Gender equality: still an uphill battle in international forums

Note: I am attending the ITU Council 2016 meeting as a member of the Australian delegation; however, any of the views I express in this blog post are entirely my own. This post does not reflect the official Australian position, nor is its content endorsed in any way by the Australian government.

A step forward for gender equality

For the first time in its 151-year history, ITU Council has women in both its Chair and Vice Chair positions. Julie Zoller, USA, is Chair while Dr Eva Spina, Italy, is Vice Chair. There has been a female Chair of Council once in the past ( Lyndall Shope-Mafole, South Africa, 1999) but this is the first time both lead roles have been filled by women. In addition, the Secretary of the Plenary Meeting and Steering Committee is also female: Doreen Bogdan-Martin (ITU secretariat).

In her opening statement as Chair, Zoller stated:

“As we begin the 2016 session of Council, I would like to thank you for the confidence you have placed in me and in the vice chairperson of the Council, Dr Eva Spina of Italy.  You have elected us from among the 48 councilors, which is a vote of confidence for our leadership and a sign of progress for gender equality.  This is the first time that both the chair and the vice-chair of Council are women, and we are making history together.  I would particularly like to thank my administration as well as my beloved region, the Americas, for your support.

She also, unlike many of her male counterparts who have often urged Member States to reach positions of compromise that makes everyone equally unhappy, suggested a more positive approach to the Council’s work:

“We must lead by example and commit to bring forth the best results, with everyone equally happy. “

The election of women to the two key positions of Council is amazing progress, given at ITU Plenipotentiary 2014, none of the top elected positions (Secretary-General, Deputy Secretary-General, Directors of the three sectors) were won by women.

And then the alarming inevitability of a sexist joke

But there is still much to be done. Even well-meaning men still frequently display an inherent bias against women. This was demonstrated after Zoller and Spina were elected, with the usual “jokes” about gender bias now happening in the other direction (after a century and a half of men in those positions, three women this year apparently equates to a takeover by women). Such comments were meant to be funny, but offended a number of the women in the room.

Inherent sexism is still a widespread issue, even in places that advocate gender equality

The comments in the opening plenary reflect the inherent sexism that still exists in many men (and indeed, in many women, too). It’s this inherent sexism that is the biggest barrier to successfully achieving gender equality in ITU and elsewhere. As long as three women in high-up positions are considered so unusual that it warrants an official blog post but the regular appointment of all men to similar positions is considered situation normal, a state of real gender equality is still a long way off.

This is a not a problem specific to ITU. It is a problem with many other UN agencies, too. Two weeks ago, I was frustrated by the number of all-male panels (also known as ”manels”) at the CSTD 19th Session in Geneva. When I raised the issue on the second day with a member of the secretariat, the response was that they had invited a woman (one??) for the first day, but she hadn’t shown up. In other words, the token woman was to blame – not the fact that there hadn’t been more effort on the part of the organizers to consider gender balance when developing the panels. In frustration, when the last manel occurred, not knowing how else I could lodge my objection (calling out the manels on Twitter wasn’t effective) I decided to protest by not live tweeting the discussion. If men were not going to involve women – even when some of the discussion was about the gender divide – then why should I, as a woman, give them legitimacy by tweeting their one-sided conversation?

I am also aware of female delegates on government delegations being pawed and being the targets of attempts at sexual coercion by senior members of other government delegations at UN meetings and associated social events. These cases often go unreported, as the women don’t want to cause a diplomatic incident between their country and that of the perpetrator.

It also is a problem outside the UN. At the most recent ICANN meeting, a member of the community stated that she had been sexually harassed by another member of the community. Due to a combination of circumstances that I won’t go into here, the ombudsman was not able to continue the investigation. But what was extremely telling about the prevalence of inherent sexism in the community was the way that many members of the community (mostly men) made fun of, and continue to make fun of, the details of the claim. I had a previous experience with the person alleged to have harassed the woman, but had said nothing when it happened because, to be honest, as a woman, inappropriate touching and comments happen pretty much daily, and at a certain point, it just becomes too tiresome to point out to each and every man who behaves in such a way why his behaviour is inappropriate. There were only so many times that I could handle being told I can’t take a joke/am imagining things/frigid/a slut before I decided it wasn’t worth the effort of challenging these bozos any more.

