When Will Women Be #EqualEverywhere?

Audio Description

Girls and women deserve to be #EqualEverywhere. Yet they face greater barriers to fulfillment than men and boys. That’s why Bernstein is adding our voice to the UN Foundation’s global campaign for gender equality. Half the battle is raising awareness—and that means engaging in uncomfortable conversations about what it will take to drive faster action. Michelle Milford Morse, the UN Foundation’s VP for Women & Girls, joins us to discuss moving beyond polite satisfaction when it comes to progress and why the next generation gives her hope.


00:03 - 00:33

Welcome to Women & Wealth. I'm Beata Kirr, Co-head of Investment Strategies of Bernstein, and this podcast aims to educate, inspire, and empower women to make the right choices for their wealth. So let's dive in. Well, here we are. International Women's Day was Sunday, March 8th. You should be listening to this episode the week following. And it is Women's History Month.

00:33 - 00:58

So welcome to March, where we will be celebrating progress not only on the Women & Wealth podcast, but really throughout the firm. And I'm very excited today to have as my guest, Michelle Millford, who is the UN Foundation's Vice President for Girls and Women. She leads the foundation's organization-wide efforts to promote gender equality and the rights and agency of all girls and women.

00:59 - 01:13

And you will see through her comments that this is really an enormous job and there is so much work to be done. So, Michelle, thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with you. Well, it's my pleasure.

01:13 - 01:40

And it's really kicking off a partnership that we're going to have in March around your #EqualEverywhere campaign. So I want to understand more about the campaign. I want all our listeners to hear what it is. But first, I want to set the stage for why a campaign and a partnership like this is so critical. You all know I'm very passionate about women's rights and women engaging with their wealth, but the story and the effort is much bigger than that.

01:41 - 01:43

I'm going to reference a benchmark study.

01:43 - 02:17

Back in 2016, McKinsey produced a survey called The Power of Parity. And in that study, they said the US alone could add 4.3 trillion dollars to GDP by 2025 if women obtained full gender equality. And globally, that figure is projected to be three times bigger. 12 trillion dollars. This is an enormous economic impact for women to have equal rights and participate fully in the workforce.

02:17 - 02:20

So, Michelle, why don't I open it up to you?

02:20 - 02:30

Give us a sense of where do you think we are today in 2020 on gender parity? The reality is that far too little has changed for girls and women.

02:30 - 03:02

So in Beijing, at the Fourth World Conference on Women, 25 years ago, 189 governments gathered, along with thousands of grassroots feminists from around the world. And that conference resulted in the adoption of a 12-point platform of action to address gender inequality, and rather comprehensively. And still, 25 years later, girls and women are not equal anywhere in the world. In every country, girls and women are subject to discriminatory laws, epidemic rates of gender-based violence,

03:02 - 03:12

they're more likely to be used as a weapon of war. And too often they're denied access to the resources that a person needs to live in dignity and full freedom.

03:12 - 03:37

So despite the fact that McKinsey, through The Power of Parity, established these enormous economic rewards that we can yield if only women had equal economic opportunity, we've seen progress that is truly too fragile, too reversible, too incremental, and far too slow.

03:37 - 03:56

This year, as we acknowledge the 25 years that have passed since Beijing, we are going to be pushing for more urgency, more ambition, and more equality for everyone, everywhere. And that is what is at the heart of our campaign this year, as we acknowledged International Women's Day and Women's History Month.

03:56 - 04:25

Well, thank you for doing that. I'm still reeling from your stat. I want to go back to what you said. Did I hear you say that in not a single country in the world are women on equal footing with men? Not even one. And when you say that, what do you mean by that? Legally, regulatory? Give me more on that. Yeah, well, sure. So the World Economic Forum is only one organization that measures this every year.

04:25 - 04:54

And they have found that on average, if you look at four domains, including women's health, women's economic opportunity, women's political engagement, women's educational attainment, that we are on average about a century away from equality, and that is only if progress continues at the rate that we're at today. So we have to keep progress at the rate we're at today just to get to equality in a century.

04:55 - 05:18

And I want to be clear that there's so many conversations about that lack of equality and how you define them. So that's why it's helpful for me to hear how you are defining them with the World Economic Forum parameters. Consider this, for example. There are 98 million adolescent girls around the world that are not in school right now. And globally, girls and women are more likely to be illiterate.

05:18 - 05:34

They're less likely to control financial assets such as land. They're less likely to have access to financial services, including a savings account or an insurance policy. They're less likely to benefit from technology or just basic market information.

