BBC names world’s most inspiring women

Pioneers: Women activists have led protests against war, climate change and bigotry.

Is gender equality ever going to happen? The BBC has announced its annual list of 100 amazing women. But a UN report finds that women everywhere are still treated much worse than men.

Waad al-Kateab fled Aleppo at the height of the Syrian Civil War with hundreds of hours of video footage. Some clips showed her everyday life, others showed bombs crashing through hospital roofs. In 2019 she turned them into For Sama, a crushing documentary about the horrors of the war, dedicated to her infant daughter.

At just 20, Ilwad Elman set up a centre to support victims of war in Somalia. Twenty-three-year-old Vanessa Nakate, from Uganda, has raised awareness about the effects of climate change on Africa. Indigenous activist Nemonte Nenquimo has fought to protect the rainforest in Ecuador.

What do these women have in common? They are all featured on the BBC’s “100 women” list for 2020. And alongside them, the BBC has honoured the “unsung hero”: a tribute to the millions of unnamed women who have worked tirelessly and made untold sacrifices to guide the world through the worst pandemic in a century.

Looking at this, many might think that women are finally being offered the same opportunities and rewards as men.

But a new report by the United Nations says otherwise. The move towards gender equality, which once seemed like an unstoppable tide, has stalled.

Today, just 20 countries out of 195 are led by a woman, and only 14 have an equal number of male and female cabinet ministers. Of all the world’s national representatives, 25% are women. The report estimates that at our current rate, it will take 95 years to achieve gender parity in political representation.

More worrying still, women across much of the world are still excluded from work. Only 47% of adult women work for a living, compared with 74% of men – a picture that has barely changed since 1995. Unless there is a dramatic shift, gender equality in the global labour market will take 257 years to achieve.

Equal pay remains a distant prospect in every country on the planet: it is estimated that if current patterns continue, women in Britain will not earn the same as men until 2052.

Women have also suffered disproportionately from the effects of Covid-19. On Saturday, research released by the Fawcett Society revealed that one-third of working mothers in the UK have lost work or working hours because they could not access childcare during the pandemic. Among women of colour, this figure rose to 44%.

This suggests that our failure to deal with the virus equitably might have turned back the tide on gender equality.

The news is not all bad: the last 25 years have seen remarkable progress in women’s education. In more than two-thirds of countries, girls now have equal access to primary schooling. It should take just 12 years to close this gap entirely.

However, women worldwide are still much less likely to go to university than men, which locks them out of better-paid jobs and deprives them of the opportunities for learning and self-realisation that their male counterparts enjoy.

So, is gender equality ever going to happen?

New a-gender

Yes, say some. They point out that women all over the world are organising, protesting, demanding an end to discrimination. Some countries have taken great strides towards gender equality in a relatively small amount of time. In certain areas, like education, we have made strong progress all over the world. We should never underestimate people’s power to achieve radical change.

No, say others. They suggest that we should not feel confident that gender inequality will be consigned to the dustbin of history. Many other things that we expected to die out with the passage of time, like religion and extreme political positions, have proved very resilient; the same might be true of gender inequality. And further crises like Covid-19 might actually push us backwards.

You Decide

  1. Which five women – relatives, friends or public figures – most inspire you?
  2. What does “equality” truly mean? What does it look like in practice?


  1. Think of the woman you admire most in the world, and write a paragraph explaining why she inspires you.
  2. Write a letter to your school magazine suggesting some ways in which gender equality could be advanced in the school.

Some People Say...

“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (1977 - ), Nigerian novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that the key to economic development is offering education and employment to women. Education benefits women directly: each additional year of schooling increases women’s wages by up to 20%. When women are able to get well-paid jobs they tend to delay having children, and to have fewer children overall. Their children are less likely to have to work themselves, and so can focus on their own education. The population becomes increasingly skilled, which brings economic benefits.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether gender inequality is common to all societies. Once it was thought that men gained power over women because, as hunters, they monopolised the food supply. But recent evidence proves that early women hunted alongside men. Some human societies offered more prominent roles to women: the ancient Scythians, in modern Siberia, had women warriors. In much of pre-colonial Africa, women had as much power as men, until European empires imposed their own gender norms.

Word Watch

A large city in Syria, and one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements in the world. It has been devastated by the Syrian civil war, and many of its people have fled the country.
A country in east Africa. Since 1991 it has been torn apart by civil war, and until 2012 it lacked even a central government.
United Nations
A supranational organisation set up after the World War Two to foster peace and co-operation between nations.
Cabinet ministers
In most countries, the leader of the government will appoint ministers to advise her or him, or to run particular departments of the state. These are often known as cabinet ministers.
Equal pay
The principle that the average working woman should earn the same amount as the average working man.
Fawcett Society
A British organisation devoted to achieving gender equality. It is named after Millicent Fawcett, one of the leading figures in the struggle for women’s right to vote in the UK.
An important philosophical and psychological concept. It means deciding how to live our own life, and fulfilling our potential in our own way.

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