Unfortunately, if I had chosen to challenge the person at ICANN way back when it happened to me, he may have adjusted his behaviour and it may have prevented the young woman at the latest ICANN meeting feeling she had been placed in a difficult situation. But I didn’t, and now, if other women are harassed, having seen how this latest woman was made fun of, they may also think twice about reporting the behaviour.

What’s the way forward?

Gender equality is a very complex topic, but here are a few ways to help counter the specific issues I’ve discussed above.

  • No more token women. No more blaming of token women who don’t show up for panels and reveal the true “manel” focused nature of the panel selection process.
  • No more celebration when a woman or two manage to break through the gender barriers to reach positions of authority. Let’s stop treating such situations as out of the ordinary and start expecting them to be routine.
  • Shame manels. Submit them to this Tumblr blog.
  • Recognize that none of these excuses can in any way justify a manel.
  • Call out inappropriate behaviour each time it happens. Men, too, should call out other men who behave inappropriately. Men (and women) who have internalized sexist attitudes need to be made aware of their biases every time it happens. Ignoring it will just allow it to continue.
  • Stop defending all-male management by saying “there were no qualified women”. Start making sure women have the opportunity to progress their careers. Understand the reasons women find it difficult to rise through the ranks at the same rate as their male counterparts (career interruptions to have children, cultural expectations that women not be as assertive as men, etc.)

 

IGF 2015 on fire!

IGF 2015 in João Pessoa got off to a red-hot start, literally and figuratively. The first shuttle buses of the day at 7:45 am were filled to capacity, with the informal Day Zero of IGF now no less important than the rest of the week. 21 sessions were held on Monday, 9 November, on topics as diverse as Italy’s Internet Bill of Rights, gender and the Internet, and the United Nation’s 10-year review of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS+10).  Many sessions were so crowded that it was standing room only. Despite this, the corridors of the IGF venue were filled with yet more participants catching up, meeting for the first time, and debating topics on a more personal level.

IGF has even fired up the residents of João Pessoa, with taxi drivers now adding a new topic of conversation to their repertoire. After a conversation about the importance of the Internet, one taxi driver paused thoughtfully before asking an IGF participant, “Is IGF important at a global level?”  Well, clearly the 1800 or so people who’ve descended on João Pessoa over the last couple of days think it is.

Putting out a small fire caused by an overheated light.

Local host staff put out a small fire caused by an overheated light.

Day Zero ended with a literal fire, when a light became overheated. The local host staff quickly and calmly evacuated the building. Sometimes, it really does take an actual fire to stop Internet governance enthusiasts from talking all night.

Everyone is back again tomorrow to continue the heated discussions on a variety of topics.

“It’s complicated”: A lesson in trying to summarize discussions in 140 characters…

… And then other people trying to summarize multiple 140-character tweets in a single tweet

Yesterday, I tweeted from a meeting session where some of the comments made in the room were too complex to summarize in a single 140-character tweet. When this happens, I use multiple tweets to summarize the comment, using “1/2”, “2/2” to show that a tweet is part of a series. But sometimes even then, it’s not possible to capture the exact words of someone in 140-character bursts that make any sense. When that happens, I try to find shorter alternative words, which invariably can slightly change the nuance of the person’s original comments. Often, I receive compliments from the speaker for summarizing in 140 characters what took them a much longer speech to explain. Sometimes I get it plain wrong. When that happens, I retweet corrections sent to me via Twitter, or tweet corrections that people make at the microphone.

