By Katherine Williams and David Jones

“Women hold up half the sky” 

(Traditional Chinese Proverb)

This summer, fifty years after Lieutenant John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, Lieutenant Liu Yang became the first Chinese woman in space.  Her mission as a pilot on the Shenzhou 9 craft  is the latest step in China’s plans to have a fully operational space station by 2020.

As a national statement of intent, of literally universal ambition, it could hardly be more powerful.

As a global statement of female empowerment, it’s equally resonant.

2012 has been a landmark year for the cause of gender parity, with technological innovation driving progress across continents and time zones.   In many parts of Africa, cultural restrictions have given female entrepreneurs little or no chance to develop business ideas.  It’s not unusual for African businesswomen to be forbidden by their husbands to travel long distances, limiting their customer base to their immediate surrounding area. But technological breakthroughs are increasing opportunities without causing damaging culture clashes. In July, the number of internet users in Africa passed the one billion mark. For the first time, the continent’s businesswomen can offer a service across distances and borders. The social and economic standing of Africa’s women is long overdue for a boost, and it may well be getting one.

The social and economic standing of British women is not in doubt, and this has been repeatedly underlined in 2012.  International Women’s Day has been observed for almost exactly a century, and each year the date of March 8th sees a global celebration of political, social and economic accomplishments.  This year Britain was host to almost a third of the global celebrations, with 457 separate events paying tribute to a country and a culture that continues to become more inclusive and meritocratic.

It could be argued that the most powerful assertion of gender parity this country has seen took place in London for seventeen glorious days between July 27th and August 12th.   The 30th summer Olympics were a landmark for women in sport and in society.  For the first time, women competed side by side with men in all event categories. Boxing and taekwondo, the final additions to the womens’ event roster, were memorably contested by young British challengers who became instant national sporting icons.  The public reaction to Nicola Adams’s flyweight boxing gold medal, and Jade Jones’s taekwondo win made it clear that female participation in these events, for so long not tolerated, is now something to be celebrated.  Women made up 48 per cent of Team GB, and for the first time the United States Olympic team had more women than men.

Perhaps the greatest progress came from nations with lesser reputations for fairness and tolerance. Saudi Arabia put forward two female competitors, sixteen year old Wojdan Shaherkani in judo and nineteen year old Sarah Attar in the women’s 800 metres. Attar drew attention for wearing running kit which covered her body entirely and clearly hampered her performance.  But her presence was far more significant than her attire.  Decisions are made by those who turn up. Minds are changed by those who take action.  Sarah Attar turned up. She took action. She changed minds and she influenced decisions.  This is how the world changes. Little by little, step by courageous step.

One common factor for women throughout the developing world is that language skills can empower them socially and economically. At Wolfestone we believe in empowering our clients, our partners, our friends, to communicate as effectively as possible across all physical and cultural borders.

Learn a second language, embrace a second culture. See what the world has to offer beyond the borders that have restricted earlier generations.

Women hold up half the sky, and in 2012 more and more women have been allowed to rise without restriction and reach for the sky. Future generations may remember this as the year when women competed on their own terms and won. When China, a country often associated with restriction of individual freedom, honoured a female astronaut on her merits and sent her soaring to the heavens.

We hope and believe that the 21st century will belong to those people and those nations who communicate most effectively, who value their citizens and encourage all of them to fulfil their potential, regardless of gender or ethnicity.  That’s the way to a better future, in any language.

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  • Roger Cottrell

    Great article and you’re doing a great job.

  • Ian Hayter

    The Saudi Arabian athlete running the 800 metres in London was high profile & a big step forward. She got some ridiculous criticism in her own country for competing but as you say she turned up and did it, and that’s how you move things forward. Very good to see. Nice one.

  • This is a really interesting blog and shows how much the world has changed in it’s attitude to women in sport,business and shows how the world is changing albeit slowly in some areas but still improving. In the UK sometimes we do not understand the difficulties facing other women to gain recognition and gain independence and freedom. Living in France and learning another language and way of life is liberating and everyone should have the opportunity.

