Half the world’s population

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Last month I had the honour of being nominated as one of the BBC’s 100 Women and was asked to take part in a one-day event that was organised after a month of BBC programming which had looked at the lives of women around the world to mark 100 years of feminism.

The event brought together a diverse cross-section of women working in different ways to further the cause of gender equality. Participating was a humbling experience; there were a fair share of business women and politicians but there were also women born and raised on landfills, women journalists who reported when under shell fire and women who have fought tooth and nail for recognition and rights around the globe. The BBC did a spectacular job of bringing together these 100 women and allowing participants to look at gender equality from a number of perspectives.

With all the recent advances in industry and infrastructure one might have hoped by now for a world where gender inequalities no longer existed. Unfortunately, that simply is not the case. Women, though appearing in the workplace in larger numbers than ever before, still face many challenges before they even reach the office or factory.

However, having been born into difficult circumstances does not necessarily mean that women are permanently hindered by their environment. At 100 Women I was interviewed with 20-year-old Sreymom Ang, a Cambodian woman who was born on a dumpsite and spent her formative years picking the landfill over. She is now a fashion designer.

Zainab Hawa Bangura, the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict at the UN, was born to an illiterate mother in Sierra Leone who stressed the value of education. Social and economic deprivation is surmountable, but only if women have the support they need to succeed.

One of the biggest problems women face is a lack of literacy. Without literacy it is far more difficult for women to know their rights and they are more susceptible to trafficking and exploitation. A lack of financial literacy inhibits women’s potential to earn in their own right.

This has not been an issue in our traditional countries of operations, but as the EBRD expands into new territories with different cultural, religious and social mores, we face an entirely new set of challenges.

Around the world women suffer from a lack of support. Gender equality is not just about smashing the “glass ceiling” – it is also about enabling women to find a job which is fairly paid and safe. This is not an isolated problem. Lack of access to education and gender-based violence often prevent women from living full lives and this is not acceptable.

Gender-based violence happens everywhere, unfortunately. In fact I do not know of a country where it is not an issue. Gender-based violence affects women physically and psychologically and has a hugely detrimental effect on women’s ability to work. Women affected by gender-based violence miss work due to injuries and emotional stress. Besides that, it is simply wrong.

I am disappointed that we still have so far to go. You would have hoped that when men saw the challenges that their daughters, nieces and /or sisters faced, their attitudes would change, but that does not seem to occur.

Workplace attitudes are still organised according to men’s values and behavioural patterns. Women are more than capable of competing with men but they also bring to the workplace “soft” skills such as collaboration, team-building and inclusiveness – skills that are often undervalued and underappreciated but which are essential for enabling objectives to be met.

The EBRD is participating in the Trust Women conference on 3-4 December. The fact that we’re there is good, and the EBRD as an organisation can take more of an interest in promoting gender equality than other IFIs because of our mandate, particularly Article 1 of the Agreement Establishing the EBRD, which states that the EBRD seeks to assist only those countries “committed to and applying the principles of multi-party democracy [and] pluralism”.

Promoting democracy goes hand in hand with promoting gender equality. The EBRD wants women to benefit as much from our investments as men do.

I look forward to the Trust Women conference next month because it is action-oriented and not just a talking shop. Trust Women is not only a one-day event; participants and speakers follow through on what is discussed, as shown by last year’s follow through on the trafficking of women issue

EBRD President Sir Suma Chakrabarti will address the conference on the impact of the Arab Spring on women’s rights. I look forward to hearing Sir Suma’s speech – a man talking about these issues does reinforce the point that gender equality is not and should not be just an issue for women.

The EBRD is becoming better known for supporting women but we still have much to do. Women deserve the same access to support structures and resources as men. We are, after all, over half the world’s population.

Michaela Bergman is a social anthropologist by background, with 20 years’ experience of working in development with a variety of multilateral international financial institutions, bilaterals and civil society. She has worked in over 40 countries, in East and Central Europe, Central, East and South Asia and more recently in the Middle East. She is the Chief Social Counsellor of the EBRD and also heads up the Gender team.

Listen to Michaela's appearance on BBC Business Daily's "Women and the Glass Ceiling" discussion and view her appearance on "The 100 Women conference: Spying, Syria and the Roma".

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