As usual, people who aren’t in the meeting room follow my tweet stream to follow the room discussions. In yesterday’s case, a person summarized some of my tweeted summaries in a single tweet. A couple of others objected to the secondhand summary, resulting in the summarizer trying to direct quote from my original tweets to explain where the summarizer had got the information from. Unfortunately, in summarizing the summaries, the original text was edited, but without the edits being clearly identified. In 140 characters, this is hard to do, of course. Compounding the issue, and spurring me to write this short post, was the fact that the discussion moved from Twitter to email, where the summarizer included text from my original tweets in direct quotation marks, but again with edits made  but not noted (I assume the summarizer made the edits in an effort to make the content clearer in the context of the emails). If the original email exchange had remained the quick and dirty exchange between the debating parties, I wouldn’t be posting this. Unfortunately, the email exchange was then cross-posted to a few mailing lists, which has resulted in people, who had neither read my original tweets nor were in the actual meeting discussion, coming up to me and asking me what was going on.

As a freelancer who relies on a reputation of being a neutral source of information and analysis, for the record, I feel compelled to publish my original unedited tweets. The debate that resulted from the summary of my summary tweets is between the parties involved, and I have no wish to become involved in that discussion. Therefore, I am not naming the parties or mailing lists involved. It’s really not of any interest to the purpose of this post or to anyone outside the debate. I also take full responsibility for my original tweets. If I summarized in a way that misinterpreted the original comment, the error is mine alone.

Lessons learned

  1. Attempts to neutrally summarize what is going on can still be interpreted and used in very different ways. If possible, it might be useful that when people (including me) tweets their own conclusions based on content from someone else’s tweets, to also retweet the original tweets in their entirety. Alternatively, when summarizing or rephrasing the original tweets, be sure to use “[]” (often used in editing or academic circles) around any and all new text that may be added in an effort to provide clarity or further information not present in the original tweets.
  2. What can start off as a small discussion on email can easily be CCed to other mailing lists, archived forever, and have third parties wondering what on earth it’s all really about. So before dashing off a reply, thinking it’s only got a lifespan of minutes, think of it as living somewhere on teh Interwebs forever.
  3. Communication in any medium is subject to ambiguities and reuse. That’s life.

When I have time, I’ll update my Twitter guide based on what I’ve learned.

The WSIS+10 HLE 6th MPP meeting and its aftermath

I was partly wrong and partly right when I blogged previously about how I thought the sixth and final Multistakeholder Preparatory Platform (MPP) for the WSIS+10 High Level Event (HLE) would happen. I was wrong in thinking the meeting would go well into the night: it actually only lasted 2.5 hours, finishing just before 4:30 pm. I was right, though, in believing that the fundamental political differences that prevented the fifth MPP meeting from reaching consensus on Action Lines C5, C8 and C9 would also be difficult to overcome in the sixth meeting.

Activities between the fifth and sixth MPP meetings

On the morning before the sixth MPP meeting began, the word in the corridors was that a series of bilateral meetings had resulted in all States agreeing to accept UNESCO’s compromise text on Action Line 9, Media. That agreement was said to have included even the States from the fifth MPP meeting that had been reluctant to accept language about freedom of expression (without mentioning “responsibilities”), a reference to new types of media production (the argument being that “bloggers” and “social media producers” have not been formally recognized media types in any UN resolutions), and gender equality (facepalm, facepalm, facepalm). The pre-meetings also included States that wanted more vigorous language about freedom of expression and protecting the safety of journalists and that didn’t want to add “and men” to text about encouraging equal opportunities and the active participation of women in the media.

UNESCO’s proposed compromise text is included below:

“Media will benefit from the broader and expanded role of ICTs that can enhance media’s contribution to fulfilling the post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda.

The right of freedom of expression, as described in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is essential for media’s role in information and knowledge societies.

  • Recall the Geneva Declaration of Principles, para 55, which describes the role of media in the Information Society;
  • Affirm that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, and that this is applicable to media on all platforms;
  • Encourage equal opportunities for men and women in media;
  • Promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists and media workers, and facilitate the implementation of the UN Plan of action on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity.”

Notice that it talks about human rights (pleasing one group of MPP participants) while it also adds “and men” to text that was originally about women (pleasing another group of participants). As Russia subsequently stated in the sixth MPP meeting, the text wasn’t completely to their liking, but they were aware that everyone would be compromising on an “equally unhappy basis”.

