SheForShe: Why Women’s Solidarity is Still the Answer

Those of us in the gender biz who like to bring every conversation back to equality (yes, that’s me!) have rightly embraced the UN’s HeForShe campaign. While the movement for gender equality was originally conceived as a struggle led only by women for women in recent years men have begun to stand-up in addressing inequalities and discrimination faced by women and girls. HeForShe was created as a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all.

I say, “hurrah!” We need you men! We cannot possibly achieve equality without your support and advocacy. Plus, many of you are hot, so it’s nice to have you around. (See what I did right there? A little bit of reverse sexism just to keep things interesting). And good one UN Women for coming with this term and organizing around it.

In fact, a great new application of this concept can be found in an excellent IFES report on male allies for women’s equality in Syria.

Yet, as I begin another year of digging into strategies to help women gain more meaningful power over their lives and choices, I still feel more urgency about ensuring that we women are supporting women, not tearing each other down. The interest in male allies is a new and important phenomenon, but let us not lift the pressure to create female solidarity at the same time. Paradigm shifts are not going to happen without this. Men will simply never be as self-interested in helping women as much as women.

I was reminded of this in three ways over the last couple of weeks:

  1. Women are women’s worst enemy. If you believe it, what’s up with that? 

I had a conversation with a newly made friend the other day about what happens when women work together —  just women. The notion was that terrible things ensue! Popular culture would have us picturing cat fights, hair pulling, and high drama when too many women are forced together. Is this really fair? Everyone has their own experience, which I won’t argue against.  But what we forget to consider is that perhaps the lack of desire to work together (or effectiveness at working together) is merely a byproduct of not having equal power. Women utilize what powers we have at our disposal, and sometimes that is the form of negative words and actions, competitions and rivalries to get ahead when we aren’t operating on a level playing field to begin with.

But, why do we want ALL of something, anyway? All female or all male is, literally, missing something. A  workplace, a school, a local city council is more balanced with a diversity of everything – gender, sexual orientation, education, experience, socio-economic backgrounds and so on and so forth.  I don’t want to live on a planet just of women, (insert stereotype or joke here), but I also reject the notion that some character flaw exists in women that prevents them from supporting each other. Let’s flip the conversation by recognizing the ways in which society actively prevents us from supporting each other when we are stopped from attaining equal power in meaningful ways in our lives.

One Turkish organizations that I am honored to work with on women’s leadership actively confronts this by doing sessions about the negative role of gossip among college-age women, which is a particularly viscous tool in the Middle East. I don’t meant to pick on the Middle East. Every country needs to do better by women. But there is an absolute correlation with women having weaker structures and less institutional power in society and the presence of discrimination. There are few political parties, very few women in elected office and conditions that prevent women from organizing politically in much of the Middle East. Take a look at the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report to see where the Middle East ranks. It ain’t pretty. So the role of gossip in these countries becomes a de facto tool of power.

2. We are a product of an environment that does not see women equally

Let’s bring it back to politics, my favorite topic. Some women don’t consider themselves as being subjected to sexism, personally. Really? Okay, I guess lucky you! You my dear are the one exception! Sorry to break the news, this isn’t how it works.  Gender discrimination is not just an individual experience, but a systemic one that we have to accept is a problem for all women (yes, all women!) before we remedy this. It does not mean that all women are victims, but it means we face something unique by virtue of having a uterus!

If women don’t consider their individual role in a world that is unequal for women, how can a movement be built?  A well-defined problem is half the solution. There’s loads of evidence about the way that sexism and discrimination effects voting patterns, for example. And voting is part of this little thing we call elections, which impacts whose in office, which impacts decision-making structures, which leads to whether policies to address discrimination are promoted so that women have rights and opportunities equal to men. Men comprise 78% of parliaments across the world. No wonder things are not going so smashingly!! Not because men suck, of course they don’t (see HeForShe above), but because of that little called diversity and pluralism.

The problem is two-fold:

(1) women are not running for office in equal number to men in part because party leaders are not nominating them in equal numbers. When more women run, more women win, but we need parties to see the value of female candidates and support them in advance through training, financing, leadership development, and all the activities that lead to winning candidates AND winning parties

(2) when women do run, they face discrimination just because they are women. Women have less access to resources based on their gender (and less developed networks of support), and they are often subjected to sexist media coverage as a way to demean them or remind voters that they are the lesser gender.

We have ways to fight this. Many efforts are underway in the world to support women in politics. But let’s be real, sexism and discrimination toward women has an impact. A new study shows that it’s harder for female candidates to prevail in an election because many people don’t see women as leaders as a result of hidden bias that can emerge in the voting booth. My case study from Ukraine shows how we can overcome that through evidence-based research and campaigns to change attitudes about leadership in advance of elections.