05:34 - 06:02

Girls and women spend on average at least twice as much time on housework and other unpaid activities, such as child care and elder care than men. So they're more likely to be economically dependent on men and they're more likely to be poor, which means they're also less likely to be politically engaged in their community or even, frankly, well rested. But is the wage gap included in your parameters? Is it one of the things? The wage gap is a really important part of that.

06:02 - 06:30

So I recall that the American Association of University Women found that women hold almost two-thirds of our country's one and a half trillion dollars of student debt here in the US. So women are earning more bachelor's degrees, but they are getting paid about 26 percent less than their male peers on average. So obviously they're having a harder time freeing themselves of that burden. That's just one way that the wage gap affects women and certainly a one way that the unpaid care burden affects women.

06:31 - 06:49

Think about that. Women earn more college degrees. Men earn more money. Women are underrepresented in careers that result in the highest paying jobs, such as in statistics and computer science. So you're pointing out an important element, the pay gap. But it conspires with all these elements to keep women less equal and less free.

06:50 - 07:22

So let me just step back and reiterate the importance of that global perspective that you share, because we all suffer from our own local, our home country bias, where our experience is colored by maybe more progress that we're seeing in our communities or our own lives. But thank you for reminding us that nearly 100 million girls around the world are not in school today. So I understand why the United Nations has a focus on girls and women.

07:22 - 07:44

It's very important. So with that focus, Michelle, can you tell me more about what drew you to this #EqualEverywhere campaign and what you hope to get out of it? The UN Foundation has been working on girls and women's equality for about 22 years now. It was among our founding priorities and an important part of our legacy.

07:44 - 08:00

And we are just as frustrated as many of your listeners that progress for girls and women has been so slow and so reversible. And we see the effect that harmful gender norms have not only on girls and women, but on men and boys.

08:00 - 08:25

So #EqualEverywhere conveys our conviction that equality among people is not only possible, it is preferable. And we are going to launch this campaign at the end of February to make that clear. And we are going to celebrate equality and all that it yields for everybody throughout the month of March and beyond.

08:25 - 08:38

And so we're really pleased to have partners like you who can help us elevate the stakes of gender inequality and to help us push for progress together.

08:38 - 09:10

That's very exciting. I'm personally thrilled that we are going to have this sponsorship and partnership around this #EqualEverywhere campaign. So this podcast is just one of many examples of the work we're going to be doing together. So for all of our listeners, keep your eyes and ears peeled because we'll have a number of events around the country in partnership with the UN. We'll be producing some additional content, both in blog form and in video form and then really just throughout the month. And of course, it shouldn't be a month-long effort. It should be an ongoing effort.

09:11 - 09:32

But in our media cycle, we all know that a hashtag can help gain focus over a period of time. We will be talking about #EqualEverywhere and really supporting that very concept that the UN Foundation has started. So we're really excited about that partnership. And so how long have you been doing this and what got you to this role and focus on women and girls?

09:32 - 10:06

My parents gave me a strong sense of self-worth and unrelenting support from my dreams. That's a pretty remarkable gift. And so I never believed that I was a second-class citizen. It was a career calling that was innate. Since the beginning of my career, I've had the privilege to work on social justice issues and for a while, a lot of them on the intersection of global health and gender inequality. I feel lucky that this is what I get to do every day. Some days are harder than others, certainly the lack of progress that I've seen. Since my career began, is deeply frustrating, but it never feels trivial.

10:06 - 10:18

And thank you again for the work that you're doing. I can imagine that the lack of progress is the biggest challenge, but maybe we could flip the script on that and hear from you on some of the things that you've been most encouraged by.

10:18 - 10:25

It's a moment I'm most encouraged by the younger generations of activists that are emerging all over the world.

10:25 - 10:58

And they seem to me primed to unite around this idea of overcoming inequality and not in the way, not in the spirit of the old binaries that we used to see. Gender inequality has often been framed as the struggle between men and women. And it's not. It is a struggle between the fair minded and the fear-minded. And I've been delighted to see young people make the connection between things like inequality and economic justice, inequality and protecting the planet.

10:58 - 11:10

They are making those connections more readily than are legacy leaders, and they are using their voices with a lot of courage and compassion. And it is by far the most encouraging thing that I'm seeing right now.

