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.)

 

ITU Council 2014 – Day 1

Note: I am attending the ITU Council 2014 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.

Photo credit: ITU pictures via Flickr

Photo credit: ITU pictures via Flickr

Quick facts and stats

  • Over 500 people registered to attend Council 2014, but the main room only accommodates 260, so the overflow is being sent to Room C.
  • This being the year of the Plenipotentiary Conference, with its many elections for various positions within the ITU, five government ministers—from Australia, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana and Mali— are gracing the ITU Council 2014 with their presence.
  • The Council continued the tradition of electing the previous year’s Vice-Chair[1] to the position of this year’s Chair position. Mr Aboubakar Zourmba of Cameroon, therefore, is the Chair of ITU Council 2014.
  • Following the tradition of ensuring geographic diversity, it is the turn of Region E (Asia and Australasia) to hold the position of Vice-Chair. Secretary General Toure will report back soon on which member of the Asia Pacific region will hold the position.
  • Australia’s Caroline Greenway was re-elected as Chair of the Standing Committee on Administration and Management (excuse me while I’m parochial for a minute… Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!) Marcin Krasuski (Poland) and Vernita Harris (USA) will also continue their roles as Vice-Chairs in 2014.
  • The Council session has received 26 contributions by Member States. 17 of these were submitted by the deadline (22 April, which is two weeks before the meeting starts). You can find who submitted what and when at the Contributions index page).
  • Freely available versions of all Council 2014 documents have been made available on the WCITLeaks website.

Some of key quotes from Day 1

“There is no beginning and there is no end. There is only change.”—Chair of ITU Council 2013, Catalin Marinescu (Romania)

“One of the Secretaries General of the Union, Mr Mohamed Ezzedine Mili, described the Internet as an explosive marriage between the computer and telecommunications. If we are not careful, those of our people who have difficulty reading and writing may be left by the wayside.”—Chair of ITU Council 2014, Aboubakar Zourmba (Cameroon)

“The Dubai Declaration recently adopted at the WTDC-14 describes telecommunications and ICT infrastructure, services and applications as powerful tools for economic growth and innovation. This is true of course, and yet, infrastructure, services and applications will not foster innovation and from that, economic growth, if innovation is hampered in other ways. Governments cannot legislate innovation, but what we can and should do is make it much easier for businesses in our countries to innovate.”—Australia’s Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull

ITU Council 2014

Photo credit: ITU pictures via Flickr

Summary of the most interesting topics (to me) on Day 1

1. Report on the implementation of the strategic plan for 2012-2015 and activities of the Union for 2010-2014

ITU must have one of the best PR and marketing departments of any organization I’ve ever come across. Instead of making participants of ITU Council 2014 sit through a really long read-through of the summarizing this 82-page report, the media folks at ITU put together a slick and glitzy video highlighting ITU’s major achievements over the past few years. The technical bodies of the Internet governance world could certainly learn a thing or two from ITU about producing videos that highlight key achievements in such easily digestible forms. (In contrast, take a look at how the Internet governance world fails to effectively communicate what it’s doing, and manages to confuse many of its own true believers here.)

2. ICTs and people with disabilities

This really is low hanging fruit issue that is impossible for anyone to object to. Like the whole “think of the children”/child online protection issue, anyone who objects to activities that help a group of people with intellectual or physical disabilities really is entering Cruella De Vil territory. Of interest, though, was a suggestion by a Member State to use the term “disabilities and specific needs” in all future ITU documents on this issue (this term made its first appearance in the ITU context in the documents of the recent WTDC-14 held in Dubai).

3. Gender mainstreaming and promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women through ICTs

After the protracted debate on the equal participation of women in Internet governance at last week’s CSTD WGEC (I’m still to blog on this… watch this space), it was a relief to hear overwhelming support by the Council members for the need to encourage equal participation of women in the ITU sphere. It was less encouraging that of the seven interventions from the floor supporting the ITU’s work in this area, six of the interventions were made by men.

The ITU Secretariat provided some historical data on women’s participation in ITU (and its previous incarnations). The first woman to take the floor was from the Soviet Union during a 1932 meeting (that’s 67 years after the creation of International Telegraph Union). And the first woman to be a head of delegation was from Bolivia, in 1962 (97 years after the creation of the Union). These statistics aren’t published on the ITU website yet, but the staff responsible for implementing Plenipotentiary Resolution 70 (Rev. Guadalajara, 2010) are compiling more information about the history of women’s participation in ITU and the result of that work will hopefully be published on the ITU website in some form soon.