We have smart and well executed strategies to turn this around, so don’t throw up your arms in despair and believe all is lost. Yet, we need more of these, and we need to start by  recognizing that this common thread of discrimination is present in politics and in everyday life in order to motivate people to embrace efforts to change it, together, women and men.

3. History shows, that when women support each other, good things happen.

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I was back home for the holidays and reminded again of the pioneering kick ass women who fought for women’s rights in the part of the US where I grew up. Jeannette Rankin was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. She helped pass the 19th Amendment, giving all women the right to vote, and was a committed pacifist. She was born in Missoula, Montana in 1880 and died the year I was born, in Kalispell, Montana, in 1973. Yes, Ms. Rankin, I got the baton hand off, we’re all good now. (Oh, if it were only that easy.)

I am proud of the pioneering women from the American West who fought for their voice and importantly, for the the voice of others, because they knew we were stronger, together.

“If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”-Jeanette Rankin

I just finished reading Mona Eltahawy’s revealing book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. There are many lessons and observations to orient one to the challenges of the Middle East. But what I am left with is the notion that no matter the country or the context, we are stronger when our voices and hands are raised together. We are emboldened to speak truth to power when we share our common stories and experiences about what it means to be a woman, together. We will have more power to address issues like child marriages, domestic violence, labor force policies, and women’s political participation when we create the conditions for women’s solidarity in spirit and voice. We are STRONGER TOGETHER. But that means we have to actually be together.

So what can YOU do?
  1. Be kinder to your sisters in arms! It starts at a very basic level, which is to suggest, be nice! In that vein, check yourself. I love Lilly Singh’s YouTube channel with positive messages for women, including this recent #GirlLove campaign to encourage women to go easy on other women.
  2. Recognize our leadership biases and challenge that the next time you go to the voting booth or in your professional life. One  study showed that the higher a woman rose to power, the less likely she might be to help other women do the same. I have seen this in politics too. We have to recognize and fight our own biases.
  3. Whether you are politically active or not, try to organize a project in 2016 that puts you in place of encouraging women’s solidarity, through your actions, not just your words.  Do something different to show that you are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
  4. Mentor someone. Be a role model. Reach out.  You don’t have to do this in a formal capacity, but think about someone who has asked you for help, or for whom you know extra encouragement and kind words would go a long ways.  As Lao Tzu so wisely said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Help make that first step with a woman or girl in your life.

This is where the path to solidarity starts, in simple acts of grace and compassion toward our soul sisters in our community and around the world.

May it be a better year for women in 2016 because we want it to be, and our actions follow our desires!

 

Case Study: Can TV Ads Help Women Get Elected?

The short answer to that question is no, not by themselves. What about poll tested messages relayed through a creative advertising campaign in conjunction with a grassroots strategy to promote women as leaders? Why yes, that can work! A recent pilot project in Ukraine doing just than shows the efficacy of such an effort.

The Crisis in Leadership: Why We Need More Women

Women's Participation

Across the globe women on average comprise 22.3% of parliaments even though they are half of the world’s population. A great deal of attention is paid to the problem of women’s political participation with far too little energy spent on innovative solutions to fix it.

We have a crisis in leadership around the world. We need our best and brightest to step up, which includes women. Why? Because it’s only fair. Need more? Okay, let’s tick off a few more reasons. We need more women in power, alongside men, checking their influence, and shaping and cultivating our society. Would the policy priorities and outcomes be better for women with respect to education, health, child care, and violence against women if more women were policymakers in parliament helping shape this agenda? Yes, undeniably.

Research shows women’s political participation results in tangible gains for democracy, including greater responsiveness to citizen needs, increased cooperation across party and ethnic lines and more sustainable peace. Simply stated, getting more women elected at the national and local is both the right thing to do and smart thing to do. It is the year 2015, women have broken through in other areas of public life and in different professions, why not politics?

Okay, so now that’s out of the way, how do we get there? What is the path to increase women’s participation, exactly? Well, turns out there are several things in that toolbox, like quotas. But let’s focus for a moment on the ingredient that may be most central, yet is paid attention to the least in international development projects to increase women’s political participation: we need more sophisticated communication campaigns to change attitudes toward women as leaders before, during and after elections.

Step 1: Focus on Creating an Enabling Environment
to Build Political Will 

Establishing a proper setting where more women can lead —  and thus more people are willing to vote for women candidates — requires a deeper set of strategies to create an enabling environment for women in advance of an election.

