Women and Men, Be Bold for Change

I was about to send a Happy International Women’s Day post in Facebook and tag those women from my friends list who have had the greatest impact on me, or whom I admire the most. But the more women I tagged, the more names popped into my mind and I noticed I admire almost all the women I know!

The power of women to break through the glass ceilings, to keep pushing through and conquer countless obstacles in a world that is still vastly run and made for men, is astonishing. Women hold the power to change the world. For better, for all. And we need men to take our side on this.

I’m in love with an amazing man, have a great dad and brother for family role models and been blessed with many male friends throughout my life. Many male government and business leaders and celebrities have also proven worthy of admiration in their quests to use their power for the better of all. I firmly believe in the greatness of men – but equally to that of the women. And there’s definitely space for more men to take more action to support a more equal world.

Despite many positive developments, women are still being oppressed all around the world. I’m not just referring to the obvious human rights violations but to the oppression women generally face, everywhere. In EU, a Polish MEP recently said “Of course women must earn less than men because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent”. That’s 2017 for you. And Hillary’s loss in the US elections was widely quoted as a perfect sample of a much more qualified woman losing a job to a much less qualified male. Simplified, but speaks the reality. In the company I work for, 75% of employees are women – but 75% of BOD men. Statistics that are actually on the positive side if compared globally, as most businesses are run by men, even if with a women-heavy workforce.

In our next forum, we will have a panel focusing on gender empowerment in food and agriculture sectors, where closing the gender gap would generate significant increase in yield and strengthen the socio-economic status of households of smallholder farmers. Typically we’ve found it difficult to find a man to speak about gender empowerment. I was pleased this year to be able to quickly find a business leader, a man, eager to speak about how they advance gender empowerment, along with the non-profits and women rights advocates to provide inputs and tools for the how to.

In social media a video is spreading about a girl on a bicycle, who rips off the side mirror of a van, after having had enough of the driver’s “cat-talk” – talking down on her and treating her as a sex-object. All the respect for her for having the balls to stand up for herself – many of us would be too shocked, scared or otherwise not ready to take action in such situation. Last week I also read a piece of news about a man who had harassed a woman in a bus by asking her to sit on his lap. She herself had been too overwhelmed in the situation to take action, but was lucky to find a supporter from among the other passengers. After hearing this man call for the woman repeatedly to take a seat on his lap, another guy stood up and “accepted” the invitation and sat on his lap, taking a humorous but protective action to help a woman in need.

It’s crucial for gender empowerment, to have more men advocating on women’s rights. That’s why UN Women are running their HeForShe campaign, and why all women rights’ organizations are looking for men advocates. Paul Polman from Unilever has tapped into an enormous business opportunity on the same, becoming in just a few years a world’s best known business leader speaking about women empowerment and showing how being a responsible business is good for the business.

The world is divided, not just between genders but between privileged and under-privileged. From transgender toilets, public mocking of disabled people, weakening of laws protecting women’s rights to their own bodies to the vast spread of hate-speeches, the world is increasingly forgetting why and how to love and appreciate differences.

The international women’s days theme for 2017, “Be bold for change”, reminds everyone to take action and stand up for those who need help and support, in which ever way they can. One doesn’t need to stand in front of a tank or take a bullet for someone else. Literally standing up, showing support begins with small everyday gestures. Whether a man or woman or other or a prefer-not-to-define – gender, be bold to support a positive change in the world.

 

 

All-Male Panels and the Gender goals

“Congratulations on an all-male panel”- is a satiric expression used in social media to bring attention to the lack of female speakers in international conferences. Having attended many and organized quite a few, I definitely acknowledge this problem and feel a pain in my chest every time I see one. Whether it’s one I just attend or one I’m organizing.

A colleague from a partner organization, a well-credited women’s right advocate, recently told me she attended a forum where all speakers were men. All. Mostly middle aged white men. When this was pointed out by an audience member in the Q&A, the facilitator’s response was to ask questions from only female members of the audience. “You are a woman, how do you think about the discussed issue”. You can imagine this made the already awkward and uncomfortable situation even worse. Ask a question from a woman just because of her gender?

Maybe the organizer of that event had just made an unintentional mistake, overlooked the gender balance or been extremely unlucky with last minute speaker changes. I don’t know.

Having organized events myself, I know just too well how difficult it is to achieve a gender balance in the speakers. I can’t speak for other organizations, but I know our team is 100% committed to aiming at full gender balance and that every member of the team is dedicated and eager to achieve it. We haven’t succeeded yet, but we try our very best. Every time we discuss a speaker, we discuss gender. There’s a huge cheer in the office each time we identify and confirm a female speaker, and we keep listing excellent women we hear of to add to our dream lists for speakers.

