Feature & Comment
Reaching beyond the glass ceiling
On International Women’s Day, UN resident coordinator Shoko Noda offers a personal insight into issues of gender equality she has faced over the course of her personal and professional life.
From Japan to the Maldives: the Need to Empower Women
Halfway through fourth grade, I opened my report card and saw that my teacher had given me a C for ‘behavior’.
Understandably, it shocked my parents. I had always gotten top grades in class. I was taken aback too. It was when I got the same grade the following semester, and read my teacher’s remarks, that the truth dawned on me. My teacher had written: Shoko is finally improving her selection of words, and has started to behave more like a gentle girl.
I think among other things, I had upset the teacher by climbing trees with the boys during PE class. I was also quite independent-minded and expressed my views in maybe not-so-polite terms. My parents were quite happy when, with a new teacher for the next two years, I went back to getting A grades for good behaviour.
Time passed. It was my first day at my very first job. My boss asked me if I would continue working even after I got married. I said I would. I knew that he would not have asked the same question of a new male colleague. As the most junior female staff, I also had to serve tea to all colleagues in my unit in the mornings, who all arrived at different times.
In a male-dominated office, being served tea by a woman must have been an extension of their practices at home. This was continuing as a practice, without any questions asked, more than 30 years after the Equal Employment Opportunity Law had come into effect in Japan. Six months later, I mustered enough courage to suggest that this practice be discontinued. No one had the courage to argue with me on this.
These practices may be less evident in the modern-day workplace but the attitudes persist, discouraging perfectly capable and talented women from entering and thriving in the professional sphere. This leaves the world worse off – because we are denying half of humanity the opportunity to fulfil their potential. And if we must quantify this value in economic terms, here it is: the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that globally, an additional US$1.6 trillion in output could be generated by reducing the gap in employment between women and men.
Twenty years since that first job, my work has taken me miles away from Japan to the beautiful shores of the Maldives. Even though our cultures are very different, I witness many events that resonate deeply with me. In almost all my meetings, coffee is served by women, and most of my national counterparts who sit at the table in leadership roles are men.
In the field, I hardly meet women, especially young girls, in my meetings with councils, CSOs and youth advocates. The 2014 census showed that despite achieving better grades than boys in secondary education, fewer than half the women of working age in the Maldives have paid jobs. Even if a young woman is educated and qualified, cultural and social barriers prevent them from seeking jobs away from home. In the end, many girls end up accepting the narrative that they must choose between a career and a family, and they go ‘missing’ in all arenas of public life because of the weight of traditions that deny choices to women.
I do see hope all around me though. Last year, during International Women’s Day, I was inspired to meet some young Maldivian girls who when asked what they wanted to be had answers like defence minister, hotel manager and political leader. At that age, I wouldn’t even have thought of such a career path.
Sometimes I wonder what my fourth-grade teacher and first boss would think of my current position. They made me realise that as a girl in school or as a woman at work, we face not only glass ceilings, but glass walls that try to box us in. We are confined within a box of traditional and societal norms, which is more difficult to change than introducing a new equal opportunity law.
I am also encouraged by the positive backing I have received, both from my female and male colleagues, as well as my parents, my husband, who pushed me to break the glass ceiling and wall. I strongly believe that we have to support each other – irrespective of our gender, to dream big and achieve our goals in life. If we are to take one message from the Sustainable Development Goals, it is that we will not leave girls or boys behind. Let us smash the glass walls that surround us, and reach far beyond any ceiling.
Shoko Noda is the UN Resident Coordinator, UNDP Resident Representative and UNFPA Representative in the Maldives.
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