The series of negotiations between the announcement of the sixth MPP meeting and the meeting itself did not appear to include any non-government stakeholders. Instead, it appears that it was hoped that if governments could be persuaded to accept the UNESCO text, then other stakeholder groups would as well.[1]

Discussions during the sixth MPP meeting

Unfortunately, when the sixth MPP started, the pre-meeting efforts to get all governments to agree to the UNESCO text didn’t work out quite as planned.

Many of the States said that, while they weren’t particularly happy with the UNESOC text and didn’t think it went far enough in protecting freedom of expression, etc., they could accept the text in the spirit of compromise. Even Russia and Cuba, which had both been opposed to various bits of the previous versions of the text during the fifth MPP meeting, were resigned to accepting the UNESCO compromise text. Iran, however, was not.

Corridor whispers had suggested that Iran had agreed to the compromise text in the private negotiations before the sixth MPP meeting, but in the meeting, Iran stated that they could not accept the text as it stood. While they were willing to be very flexible and accept human rights-related language in C9—at a previous meeting they had accepted human rights language in the preamble as a compromise solution to prevent human rights appearing within individual Action Lines—they needed to some adjustments to the language to make it clearer.

In response, a number of States, including Sweden, USA, and the European Union, stated that for them, the UNESCO text was the lowest common denominator text that they could possibly accept and that the only way they could continue to accept it was if there was not a single change to the text. Many representatives from civil society and business organizations also stated that they could not accept any changes to the UNESCO text, which many felt was already considerably diluted when compared to earlier pro-freedom of expression, pro-equal gender rights proposed texts.

Iran, which clearly viewed the human rights text in Action Lines C9 to be of significant concern, had brought its Geneva-based Ambassador to the meeting. Iran made it clear that it had a “red line” in its instructions from capital that it was not able to cross, but that it was willing to engage in more collaborative drafting at the MPP to find text that was agreeable to all. Iran had prepared some revised text for discussion in the meeting.

However, a number of other States were very reluctant to go down this path. Various participants proposed that as it was abundantly clear that there wasn’t any room left for finding further compromise, the meeting should end immediately and maintain the agreement made at the fifth MPP meeting: that none of the Action Lines text should appear in the final version of the WSIS+10 Vision statement.

Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan all expressed support for listening to Iran’s request to continue discussions on C9, stating that even if as individual States, they could accept the UNESCO text, if another State—Iran—had problems with it, the meeting should listen to that State’s concerns. Notice that the language used by these four States was suggesting a reversion to an intergovernmental mentality. It wasn’t about “if one participant [in this multistakeholder process] has concerns, the rest of the participants should listen”. It was about “if one government has concerns, the rest of the governments should listen”. I suspect this was happening for three reasons:

  1. The majority of States not wanting to re-open drafting on C9 were developed countries and not part of the G77 family. In contrast, Iran was. There was therefore some geopolitics at play, with G77 States supporting Iran as an act of solidarity, even if they didn’t agree with Iran’s position.
  2. For States that prefer a more intergovernmental model, it was somewhat offensive to have non-government stakeholders say that they opposed the request of a State to reopen negotiations.
  3. Sri Lanka and Pakistan, who don’t seem to have been at the last MPP—or if they were there, they didn’t say anything—weren’t aware quite how difficult the debate was over the four days of the fifth MPP meeting and therefore weren’t aware how infinitesimally small the chance was of making any progress in only a few hours at the sixth MPP.

Iran tried many, many times to re-open the drafting on C9, but without success. Officially, there was opposition based on the fact that re-opening drafting wasn’t likely to bridge a gap between positions. Unofficially, though, I suspect that many were opposing even looking at Iran’s proposed amendments partly in response to the fact that Iran (along with some other States, including Cuba and Saudi Arabia) refused to allow the “UK+friends” compromise text to be presented at the fifth MPP.[2]

The MPP Chair, Prof. Minkin, suggested that given the positions in the room, there really wasn’t any point continuing the debate on C9. China asked if it was possible to park C9 for the moment and go back to the other non-consensus Action Lines (C5 and C8) to see if consensus could at least be reached on those items. The Chair said that it was possible to spend a couple of hours on C5 and C8, but eventually the meeting would have to tackle C9 again, and at that point, the same debate would be recycled all over again.

