Can women networks promote equality?

Gender Equality? Reverse Reality. A mural at Davos 2013 by the Itinerant Museum of Art.

Gender Equality? Reverse Reality. A mural at Davos 2013 by the Itinerant Museum of Art.

A Warhol-style mural appeared in Davos just before the World Economic Forum (WEF) in January. There are four men among 18 women the reverse ratio of the real representation of Davos with only 17% of female delegates. Many of the companies subject to the quota simply send exactly four men, thus avoiding the need for a woman delegate, accused The Guardian. Only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions are filled by women. In politics the situation is a little better. The global proportion of female political representative is about 18.4% claims a 2007 Dfid report. But are quotas and women conferences really bringing the change we need?

As the success of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Circles demonstrate modern female networks are in high demand. Another approach comes from the WIE Network. WIE, which stands for Women, Inspiration and Enterprise. It launched its first symposium in New York City in 2010 with the mission to provide a platform for this generation’s women leaders to inspire and empower the next generation. Next month the crème de la crème of successful African women will gather in Cape Town for the inaugural WIE Symposium. At the time of confirming her attendance Joyce Banda, Africa’s third female head of state, said that:  “women need to be united if they are to be successful. This symposium, therefore, sets a good ground of uniting women across the globe, with the aim of empowering them to be responsible for their own destiny.” 

Speaking at an event titled Women as Leaders in Africa: Participation … Power and Progress? organised by the Royal African Society last month, Hadeel Ibrahim, co-founder of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, however, appeared rather sceptic about the use of female networks. She admitted that she turns down most invitations to speak at women only conferences. She elaborated: “Women are not the issue. Women do not rape themselves; women do not discriminate against themselves, except in a few instances. The issue are men!” And the solution is to establish a conversation.

Isn’t exclusivity and closed door politics exactly what angers women about male networks such as the Freemasons and the WEF? Therefore, I cannot condone the exclusivist approach many feminists take. The London Feminist Network for example excludes all male participation with the justification that it is vital that “women have safe and supportive spaces where we can work together politically to campaign for our rights.”

The right to equality is a human right. “Men” in those generalist terms are as oppressed as “women”. How many female prisoners are in Guantanamo? How many male political activists have faced oppression and how many minorities consisting of women and men have been persecuted on grounds of belief and ethnicity.

Women should have the same rights and chances as men and the truth is that currently they have not. This needs to change. But preaching to the choir might not necessarily be the answer. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first, one of the world’s leading gender consulting firms believes that ‘traditional’ empowerment tools have failed. She argues in the Harvard Business Review: “If a company is to really to encourage women in the workplace it needs to stop HR practices largely predicated on a male mindset and culture” Change of mindset and culture are the key words here. Debate needs to happen between all and everyone. The WIE network has recognised this and men are welcome to attend and speak.

Female representation in Africa is increasing faster than in any other part of the world. In the top 10 of countries with the most female representation in parliament four are African. WIE Africa will not just advocate for a change of perception of women, but most importantly aims to change the perception of Africa in the West by showcasing successful African business and cultural role models.

With high ticket prices and a lack of affordable transportation on the continent, WIE Africa is by no means an inclusive conference for ‘commoners’. But one step at a time. WIE Africa will certainly help in promoting a change in mindset. It might act as a catalyst for ideas, forge new friendships and partnerships. With launching just days before the World Economic Forum (WEF) in South Africa it might send a powerful signal to the old white men’s club that is the WEF.

But with Elsie Kanza, a Tanzanian women, being the head of the World Economic Forum Africa even this notion seems to be changing ….

WIE Africa EVite-March

(Disclaimer: My workplace plays a part in the organisation of WIE Cape Town)

  1. Judy Anderson said:

    Most solutions are much more complex than can be easily “sold”. Women do need some initial sense of their worth and value in order to dare to speak out. It is dangerous for women to speak if not completely counter-cultural in many places in the world. An emphasis on women’s issues and a safe place for them first is a step. Role models, seeing women in leadership, are the next step–and then the conversation must widen among equals–men and women–in order to address the real issues of poverty, abuse of power at all levels, which hamper the futures of our children.
    Judy Anderson

  2. Very good points Judy. I agree that “progress” towards equality differs hugely around the globe. Customary law in some places in rural Tanzania still prevents widows from inheriting their property in favour of male family members. However, in the UK I’d assume we are at the stage were we should aim for an inclusive debate between men and women and between generations and thus I feel that places like the London Feminist Network are antiquated institutions stuck in a mindset of the 60s, 70s and maybe 80s and it is high time that things change.

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