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.)

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *