Many hurdles remain on road to gender equality

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 March, 2010, 12:00am

Kathryn Bigelow's winning of the Academy Award for best director would seem a triumph for gender equality. Films are a reflection of society, and her crowning as the first woman to gain the accolade implies that one of the most visible barriers to the fight, Hollywood's 'celluloid ceiling', has been well and truly shattered. But reality, just as in the movies, is quite another matter. The film-making industry is indeed a mirror of the wider world - where fairness and balance between the sexes remains, in many countries, unattained.

Bigelow was only the fourth woman in the 82-year history of the Oscars to be nominated for best director. This should not be a surprise: few women manage to get to make their own movies. Of the top 250 highest grossing films in North America last year, only 7 per cent were directed by women. The imbalance extends through the top echelons of production in the industry.

Hollywood is in denial. So, too, are some governments when it comes to ensuring equal treatment for women and men, whether it be at home, at work, or in public life. Most administrations recognise they need to do more, but changes are coming about slowly. Without acceptance that problems still exist, there will be little focus on searching for solutions.

Bigelow's award for her Iraq action movie The Hurt Locker gave added impetus to International Women's Day. The annual UNco-ordinated event generally passes with little fanfare, but this year there seemed cause for celebration along with the American director. There was nothing coincidental about the occasions. Women must keep in mind that the award was not about gender - it was for directing.

The inequalities run deep in some societies. A report by the international human rights organisation Equality Now released last week highlighted 36 countries that still have laws that treat women as second-class citizens. They have neglected to scrap legislation regarding economic and personal status, marriage and violent acts such as rape. Women still cannot drive in Saudi Arabia, they need the permission of their husband or a male guardian to get a passport, and in Afghanistan, their movement outside the home is restricted and men are head of the household.

Circumstances are markedly better in China, where Mao Zedong said women held up half the sky. Nonetheless, they lag economically, professionally and politically. Laws state otherwise - they stress the equality of the sexes. But the top rank of authority is telling - all nine members of the ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee, are men.

Women fare better politically in Hong Kong, although their economic standing and ability to rise to the top of businesses is similarly impaired. The Equal Opportunities Commission on Monday highlighted a particularly worrying problem: companies sacking pregnant women so that they do not have to pay maternity leave. We do not expect such backward thinking in a developed society such as ours yet there are clearly plenty of bosses uneducated about the employment laws.

Like US President Barack Obama, Bigelow has made history. Another wall that once seemed so impenetrable has come down. This is not indicative of a marked change in the system, though; rather, it is about evolved attitudes. Women have made great progress in their struggle for fairness but governments still have much to do before equality can truly be claimed.