Iran asked if other participants could possibly accept the remainder of the Action Lines text being included in the final version of the Vision statement while the non-consensus C9 was kept out. But the general response in the room was “No”. All Action Lines needed to have consensus text, or none of the Action Lines could be included.

The outcome of the sixth MPP meeting

Ultimately, the 2.5 hours of discussion in the sixth MPP meeting didn’t change any of the decisions (or non-decisions) made at the fifth MPP meeting:

WSIS+10 Statement on the Implementation of the WSIS Outcomes

There is consensus on all text in the draft. All text goes forward to the High Level Event for endorsement. The final version of the document is available here.

WSIS+10 Vision for WSIS Beyond 2015

There is consensus on:

  • Part A, Preamble
  • Part B, Priority areas to be addressed in the implementation of WSIS Beyond

Parts A and B of the Vision document go forward to the High Level Event for endorsement. The final version of the document is available here.

Part C, Action Lines, does not go forward to the High Level Event for endorsement, but instead appears in the Chair’s report of the MPP process. The following Action Lines reached consensus as standalone text blocks, but due to the non-consensus on three other Action Lines (more on these after the following list), none of these texts appear in the final version of the Vision document:

  • С1. The role of public governance authorities and all stakeholders in the promotion of ICTs for development
  • С2. Information and communication infrastructure
  • С3. Access to information and knowledge
  • C4. Capacity building
  • C6. Enabling environment
  • C7. ICT applications: benefits in all aspects of life, including sub-sections on:
  • E-government
  • E-business
  • E-learning
  • E-health
  • E-Employment
  • E-environment
  • E-agriculture
  • E-science
  • C10. Ethical Dimensions of the Information Society
  • C11. International and Regional Cooperation

The three Action Lines that didn’t reach consensus were:

  • С5. Building confidence and security in the use of ICTs
  • C8. Cultural Diversity and identity, linguistic diversity and local content
  • C9. Media

There was consensus on substantial parts of C5 and C8, but there was absolutely no consensus on any text on C9. For background on why there was no consensus, see What’s going on with WSIS+10? Part 1: Some context.

In addition, there was no consensus on four paragraphs of the final section of Part 3:

  • Section III, Action Lines beyond 2015: Looking to the Future

MPP-related negotiations continue through HLE’s first days

Corridor whispers at the start of the first day of the High Level Event suggested that ITU Secretary-General Toure had been making a last ditch effort to encourage Iran to agree to UNESCO’s C9 text in the hope that Part C of the Vision document could also be presented to the HLE.

It’s not clear how Toure was planning to deal with the remaining non-consensus items of Action Lines C5 and C8. Perhaps he was hoping to approach all MPP participants after getting Iran to accept C9, and encourage everyone to agree to remove all the non-consensus paragraphs. However, I doubt that would be a particularly easy task to achieve, given negotiations would now need to include anyone and everyone at the HLE who is interested in the Action Lines: the number of people at the HLE vastly outnumbers the small number of States and non-governmental entities that attended the MPP meetings.

Whatever Toure’s plans may have been, on HLE Day 1, Iran seems to have made it very clear that it had no intention of accepting UNESCO’s C9 text when it called for an immediate end to the misuse of media and the media’s distribution of discriminatory information. It did this while reading out a Policy Statement on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). It is unclear whether the other NAM States had developed the Policy Statement as a consensus speech, or whether it was being delivered by Iran on behalf of all NAM States.

Other States and non-government stakeholders also made Policy Statements that expressed their support for the documents developed through the MPP and, quite frequently, their frustration with the lack of consensus on Action Line C9. My favourite was from Sweden, which included a reference to bloggers. Given Cuba had been strongly opposed to any reference to “bloggers” in C9, Media, during the fifth MPP meeting, whether intended or not, Sweden’s reference to bloggers seemed to be a high level underlining of their support for the text that Cuba had opposed.