11:10 - 11:43

I couldn't agree with you more. I find the same thing in my day to day that this younger generation, I think, especially in the last five years, has really made their voice heard and their generation to be reckoned with on many of these issues, as you've identified, whether it's climate, equality, whatever they feel passionately about. I think they've been raised in a way where, like you said, with an amazing sense of self-worth and confidence to speak up. And I love your quote about the fair minded versus the fear minded.

11:43 - 12:15

That is something that will stick with me for sure. That's a great way to frame it. So with that enthusiasm about the younger generation, one of the biggest trends that we see in that generation, connecting the dots here, is not only a focus on equality and the issues that they're passionate about, but forcing change as to how their dollars are deployed around those issues, making purchasing decisions that are focused on companies that they feel good about, and forcing investment decisions in the same way.

12:16 - 12:49

And it's really an enormous movement around responsible investing. And the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have really been the anchor for the responsible investing movement. So I was hoping you could comment on what you have seen in that regard. Has your experience mirrored ours in that focus? And where do you see the SDGs going in the future? Well, let me address that that first really important point you made about, in particular the Gen Z consumer.

12:49 - 13:00

They want to know that the company that provided their latte is not exploiting women in its supply chain and also paying the barista the same wage as the guy working the shift after hers.

13:00 - 13:34

They just, they are insisting upon that in a way that is powerful and encouraging in companies that are smart or paying attention to that, because there are enormous market opportunities for them to pay attention to what that Gen Z consumer wants. This emerging generation of consumers is shaping what will be the battles over talent, the battles over brand loyalty, the battles over market share, and that's a really, that is a really encouraging trend.

13:34 - 14:02

And you mentioned the Sustainable Development Goals. So these 17 beautiful goals, this amazing framework that is, has been designed for people and our planet, has become a powerful shaper for how companies behave and how governments are thinking about their people and their policies. In the world of responsible investing, they have certainly been an anchor. And our listeners should remember that

14:02 - 14:36

I did an episode with Dan Roarty, who is the portfolio manager here that focuses on our thematic portfolios and aligns the company holdings that he has with the percentage of their revenue that he can track back to the Sustainable Development Goals. And I really applaud the UN for providing that anchor so that public market investors can really use them as a reference point. And the other place I want to go here in talking about the sustainable development goals and some of the positive momentum that we've seen,

14:36 - 15:06

we have observed and spent a lot of time with women who are philanthropists. And when I spoke to Andrea Pactor, who's the head of the Women's Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University, one of the big areas of research and focus for her has been identifying the fact that women philanthropists are focusing more on giving back to women and girls. And I was curious if you have seen that same trend in your own area of focus.

15:06 - 15:28

Absolutely. I think the studies here are compelling and encouraging, and I've seen the percentages as high as 88 percent of women philanthropists want to dedicate the bulk of their resources to social good. The Indiana University has done some critical research in this area, though.

15:28 - 15:59

And you probably also discussed the fact that despite all the rhetoric around gender equality, only something like 1.6 percent of all charitable giving in the United States goes to gender equality, and about 90 percent of that is focused on reproductive health, which, of course, is a crucial part of that. But still, 1.6 is pitiful. So I want your listeners to consider that there's a lot more rhetoric about advancing gender equality than there are real dollars in philanthropy.

16:00 - 16:26

So those women who are dedicated to directing their funds towards gender equality, we need them now. Melinda Gates has set the bar pretty high for us with her announcement last year of dedicating one billion dollars over 10 years to gender equality in the United States. So we need a lot more of women who are women philanthropists to follow in her footsteps.

16:26 - 16:48

You beat me to it. I was certainly going to ask about her and that news was incredibly newsworthy, as has her book and book tour. I think she has certainly raised the profile of giving to women and girls. I would hope that we would see progress as a result. But that 1.6 percent, I did not know that statistic. So that is very low indeed.

16:48 - 17:15

And then we have also found, whether it's the statistics in the moment of lift or elsewhere, that in addition to inequality being an issue, literacy, and I mean, you mentioned 100 million girls not in school. That's basic literacy. But then you start to take it a step farther and you talk about gender inequality around financial literacy, which continues to expand the problem.

17:15 - 17:41

We know the statistics are very supportive of the fact that women, even if they are as financially literate as their male counterparts, they don't think they are. They have this confidence gap and it holds them back. And that exaggerates that inequality over time because they're fearful of making decisions that are the wrong decisions, not investing, not investing enough, not investing frequently enough, not investing in higher risk asset classes, et cetera.