A written statement by ITU Secretary General Touré, read out by Deputy Secretary-General Houlin Zhou, noted that the implementation of gender mainstreaming was a high priority for ITU in 2014. As part of its gender mainstreaming activities, ITU will be launching the GEM (Gender Equality and Mainstreaming) awards at a side event on gender issues during ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2014 (PP-14).

ITU Council 2014

Photo credit: ITU pictures via Flickr

4. Free access to ITU publications

While ITU has expanded the number of publications available for free, in 2013, its revenues from the sale of publications increased when compared to the previous year’s sales. Interestingly, CDs and DVDs have experiences the largest growth in sales since 2009, with the overall sales of paper-based publications dropping dramatically between 2010 and 2012. Paper-based publications doubled in sales between 2012 and 2013 however (13% to 26% of sales). Sale of online publications (downloadable formats such as PDFs) has remained extremely small (only 1% of publication sales in 2013). These figures are important because ITU is considering how many other publications to make freely available and how much free availability of documents will affect ITU’s income stream. There were some concerns expressed in the room that additional free documents could have a negative impact on ITU’s budget (ITU is already trying to work out how to do an expanding list of things its members want it to do while also juggling budget constraints). Based on the discussions on Day 1, a draft proposal to make additional documents available freely will be amended by the author State and another interest State.

5. Council Working Group report on WSIS activities

There were two documents submitted by the CWG: C38, which was an overall report on WSIS activities by the ITU, and an Addendum to C38 (which was a report on the CWG’s meeting held on Monday, 5 May 2014). There was a bit of discussion over the way that the Council would take action on the two documents: it was proposed that C38 be “noted” while C38 Addendum 1 be “approved”. Some Member States were reluctant to “approve” the Addendum, given it was a mix of summary paragraphs on the Monday meeting as well as proposals on the way forward. But when the Chair pushed for closure on the topic, asking if anyone had strong objections to the document, Member States kept silent, so the document was approved.

6. Defining “ICT”

The long Council discussion on the definition of “ICT” cheered me up immensely. It put the ongoing debates about what “enhanced cooperation” is, and the never-finalized-but-still-a-working-definition-after-10-years “Internet governance” into perspective. The definition was part of a report by the Correspondence Group on the Elaboration of a Working Definition of the Term “ICT”. The working definition included in the report is:

Technologies and equipment that handle (e.g., access, create, collect, store, transmit, receive, disseminate) information and communication.

The report of the Correspondence Group is meant to be forwarded to the PP-14 for their consideration, but a number of Council members objected to the definition being included in the report as they felt that the definition was not yet “mature” enough. The Chair intervened with “We’ve been discussing this since 2006 and still don’t have a definition of ICT.” Other Member States said that that since the Correspondence Group had been tasked with coming up with a definition by the last Plenipotentiary Conference (in 2010), it was important to report back to PP-14 on the status of its work, even if the current definition wasn’t the final one. A couple of States supported the idea of submitting the report of the Correspondence Group along with a summary of the discussion about the definition of ICTs held here in Council.

After about half an hour of this to-ing and fro-ing, the Secretary General intervened: “This is a chess game. It’s starting again.” At the heart of the definition of ICTs, he said, was the fact that the Internet was lurking in the background. “ICT does include the Internet. Let’s face it. […] This is a very innocent definition […] But it’s not going to fly […] It’s harmless. Whether we define it or not, we’ll continue to work. We’ve been working for 150 years and will continue to work for another 150 years.”

The day ended with the Chair proposing that a small group get together and work on the definition outside of plenary in the hope of finding a consensus solution.

More to come…

Key issues of interest to Internet governance folk:

  • The Council Working Group on international Internet-related public policy issues (CWG-Internet) (Thursday 8 May)
  • ITU’s Internet activities (Thursday 8 May)
  • Opening ITU documents to the general public (Friday 9 May)

[1] Official ITU language only recognizes the terms “Chairman” and “Vice-Chairman”. However, I am not similarly constrained to use such gender-biased terms, and will only use “Chair” and “Vice-Chair”… even if the positions are still overwhelmingly filled by men.