We mustn’t forget that this is Toure’s last year as Secretary-General of the ITU, and he, no doubt, would like to end his time in the role on a high, with all ITU-coordinated and ITU-hosted meetings being seen as outstanding successes. But just as the best behind-the-scenes efforts of ITU staff were unable to encourage a number of States to sign the revised International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) at WCIT a couple of years ago, it may not be possible to push a sovereign State at this meeting to cross a “red line” that it has repeatedly made clear it cannot cross. Alternatively, it might be possible that multilateral negotation techniques come into their own at this point, and Iran can accept crossing that C9 red line in return for getting something it wants in some other, non-MPP, non-HLE arena. Recalling Brazil’s Policy Statement from yesterday, it very much can be possible for multistakeholder and multilateral processes to co-exist. Whether they should co-exist within a single process is perhaps less clear.

A final note

Yes, Iran was the only party at the sixth MPP that could not accept the UNESCO C9 text. We should not assume, though, that by preventing consensus on C9, Iran was and is being a recalcitrant State. A lot of States weren’t at the sixth MPP meeting. Or at any of the MPP meetings. It is quite possible that other States would support Iran’s position on C9.

To flip the situation around for a moment, we shouldn’t forget that many of the States supporting the UNESCO C9 text—and earlier stronger text—are the same States that were in Iran’s position during the WCIT. At WCIT, the USA, Sweden, UK and others were the minority view and were being strongly criticized by the majority of developing States wanting unanimous signing of the ITRs. Sticking to principles and preventing consensus in the process works both ways. Sometimes we may agree with the minority and other times not. Demonizing the minority view may make people feel better in the moment, but in the long term, it’s more constructive to understand that minority’s view in the hope that consensus can be reached at some future time.


[1] I am not sure that having a series of private governmental negotiations in the lead-up to the final meeting of a multistakeholder process was in keeping with the spirit of multistakeholderism. The desire to have side discussions is not the problem: often the only way forward from a public stand-off in a meeting is to privately take aside those with the strongest opinions and hope they will be more candid and reveal what compromises they’re really willing to accept.

If the private meetings had involved the loudest voices on Action Line C9 from the fifth MPP, it would have included non-government voices, such as Richard Hill from civil society and Nick Ashton-Hart from the business sector. By not including non-government participants who clearly expressed strong views on Action Line C9, the last-minute negotiations seem to have made an unfortunate step backward into more intergovernmental negotiation practices. I’m a little surprised that the ITU Secretariat, which has been making a lot of efforts to present itself as a multistakeholder-friendly organization, would not have seen the danger in allowing this to occur. Or was everyone so desperate to make the MPP reach consensus in the short-term that longer-term goals were forgotten in the moment?

[2] While a tit-for-tat approach may sound like a petty reason to object to a State’s proposal, it demonstrates the fundamental importance that trust and respect, and the loss of that trust and respect, plays in difficult negotiations. During the last day of the fifth MPP, the UK had developed its UK+friends compromise text with an honest hope it had crafted it in a way that Iran and some of the other States would be able to accept. However, Iran, Cuba and Saudi Arabia had refused to even allow the UK+friends text to even appear on screen at the fifth MPP. So at the sixth MPP, with many in the room having heard that Iran had agreed to accept the UNESCO text in informal negotiations, it was probably a genuine shock to hear that Iran wasn’t accepting the UNESCO text in its current form. It appeared that Iran wasn’t playing nicely, and given Iran hadn’t played nicely at the fifth MPP when UK+friends had tried to suggest a compromise text as a way forward, there was no way that Iran’s compromise text would be accepted for discussion in the room. In short, many of the other participants in the sixth MPP were highly suspicious about the motives of Iran in wanting to reopen the drafting on Action Line C9. If Iran hasn’t participated in the blocking of discussion of the UK+friends text, but had allowed it to be presented and then stated that they didn’t support it, I suspect that there may not have been such strong opposition to Iran’s text. But in refusing to engage with that UK+friends compromise proposal in any way, it set the scene for the UK+friends to respond similarly when Iran wanted to suggest its own compromise proposal.