The world is not on track to achieve gender equality by 2030. The Human Development Report’s Gender Inequality Index (GII)—a measure of women’s empowerment in health, education and economic status—shows that overall progress in gender inequality has been slowing in recent years. For instance, based on current trends, it would take 257 years to close the gender gap in economic opportunity. The number of female heads of government is lower today than five years ago, with only 10 women in such positions among 193 countries (down from 15 in 2014).

Why is progress towards some aspects of gender equality getting slower and more difficult? Are there hidden dimensions of gender inequality? To explore these questions, the 2019 Human Development Report argues that progress towards gender equality is confronting moving targets and inequality traps, with disadvantaged groups catching up with basic achievements, but trailing in more empowering enhanced achievements.

The backlash against changing gender roles in households, workplaces and politics affects entire societies influenced by shifting power relations. The resistance to changes in gender expectations may lead to a perceived clash and reveal subconscious biases. But remember: even norms can be shifted towards gender equality.

Social norms are central to the understanding of these dynamics. For example, societies often tell their girls that they can become anything they want and are capable of, while investing in their education. But the same societies tend to block their access to power positions without giving them a fair chance. Globally almost 50 percent of people say they think men make better political leaders, while more than 40 percent feel that men make better business executives—a social judgement, just for being a woman, an invisible barrier and an affront to fairness and real meritocracy.