In every country I work in people tell me, “Voters are not willing to vote for women here, period. Our country is not like (fill in the blank, mostly likely it will include referencing a Nordic country, can you say Sweden or Finland?).” Keep in mind it is Rwanda that has the highest percentage of women in the world in parliament, at 63.8%, because of a quotas policy that opened the gate. In the process of rebuilding the country Rwandans made a conscious decision to put inclusiveness and equality at the heart of their reconstruction process. Now the prominent role played by women in parliament and throughout the government has helped transform attitudes throughout Rwandan society toward women. More work needs to be done, but it has created the opening to make that more possible.

Furthermore, a little known fact: in Scandinavian countries quotas were not introduced until the 1980s, when women’s parliamentary representation already exceeded 25%. Women’s representation increased even further as a result of their long history of mobilization of women into the labor market and into political life. The point being: the conditions in which women are a greater part of parliament comes down to political will and the acknowledgement of women’s contribution. There has to be a desire on the part of stakeholders to address the systemic barriers blocking women’s entry into the workforce and elected office.

Political will to change the system is one part of the solution.

So how does that desire begin, and more importantly how can we influence it? If it’s not there on its own we can influence it through organizing and communication to transform the idea of women as leaders. For each country the problems and the solutions for involving more women in politics differs slightly, but they all have in common the need to change the values behind leadership in order to create a greater desire for women leaders among the voting public.

So, how do we get there?

Step two: Test your Assumptions about
Public Willingness to Vote for Women 

First, let’s examine the assumptions underlining the lack of women’s political participation. How do we know people are not willing to vote for women? Is this a gut feeling or a research-based position? Are we basing this conclusion on election results or actual data?

Research can show us the pathway to influencing rigid gender roles about women and their place in society. We cannot simply rely on the low number of women elected to justify the conclusion that people are not willing to vote for women. If women are less than 20% of all candidates, how can we expect they are going to comprise 50% of parliament anytime soon? Low representation of women is also the result of having so few women to vote for in the first place. Low representation is not evidence enough of voter attitudes toward women.

Unfortunately, political parties fail to recruit women as candidates also based on these assumptions, which turns into a self fulfilling prophecy. If women are blocked from leadership positions in the party or politics, or not given the opportunity to be candidates in equal proportion as men, how can we ever hope to vastly increase their numbers, or overcome stereotypes about women’s leadership qualities and qualifications in order to reach some type of parity?

While we can determine through other means that women candidates face barriers at the ballot box, we still need to have the specific evidence of why and how exactly. We need to understand what the attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes are in very specific and measurable ways. It is only through this evidence that we can hope to organize a targeted campaign to tackle what we assume to be insurmountable attitudinal barriers among voters that create an obstacle for increasing women’s participation.

Step 3: Do the Research! Seriously, you really can! 

The tools of advocacy campaigns, including public opinion research, have become much more affordable and in the reach of NGOs. I do not accept the assumption that research is too expensive, this does not match the reality of how polling is used all over the world. Research-based evidence, through public opinion surveys and focus groups, to redefine the leadership qualities of women, is fundamental to challenging sexist perceptions about women candidates.

Do we have research that shows all things being equal, men and women are going to discriminate against a qualified candidate just because of her gender? And on what basis? What are the underlining assumptions behind such attitudes? And most importantly, have messages based on altering attitudes been tested, in order to be used in change oriented campaigns? Millions of dollars are spent on sophisticated ad campaigns to get people to stop smoking, use a condom or vaccinate their children. Where are the ad campaigns, and the research efforts, about voting for women? I can count the number of such campaigns on one hand.

CASE STUDY: Research into action 

Over a two year period I was an adviser to the National Democratic Institute’s effort to increase women’s political participation. Among other activities we chose to focus change the role of women as leaders in the minds of Ukrainian voters through a public opinion-based ad campaign using tools of grassroots organizing. This campaign was made possible by the generous support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation and several others.

Through a series of surveys and focus groups conducted by Lake Research, the following picture emerged:

  • In 2012 nearly half of Ukrainians believed there were too few women in elected office. The research showed us that demonstrating how women are different, and priming the areas where they are perceived as better managers than men, could help convert this sentiment into greater support for women candidates.
  • There was only a 2% difference between men and women in terms of strong likelihood of getting involved in political life.
  • By 2014, 49% of all Ukrainians thought there were not enough women in elected office. And nearly half of women, irrespective of age, believed that increasing the number of women in power in Ukraine would have a significant impact.
  • Research also showed that women enjoyed strong advantages on a host of substantive issues, including child care, health care, education, and ending discrimination against women. Respondents also saw women as much more likely to help children, families, and seniors, and better equipped to address concerns over pensions and retirement security—though this last issue exposes a gender gap in the data. While many of these associations stem from traditional stereotypes of women as “caretakers”, they also provide a strong foundation on which to build a profile for women leaders on issues more central to the ongoing public debate in Ukraine.