17:41 - 18:06

So that was really one of the great reasons that I wanted to launch this conversation on women and wealth to help women engage and to break those gender norms around not talking about money and not talking about financial decision-making. So long story short, obviously, something we feel very passionately about, but how do you feel about this issue of financial literacy and do you see that same inequality challenge?

18:06 - 18:19

Absolutely. And let's start with the basics. Globally, girls and women are more likely to be illiterate. So even setting aside financial literacy, girls and women are less likely to just be illiterate overall.

18:19 - 18:54

So that's a baseline challenge. In addition to that, there are discriminatory laws all over the world that limit their ability to control financial assets. So in many cases, she can't inherit the land that she's working, or she cannot get a savings account, or she has to have permission to sign a contract. Or there are countries that have laws that prevent her from seeking equal employment with men. And then on top of that, there's the pay gap that is persistent and of varying degrees all over the world.

18:54 - 19:22

And then we have found that in the past there's been some really good studies about this. And certainly you and your colleagues are experts on this, that financial services and financial information hasn't necessarily been tailored to reach women or to serve women. And so all these things conspire to keep women in a position where they have less kind of financial literacy or agency over their finances or their financial potential.

19:22 - 19:49

I have been really encouraged over the past couple of years to see that the tide is turning in this regard and that a financial services firm such as AllianceBernstein are figuring out how to harness women's economic potential and to give them equal footing in the financing realm. And I think those firms that are not doing that are obviously missing an enormous wave of capital that women control.

19:49 - 20:18

And that has been the biggest demographic shift that we've seen in just trillions of dollars that women are exerting decision making influence over, and how they got there to exert that influence. That's what's changed, and so I think, you know, if we're going to get close to ending our conversation on a more positive note, because you shared so many depressing statistics about women, they can't drive, own land, have the right to inherit.

20:18 - 20:32

Right. Those are terrifying and so unfair. I would say, again, on the positive front, what has occurred is that more women are the breadwinners. Women are living longer.

20:32 - 21:02

And a combination of those two facts has led women to really have decision-making power over the largest pool of capital they have ever had in the world. And as you point out, enormous differences, geographically, enormous differences, where there are countries that it's very normal for the women to be the breadwinner and there are countries where it is not. So it is, I find, always very interesting to see how the societal norms vary enormously around the world.

21:02 - 21:11

I consider it one of the harder parts of my job to reiterate some of those more discouraging data points about gender equality.

21:12 - 21:27

But I have found, especially recently, and certainly in more secure economies, there's almost a polite satisfaction that we are going to evolve to gender equality over time and without any of us summoning our courage or breaking a sweat.

21:27 - 21:49

And so I have increasingly been telling the truth about what the data tells us and what the reality is like, what the lived experiences of women are like everywhere in the world, because we need to summon all the energy and effort that we can to break this cycle of inaction and to get us to a better place and with all due speed.

21:49 - 22:06

So it's often not fun, but I'm trying to interrupt that polite satisfaction that this is all going to work out or the notion that we've already solved this problem, because certainly the optics are far more reassuring. You have women running countries, women running companies, women running for president.

22:06 - 22:40

It is let people believe that this is a problem that we're solving and aggressively. And the truth is that we're not. So I'm an optimist at heart and one who thinks that the best way to get to where we want to go is to tell people the truth and to kind of summon some of their courage and their sense of justice. So I appreciate you letting me do that, even though it's definitely one of the less fun aspects of my job. Well, you're so right. It needs to be done. Polite satisfaction hasn't gotten us far enough. So #EqualEverywhere is the campaign.

22:40 - 22:57

We are very proud to be partnering with the United Nations on this in March. We are excited about amplifying the message that the progress has been slow and far from enough. When nearly 100 million girls are not in school right now.

22:58 - 23:23

You take the wage gap, the caregiving gap, the financial literacy gap, and you multiply all of that, it is clear that action needs to be taken. So, Michelle, thank you very much again for joining me today. Is there anything else you want to leave our listeners with before we close? Yes, inequality is a choice and we could stop making that choice. And I hope everyone listening will join us in that effort. Thank you again for that.

23:23 - 23:45

Thank you all for joining us today. You can find me on LinkedIn. You can reach us the old fashioned way of WomenAndWealth@ Bernstein.com, or on Twitter at BernsteinPWM. Bernstein: Making money meaningful for individuals, families, and foundations for over 50 years. Visit us at Bernstein.com.

Beata Kirr
Co-Head—Investment & Wealth Strategies

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