Tipping points for women

Are women really advancing? In Africa, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has set them back, while in India, pregnant women so prefer boys they abort half a million females a year. Yet Monday, Liberia inaugurated Africa's first woman president, while on Sunday, Chile elected the first woman leader in Latin America who didn't rise to power on her husband's reputation.

In richer nations, too, the report card on women's progress is mixed.

Germany elected its first female chancellor last year, and Norway has started a bold experiment to require the top 500 private companies to have 40 percent of their governing boards be women over the next two years. This quota system, designed to break a corporate "glass ceiling," is being tried in a Nordic country where 16 percent of company directors are already women, and a third of parliamentary members and about half of the cabinet are female.

But in Britain, which saw a powerful female prime minister during the 1980s, a report by the nation's Equal Opportunities Commission says gender equality in public life is "decades away." Only about 10 percent of senior positions in large companies and law enforcement are held by women, while the pace for women in Parliament is so slow that equality may take a couple centuries. About 20 percent of MPs are women. Progress for women in US politics has been similarly slow.

In Britain, as in America, there's a recognition that discrimination plays less of a role in women's progress in public life as more women tip the balance in favor of motherhood over careers in what's called "choice feminism." These "choices," however, are often dictated by the high cost of day care or its unavailability.

In Japan, workplace discrimination against women still remains strong, despite a 1985 law against it. But now that nation, with its low birth rate, faces a labor shortage as it ages rapidly, and the government is pushing new measures to encourage mothers to return to work after childbirth (more than two-thirds don't). The new measures would grant more work flexibility for such returning workers, improve day care, and support women entrepreneurs. (Japan is also moving to allow a female monarch because no male heir to the throne has been born for 40 years.)

The Arab world has only recently begun to recognize the untapped potential of women as leaders. Iraq's new Constitution required every third candidate in the recent election to be a woman and that its parliament be 25 percent female. But the charter also gives a primary role to Islam in writing new laws and the right for religious sects to run "family courts" deciding such issues as child custody.

By many measures, from politics to poverty, women still have a long way to go toward equality and upliftment. The world last put a big spotlight on women's progress at the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women in China. More than a decade later, that progress shows up in unexpected places, such as the elections in Liberia and Chile. Those elections are worth celebrating, but they should also refocus efforts in areas where women aren't breaking through traditional barriers.

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