After participating in Davos at the World Economic Forum, I’ve never been so convinced that we need more young women on the international stage.
Two weeks ago I had the opportunity of a lifetime: I was selected as one of 50 young global leaders to participate in Davos at the World Economic Forum. When the email came through, I had to check it was real.
To have the opportunity to participate in a forum like Davos is phenomenal. Why? Well, meetings such as Davos bring together global leaders from across the public and private sectors, along with civil society, to consider some of the world’s most pressing challenges. From 6pm to 6am, I was given the opportunity to participate in discussions ranging from geopolitics, to climate, the economy, to stakeholder capitalism, and the importance of public-private partnerships as a tool for change. I was also given the opportunity to network with some of our pre-eminent global leaders.
As we consider our recovery from COVID-19, it would be remiss of leaders not to acknowledge the adverse impact the crisis has had on women and young people – even more so for women and young people of colour. While discussions noted that COVID-19 didn’t necessarily cause new problems, it was well acknowledged that the crisis has exacerbated many existing inequalities. In short, it compounded a world that wasn’t working for young women: a world in which young women remain more likely to be the victims of sexual and domestic violence; are less likely to be represented in leadership and formal decision making; and in which young women continue to experience compounded discrimination due to their age, and gender.
So, why was it critical for young women to be at the table?
I’m a big believer in co-design, the principle of “no decisions about us without us”. If we’re genuinely interested in solving the complex issues of inequity, aren’t those people experiencing the problem first hand best placed to inform us of the nature of the problem and how it directly impacts their lives? This reflects another reality: the majority of global leaders are older, white men – a group which is less likely to experience the problems they’re designing the solutions for.
During 2020, men were less likely to lose their jobs or hours of employment compared to women. They were less likely to have significantly increased caring responsibilities (including child care, home schooling and caring for elderly relatives), and while they were more likely to experience severe virus symptoms, they are also more likely to be employed in the sectors and industries which are most heavily supported to bounce back quickly as part of the economic recovery.
Adverse impacts of COVID-19 aside, young women – like young men – are custodians of the future, and yet young women are the least likely to be heard in decision making forums. Crises like COVID-19 send the world into flux, and with this, we have an opportunity to consider the future world we want to create. Critical challenges such as the climate crisis, including the need for urgent public and private leadership in ensuring climate mitigation and adaptation, can be considered differently across generations – particularly as crises impact young people differently. Young people bring new perspectives to old challenges and, thanks to social media, have never had as much information immediately available to them as they currently do.
At the Davos forum we spent a total of sixty hours online, engaged in a huge range of sessions. The topics under discussion included the unequal impacts of COVID-19 on women, young people, people of colour and people in poverty; to the already-present climate crisis which similarly has an adverse impact on those in poorer countries, women and young people; to the need for an equitable recovery which redistributes resources and resets our economies, political decision making and resourcing to support those who are left on the margins of the developed world, and those nations with less resourcing.
We also discussed the global decline in trust in Governments, and the tension between populations which distrust the very people who are tasked with crisis response and recovery.
More than anything, Davos left me with an important question – what future are we aspiring to? Who is responsible for creating it? And what tools do we have in our toolkit? Arguably, we all have a responsibility. After all, it’s our collective future.
The incredibly stimulating experience left me feeling invigorated to further push forward with my Global Shapers Canberra cohort, the World Economic Forum movement for young leaders, and my organisation, Raise Our Voice Australia. The latter which was established to support the next generation of female and non-binary public policy leaders from all backgrounds. It aims to adopt both a bottom up and top down approach to slowly and surely create the change we want to see.
As a result of attending Davos I feel validated in my mission to help build a better ‘normal’. As a result of following various Davos discussions on the power of public policy, I am now feeling even more confident in the tool I’ve chosen. I’m pleased to belong to a community of people who are passionate about making change, and I remain hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction.
But, we do have work to do! I’ve never been so sure of the need to uplift marginalised voices, particularly young women, than I am right now.
Ashleigh Steeter-Jones is founder of Raise Our Voice Australia, an initiative to boost the number of diverse young female and non-binary voices in public decision making. She was 2017 ACT Woman of the Year, and is currently Vice-President of YWCA Canberra and Incoming Curator of the Canberra Global Shapers Hub.
For gender activists like myself, International Women’s Day is a favourite time of the year. It’s a time to celebrate women and the progress we’ve made. Every year we welcome progress towards gender equality, and honour trailblazing feminists.
But there’s a darker side to the day that needs to be addressed.
Most of the women involved in public events around International Women’s Day represent a certain privileged group of women. More often than not, the women at these events are from a particular background – older, Caucasian and with a career's worth of success behind them.
These women have worked hard to get where they are and their success is absolutely worth celebrating. However, we also need to recognise and value the many who are overlooked and deprived of these important platforms. The contributions and voices of younger women – particularly those from diverse backgrounds – are far too often ignored.
Young women have a unique perspective on the modern world. We’re among the first generation to have grown up with computers and social media. As such, we went through school experiencing horrendous issues such as revenge porn and online trolling.
Our generation is also facing major challenges, such as automation in the work force, unaffordable housing prices, increasing living costs, and an incredibly challenging job market – particularly for entry-level positions.
Despite all these challenges – or perhaps because of them – young women have a lot to contribute. We are more connected and arguably more informed than ever before, because we’ve grown up with the internet at our fingertips. We’re a generation of innovators, looking at things differently and solving problems in unique and wonderful ways.
Yet too often young women’s voices aren’t being valued or heard. We’re rarely given space at decision-making tables or allowed access to power structures and important conversations that shape our lives. And we’re largely absent from public platforms, such as the Australian media – where women make up just 20 per cent of news commentators.
Moreover, when young women like myself are invited to share our stories or contribute to public discourse, we are rarely paid. Rather, we’re expected to see it as a great opportunity to build our experience and profile. While often true, the problem is that this can add up to a lot of unpaid work, with no one giving us the break that we need.
Women have always been expected to do the bulk of unpaid work. The last national census (2016) showed that we still do almost triple the amount of unpaid work than that done by our male counterparts. Why? Because sexist attitudes still prevail in our society. In a 2017 Plan International Australia survey of girls aged 10 to 17, 98 per cent said they were not treated equally to boys, while 91 per cent felt it would be easier to get ahead if they were treated the same way as boys.
Young and older women alike are facing similar challenges due to sexist attitudes – whether it’s street harassment, or being judged on our appearance. However, young women are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to attracting attention to our causes or contributions.
Young women – like older women – don’t have a homogenous voice. Our experiences are diverse and so is the value we can add. What’s more, when tackling issues that directly relate to us, it’s a no-brainer to ask us what we think before making critical policy decisions.
To achieve gender equality, young women must be heard and our efforts must be genuinely valued. Older women can play a vital role in giving us space and elevating our voices.
We’re incredibly fortunate to stand on the shoulders of our mothers and grandmothers who fought extremely repressive attitudes towards women and our place in society.
Together, I believe we can create a world that is truly equal.
This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and can be found here.