Step 4: Put the Research Into Action,
Start a Campaign 

With a team of local and international ad campaign experts that included GMMB and the Ukraine-based firm Me Too, we made a strategic choice to target women in this campaign given that women were more receptive to the call to action and to our messages. The evidence showed that creating a narrative through a visual story — showing women as leaders in their everyday lives, while working with men collaboratively —  should be the basis of the campaign. Further research showed that despite upheaval in the country there was still an opportunity to link the desire for change with the role of women in political life and to capitalize on women’s strengths in terms of both issues and values.

The campaign had three prongs:

  • Media component: Identifying effective ways of changing the portrayal of women leaders through targeted advertising campaign on TV, outdoor, Internet, social media
  • Civic action component: Maximizing positive perceptions of women in politics through local pilot public relations campaigns and warming up media environment in advance of the advertising campaign
  • Public education component: Identifying ways to minimize negative gender biases in media through innovative web-based anti-sexism campaign and training of journalists on gender sensitive coverage Anti-sexism web campaign: www.povaha.org.ua
    (“Povaha” means “Respect” in English)

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Watch the ad

Web hub with the ad campaign, http://50vidsotkiv.org.ua

Using social media to stir the environment and generate conversation on gender
Facebook campaign, https://www.facebook.com/povaha.org.ua?fref=ts 

A pool of journalists from across Ukraine were also trained on gender-sensitive news and editorial coverage. A network of trainees is active and keeps applying standards of unbiased coverage, and women leaders are starting to pushback themselves, like when a deputy minister told Ukrainians to stop “beauty shaming” women politicians.

The Results: More Women Were Elected and
the Conversation about Women as Leaders has exploded

The Revolution of Dignity and the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine have been explosive events through which successful positioning of women candidates was made possible, by message research that enabled advocates to help women seize ground on dimensions of strength, leadership, and an ability to bring order, while simultaneously elevating the salience of the qualities that women are perceived as dominate in — such as ethics, justice, and empathy. This message environment made possible through research and deep examinations of women was illustrative in the 2014 local elections in Kyiv and special parliamentary election.

The 2014 parliamentary election was a small improvement overall in the position of women in the parliament (nearly two points compared to the 2012 Parliament), which amounts to 11.3%, but given the circumstances of a snap election and a country in war time, any increase of women elected to higher office is significant because it demonstrates the perceived contribution and potential of women leaders even in times of conflict when “strength” and “toughness” (qualities often associated more with men) are of greater importance to voters.

In 2014 a much bigger leap forward was made by the women standing on party lists, largely as a result of the introduction of a gender quota in 2013 and decisions made by some parties to place more women in winnable positions. The trends are positive for future women candidates and the commitment of new parties to ensuring more gender parity.

The end result: Progress for women in 2014 is an indication of Ukraine’s ability to systematically address barriers to women’s political participation election by election.

In addition to parties nominating more women in the winnable positions on the party lists in the last election, new parties have worked on gender mainstreaming and adopted strategies of women’s empowerment since. For the first time in many years a woman was nominated as vice-speaker of the Ukraine Parliament. Political parties have also adopted internal quotas for women, established women’s departments, and are acting more strategically about the role of women in advance of the 2015 local elections.

A quotas reform legislative package has been developed in the context of election reform and will continue as these legislative debates on election law continue. The need for corrective affirmative action is now obvious for both the civic activists working on gender and for the parliamentarians themselves.

Success: Raising measures that remove barriers for women in Ukrainian politics into the public dialogue have been made possible by spurring the conversation about women and politics in a more public way with an organized advocacy and communications campaign about women as leaders.

The great news is that research shows voters are looking for a new type of politics, which Ukraine deserves and aspires to. Women are strongly associated with the new way of doing politics as those who are in touch with people and well equipped to make reforms. Those standing at the forefronts of gender equality campaigns need to take the next step to build on what was achieved and push out more public communication efforts to alter public sentiment. The opportunity for women is greater than it has ever been in Ukraine’s history, which is significant because realizing the ambitious goals set forth by the Revolution for Dignity requires that women get the political respect they too fought side by side men to achieve.