By Elizabeth Cowley, Deputy Dean (Academic), Professor of Marketing at the University of Sydney Business School.
In March 2016 I had the opportunity to attend the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW60) meeting, joining UN Women delegation representatives in New York City.
The week offered a terrific chance to acquire thoughts and information from women working for women and girls, and share best practice from the Business School, the University, and other Australian experiences. Listening to other delegates, I felt humbled by the energy and passion I encountered at the conference.
Although there were plenty of preparatory warnings from the President of UN Women Australia, the conference was a little overwhelming at first. There were many formats and types of simultaneous sessions, covering equality, domestic violence and economic empowerment to name a few, as well as how government, business, and the not-for-profit sector can and should respond to some of the most pressing issues of our time.
At first, I felt like I was listening to three different and seemingly independent conversations:
- empowering women and closing the gender gap,
- how to make changes which would ensure basic human rights for women and girls, and
- discussions about ending violence against women and girls (from battering to mutilating to femicide).
But slowly, as the week progressed, I began to make connections between the conversations and in the end, I was convinced that the underlying issue was the need to make changes in the cultural values men and boys (and women) hold about women.
From an economic empowerment standpoint the current ‘normal’ inhibits progress: There are countries (Iceland and Sweden) where all men are offered parental and carers leave, but culturally it has been perceived to be disadvantageous for men to do so. In terms of unpaid work, it is still seen to be ‘women’s’ work and is completed by women. The actual number of hours in some contexts is really disheartening.
From a human rights perspective: Even when human rights are legally sanctioned, cultural practices often justify and endorse ignoring basic rights for women and girls.
From a domestic violence standpoint negative values regarding the worth of women and girls plays a role in increasing the likelihood of violence: The relationship between unemployment, alcohol, poverty and domestic violence is moderated by the attitude the potential perpetrator has regarding the equality of the genders. It is much more likely for domestic violence to occur when the perpetrator does not believe in gender equality.
How to change cultural attitudes, norms and practices was ultimately – either explicitly or implicitly – the underlying question in each of the diverse forums, regardless of the ‘development’ level of the countries discussed.
So what can we do about it?
There were many, many strategies discussed over the week, and insights into some great work currently being done. Here are a few key ideas and initiatives I took away:
Acknowledge Gender Differences and Adapt
Take this example: Women do not necessarily negotiate for their own remuneration and employment conditions the way men do. Some suggested ‘training’ women, others suggested adapting the strategy when negotiating with women.
Another example: Some people may find promoting gender equality, or diversity more broadly, threatening as it questions their habits or traditions. One way to improve the success of moving mindsets is to begin the conversation around new initiatives with more abstract perspectives that are universally accepted, getting buy-in and then moving to the more concrete, biased behaviours.
Encourage a New Normal
I heard about gender equity certificates where the government certifies companies that demonstrate gender equality policies. Without the certificate the company is not able to tender for government contracts. Then moving toward equality benefits everyone in the company as they have an opportunity to be awarded a contract. You can imagine similar situations where the Australian government could offer funds (or a larger percentage of the funds) to groups that can demonstrate movement toward gender equity.
The HeForShe® campaign is another great initiative, engaging men and boys to take action in the fight against negative stereotypes of women and girls. Men and boys are asked to make a commitment toward closing the gender gap by pledging to take action against gender bias, discrimination and violence, and ultimately, ‘encourage a new normal’.
A great session by Move the Elephant® suggested nudging. They use an analogy of a tiny rider trying to move an unmotivated elephant to think about how the difficulty of managing our unconscious biases. They advise that the best way to alter the cultural norms of the organisation is to engage in a prolonged series of reminders about the need to acknowledge and shift our unconscious biases and engrained beliefs.
Overall, my experience at the CSW60 meeting was incredibly motivating and thought provoking. It is clear that it’s our responsibility to facilitate powerful changes in the cultural values men, boys and women hold about women. By supporting the great work currently being done, we can assist to shift these cultural attitudes, practices and norms to empower women and close the gender gap.