  • Very well written text and nice to pay the tribute to women all over the world and especially from developing countries, more and more to be reached and accomplished but every step counts….thanks

  • Martin Geraghty

    I like your optimism David and it is largely justified by the steps forward we’re seeing. I wonder if I’ll live to see genuine equality for Africa’s businesswomen or Saudi Arabia’s female athletes?

  • “This is how the world changes. Little by little, step by courageous step.”… few words that offer an excellent summary. Great article Katherine and David. 😉

  • It’s amazing to see how women are conquering the world and gaining more influence in all parts of our society: sports, politics and even in space. Your article gave an excellent overview about women’s situation today. Well done!

  • Thanks for your comments, we do appreciate them. I am optimistic but I like to think I’m also clear sighted. If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step then it’s pragmatic to acknowledge how far we have to go but it’s also reasonable to celebrate that first step.

    Condoleezza Rice was born into a society in which black people had to give up their seats on the bus for whites, and women of any ethnic origin were viewed as workplace ornaments. By her late forties she was the US National Security Adviser and by her early fifties she was Secretary of State. It didn’t happen overnight, for her or for the United States. Some of the steps were painful and some of them were divisive, but little by little we can make the changes that allow people to be judged on their merits.

    By the way, the driving force behind this article was my colleague Katherine Williams. Her work is always insightful and imaginative and you can read plenty more of it at this excellent site:

    http://booksandting.wordpress.com/about/

    All the best for the remainder of the weekend and for a happy and productive September.

  • Amita Sharma

    I like this article and I also like the opinion that people should rise on their merits. In India for example we are still seeing insufficient numbers of women represented in higher echelons but there are role models who are making it to the top of the corporate world and all saying the same thing about their achievement.

    Do not give me pity as a woman, do not give me special favours as a woman, accept that I am as tough as you and as competent as you and judge me on that standard. Role models such as Anjali Bansal and Chanda Kochhar do not ask for favours, they are demanding respect on merits. I have heard it say that a woman can’t play the “woman card”. She must play the cards of her own strength and talent. This is a good philosophy.

  • This is a good article and the writing is persuasive as always but it is true to say we still have a long way to go. In the recent survey of equal opportunites for women over 134 countries Romania was ranked 67 which is exactly halfway, so the same distance between the enlightened where you have an equal chance and the dark places where you have oppression. This half way place is accurate – there is a big debate about our election this year and which is now announced for December 9. What is disappointing to me but not a surprise is that womens equality is not an election subject worthy of discussion. It is not in anyones agenda. I think you are right to say Britain is a more enlightened place and my experience of British business men – for example you David – is of a respect for merit without thought of discrimination. Britain is much more advanced in this sense than some other places so it is okay for you to be proud of your society. It is also okay for you to be proud of your colleague because I looked at her web site and she is a very good writer. Thank you Katherine and David for a good article.

  • Vanessa Horn

    Now that we’re living in the 21st century, I think the time for an equality of genders has come. The majority of countries already understood and accepted this, but there are still some nations remaining that didn’t. Again, the Olympic Games have shown how the coexistence of different people could work – and how it should. In my point of view, every person, regardless of the origin, financial capabilites, gender etc. has to be treated equally in the interests of a peaceful communal life. Anyways, I think it’s an excellent article again!

  • Let us be happy that the big events of the year are showing progress. In the Olympics Sara Attar was not dressed perfectly for the race but she ran in the race and this is most important. I have heard examples about women athletes from some parts of Africa who had to fight to represent at the major events, but who became champions for themselves and for all women. Now we have a situation where women can compete in all the same things as men and more countries have women who are free to be leaders in politics and commerce. This is a good year for equality.