So why do we not achieve a 50-50 gender balance in the speaker line-up?

It should be obvious. There are relatively many more men in senior leadership and expert positions as there are women. Most (Asian) Ministers and senior government representatives are men. Even in the international developmental organizations a majority of leaders are men. And these are the people we target to speak in our forums. Decision makers, leaders, senior experts.

We try to tap into any and every opportunity to invite and confirm women speakers to all our panels. Sometimes we even need to be a little flexible with a level of seniority, or proven speaking skills, just to avoid an all-male panel. I can’t imagine any event organizer wanting an all-male panel and I know we work very hard to avoid them. That’s because we support gender equality. We support women rights and we believe women should have equal chances, equal pay, equal recognition. We want to do our part, but it isn’t easy. The world is still failing this, and so do we.

With our last forum, organized this week in Singapore, we pushed our team even harder than ever. Our internal ambition was to achieve a gender balance across the full forum, and at the minimum have at least 1 woman speaker in every panel. We organized 4 plenary level panels and 17 workshops, with over 100 speakers in the course of the 2 days, so it was a huge task to achieve. We also had to confirm a senior government representative for each workshop panel, and take notice of the balanced regional representation and level of seniority and speaking eloquence, in addition to the gender question.

We did not achieve a full gender balance, but 1/3 of our speakers were women. Two out of the 17 organized workshop panels were all-male – though in one of these, we had a brilliant woman confirmed but last minute the company made a change and sent a man instead due to her sudden unavailability. Still, we did not achieve our aim but we tried extremely hard and are proud of the efforts.

The issue of gender inequality has to be raised at every level, has to be fought with collaborative efforts at homes, in schools, in companies and organizations and in the governments. As Michelle Yeoh, actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador stated in her powerful speech at our forum, when gender equality is achieved, “everyone wins”. Gender equality doesn’t only bring benefits for women but it supports communities, boosts economic progress and improves company performance. These are proven facts yet we are far from achieving gender equality.

I don’t ever want to organize an all-male panel and neither does our team, but we need the governments, companies and organizations to appoint more women in senior positions and we need the women to agree and speak in our forums. We need collaboration to achieve full gender equality. Conferences give a good glimpse into the problems and level gender status, they can give a face to where the societies, governments and companies stand with achieving the gender goals. Hopefully in the near future the male-dominance turns into gender equality. Everywhere.

 

 

 

Athletes, who happen to be women

The Rio olympics have raised a lot of social media discussion on sexism and the way women’s achievements are reported and generally spoken of. The media still diminishes the achievements of female athletes – consistently. American Corey Cogdell-Unrein, who won bronze in the trap shooting, was in the press coverage referred to only in relation to her famous husband. Another athlete’s husband-coach was credited by a reporter to be responsible for her performance. Another gold medalist with a world record was a secondary news under a male silver-medalist from the same day.

In the Finnish media, the focus in the past days has been on the woman who’s the only medalist for us so far. A boxer with a story. She had only been training boxing for the fun of it, until at the ripe age of 28 and with 2 kids, her coach awoke her passion and she started taking the sport seriously. Disturbing was to see comments on her story undermining the stunning achievement, and the sarcastic requests to highlight men who are fathers as well. Of course mother and fatherhood are equally important but when talking about athletes, becoming a mother is a completely different challenge than becoming a father. Yet, it seems it’s not clear to all that a woman’s achievement and success story could for once be featured in media, instead of that of a man’s.

And what on earth is all this talk about women athletes hair-dos and make-up? Honestly it’s horrible that female athletes have to compete in their looks as well, as if that was more important than their actual performance. I’ve heard reporters in Rio have been actually having discussions on the gymnastics make-ups?

I’m glad the global sporting event is gaining attention to gender roles and equality, and hope the discussions continue past the games and beyond sports. Because in pretty much every field in life women are still lesser-valued than men.

In my current job, as we organize large international conferences, gender equality is a difficult topic. Namely, when inviting speakers our team wants to achieve full gender balance but struggles event after event in achieving the target. We have a certain level of seniority as a guideline for accepting a speaker, and it’s clearly how there are far fewer women in such roles than there are men. There are of course many brilliant women and excellent public speakers as well, but still too few to easily achieve 50-50 speaker balance from both genders. Only panels where all invited organizations / companies straight-forwardly nominate women are panels where gender equality or women empowerment is being discussed. And these are panels where we desperately want men to speak in.

At least, as Rio reporting failures and the responses to those are showing, world is slowly waking up to this. It’s no longer acceptable and “passable” to diminish women’s achievements or give the credit of their success to the men in their lives. Social media, keep it up. We all have a role to play – it ‘s never a funny joke to be sexist.