Rana Askoul writes on the possibility of reaching gender equality in our lifetime
We have to engage in a thoughtful analysis if we are to make headway on gender equality
A recent project I was leading involved developing a leadership programme for Arab Women Scientists in the Middle East and North Africa. Part of the project entailed the hiring of consultants across the region to help with the programme design and development.
And so, I posted a message on my professional social media platforms calling for Arab women consultants to apply for the various roles that were available. The decision to target Arab women for these roles was based on many reasons, including alignment with the project’s primary mission of focusing on and integrating the female perspective into the programme design.
The decision was also intentional as it sought to provide employment opportunities to Arab women specifically, given that they continue to be an under-represented segment within the total population of the active workforce in the region. It was a matter of hours before a few messages from men started pouring in. Some objected to the gender criteria driving the hiring requirements, and others indicated that initiatives driven under the gender equality banner might translate to some wins for women, but would do so at the expense of men “losing out”.
The economic case for gender equality is more or less well-established. Governments are aware today more than ever of the gains that can be achieved from closing the female employment gender gap. Egypt, for example, stands to secure a 34 per cent increase in its GDP if it closes its female employment gender gap. Globally, advances in gender equality could translate into US$1 trillion (Dh3.68 trillion) in global growth in the next decade. Despite the compelling proposition, we are further away from achieving gender parity today than we were before. According to the World Economic Forum, achieving gender parity globally will take us some 170 years at the current rate of progress. A few years ago, that number stood at 120 years. A few years before that, it was at 80 years. How is it possible that despite advances in women’s rights, the noted increase in advocacy for gender equality and the heightened drive on women empowerment initiatives, we are still not only lagging behind, but in some ways doing worse overall?
As I attempt to answer that question, I realise that gender equality still faces numerous challenges, and that the advances made are merely the beginning of a long journey of social change. I also realise that a big part of the answer lies in deepening our understanding of the perception of loss among men and boys in relation to gender equality.
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The responses I received from men upon my search for Arab women consultants can’t be brushed aside, trivialised or shut down. In some ways, these responses also don’t necessarily respond to the rational arguments supported by economic metrics and gains in GDP statistics, mainly because they emanate from a deeply seated position rooted in emotions of loss and grievance.
The secretary-general of the Council of Women World Leaders spoke of the critical need to look at the loss of privilege experienced by men, as women rise and push to share a central societal position historically reserved for men across the economic, social and political spheres. This point is specifically critical for the Middle East, where over half of the population are under 25 years of age and a quarter of them remain unemployed.
If we are to make some serious advances on gender equality, we have to engage in a thoughtful stakeholder analysis – including an analysis of perceptions of loss among men who are critical to many aspects of economic, social and political decision-making today. This thoughtful stakeholder analysis is essential to determine pockets resistant to change as well as the factors driving this resistance. Despite the fact that many men welcome gender equality measures that promote fairness, transformations to societal positions and long-held privileges are far more complex factors that deserve serious consideration
Gender equality needs to operate within a structure that engages both men and women and works for both men and women to produce wins for all. Can this perhaps be the key to achieving gender equality in our lifetime?
Rana Askoul is a Middle East based writer, gender equality expert and a social change advocate