  • Silke Lührmann

    Considering that only a hundred years ago, women didn’t even have the right to vote in this country, it’s truly remarkable how far we’ve come (and how superior we’ve become in our attitudes to the “developing world” …)

  • Richard Crampton

    This is a well written and insightful piece highlighting many of the areas in which we have made strides in equality this year. We should celebrate these achievements, whilst also making sure we don’t take an overly condescending stance when dealing with equality issues in the developing world. It is, after all, only over the last half a century that we have made real lasting progress in gender equality. It is our responsibility and our challenge as a developed nation to do everything we can to drive forward this agenda in these countries whilst respecting sovereignty and cultural identity.

    The case of Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar competing for Saudi Arabia highlights yet again the positive influence the Olympic Movement has had over the years in attempting to change world attitudes for the better: whether it be highlighting human rights abuses in Tibet in the run-up to Beijing 2008 or the iconic Black Power salute at the Mexico City games in 1968. Long may this tradition continue, and let’s hope that even more women will be competing in Rio 2016 for nations where women have traditionally been denied the right to compete.

  • Laura Sapate

    The role of the woman , prejudice, traditions,stereotypes, languages…an inspiring and philosophical article! Thanks to the blog writers for showing respect and honour to females worldwide, empowering women today and making the world more human. This reminds me about hard times for the women in the Soviet Union and how it has changed after Latvia gained independence.
    Of course – any foreign language is an important key that opens the door to a new and exciting world for everyone!

  • a very inspiring and positive article. great job, Katherine!

  • Ian Hayter

    Viktorija, you mention African women who had to fight for the right to compete and the best example I can think of is Boulmerka of Algeria, who won titles in the early 1990s that brought huge credit to her people and herself, but was vilified by some people in her home country. She stood up, became a champion and a role model for all women (and all athletes) and now 20 years later more are following.

  • Lisa Jones

    This is an impressive and well-presented argument and it’s good to look at the overall developments in equality in year, beyond the immediate impact of the olympics.

    I’ll be following the blog.

  • Judy Mulgrew

    Sport can bring us together an elevate us or it can highlight our differences. Many African women were shocked by the plans for the start of the World Soccer Cup when it was proposed to sacrifice live animals in the stadiums. Personally I was horrified. It showed the worst of our culture. The best of our culture is seen when people can be judged on their character and effort, and I believe we are moving forward. Like you stay, small steps at a time, but a step forward is a step forward.

  • Gita Rojan

    The point about Condoleeza Rice is important. I was not an admirer of the administration she served in but I am an admirer of the social mobility which allowed her to achieve these things. In the USA, for over 200 years of independence there was never a woman Secretary of State or a black Secretary of State. Then we have a woman in 1996, a black man in 2001 and in 2005 we have both groups in representation with Ms Rice having this prestigious role, awarded to her on her considerable merits. Perhaps this has paved the way for a black man to be elected President in 2008? I hope it also paves the way for a woman President in the near future.

  • Adele Marinescu

    Ian you are referring to Hassiba Boulmerka and I saw her win the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics. She is an important symbol for women and even more since she stopped running, because she is now a senior ambassador for world sport and can influence more people all over the world. This is a good example of someone who carried on their work from one career into another and is still making the difference. Bravo Boulmerka!

  • I think we have our answers and our role models. Condoleezza Rice was born into a society that expected her to content herself with menial tasks, but she rose on her merits to become one of the most influential and respected diplomatic figures on the planet. Hassiba Boulmerka was born into a society that threatened and harassed her for daring to compete for her country, but she fought and won, both on and off the track, to become a leading ambassador for global sport. Who knows what we’ll be saying about the careers of Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar twenty years from now?

    I’d like to say a sincere thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking responses to this article. They really are very much appreciated.

  • Dorcas Hove

    Three years ago, South Africa’s Caster Semenya was subjected to global scrutiny and humiliation over her gender. She was forced out of the competition for a year until she was cleared to compete by the athletics gurus

    Her perseverance paid off. This year, the 21 year old finished second in the women’s 800 metres athletics final at the London Olympics, winning a silver medal.