director for International Women Day said:

The good news is that a focus on gender parity has increased exponentially worldwide. This has been fuelled by a significant increase in coverage of gender issues by mainstream media, an impressive rise in women’s voices via social media platforms, employers actively working to create more diverse and inclusive workplaces, an increase in awareness raising campaigns, and an overall expectation by younger generations for more equal societies.
The challenge is to move towards mass adoption of a “gender parity mindset” to guide behaviour and forge gender-equal perspectives. The survey highlights key areas where women are still marginalised and discriminated. There is no place for complacency. Complacency belittles women.
International Women’s Day provides an important opportunity for all countries and segments of society to celebrate the gains and achievement of women. It also serves as a strong call-to-action to press for progress in every way.

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