From Breaking the Bias to Collective Action: Reflections on spending the International Women’s Rights Day at the forum organized by the Women’s Pavilion in Expo Dubai 2020
#Break the Bias was the name of the forum I attended this year at the Women’s Pavilion of the Expo Dubai 2020, which actually took place in March 8 2022. In the International Women’s Rights Day, the forum was organized to call attention to women’s situation in society and the importance of advancing on gender equality. The Women’s Pavilion was built in collaboration with Cartier, and visitors could not help but notice the beautiful construction in the middle of the Universal Exhibition.
The forum took place in another building though, at the Dubai Exhibition Center, and started with Mr. Cyrille Vigneron, president and CEO of Cartier International, reminding us of the courage of Kathrine Switzer. She is first woman to run what was at the time an all-male marathon in Boston, in 1967. Registering herself with only her initials (K.V.) and last name, she disguised herself to be able to run the marathon. During her journey, an official tried to push her out of the race. However, she continued running with determination and bravery. The images, shown all over the world, lead to a call for gender equity and pushed decision makers to include women in organized races from that date (Pauline, 2014).
At the #Break the Bias forum, fascinating speeches and discussions were conducted by leaders from the United Nations, the UAE government and other governments and institutions, mixing online and physical presence. The speakers stated that much progress on gender equality has been achieved in the last years in the UAE, and highlighted the important role of legislation for that to happen. Two women present in the event represented examples of this progress: H.E. Reem Al Hashimi, Minister of State for International Cooperation of the UAE; and H.E. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Former Minister in UAE government and former president of Zayed University.
The economic impact of not considering women in the economy was reminded. As a McKinsey Global Institute study has shown since 2015, advancing women’s equality could add $12 trillion to global growth (McKinsey, 2015). In addition, the effects of the pandemics on women and girls’ situation were also highlighted. It is estimated by the Unesco that 11 million girls in the world may not go back to school due to the pandemics, in particular in lower-income countries (Unesco, 2021). In an interview a colleague and I had the opportunity to conduct with climate scientist Carlos Nobre some years ago, he had warned that gender equality, in particular women’s and girls’ education, was one of the most relevant SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) to tackle (Mukhi & Quental, 2019). The Sustainable Development Goal 5 concerns gender equality and is fifth of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations. The official wording of SDG 5 is “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” (United Nations, 2015). The SDGs were by the way very visible in the Expo Dubai 2020.
The economic aspects emerged in the debate several times. Hend Sabry, Tunisian actress, called attention to the need of women to have more access to funding, and suggested creating a fund only for women writers and film makers.
One of the most insightful parts of the forum was the discussion about the role of men in achieving gender equality. As argued by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Meta – Facebook, who was physically present in the forum: “We need help from the people who have been traditionally in power, and to show them that gender equality is also better for them”. This sentence made me think immediately about a seminal article from the 1990s by Joan Acker, who argued that organizations are not gender neutral. The “ideal worker” in organizations is actually a man, available and dedicated to the work at all times. As Acker (1990) argued, “the ranking of women’s jobs is often justified on the basis of women’s identification with childbearing and domestic life. They are devalued because women are assumed to be unable to conform to the demands of the abstract job” (p.152).
Following this thinking, initiatives were created to involve men in gender equality in the last decade. One of the most prominent initiatives is the He for She, by the United Nations, a global solidarity movement for Gender Equality (heforshe.org). Edgar Ramirez, a Venezuelan actor, is an Ambassador of this initiative. Present in the forum, he highlighted the toxic masculinity that needs to be deconstructed. Ramirez did some research, mapping the fifty most popular TV shows for children. He found that in these shows male characters are less likely to show emotions and vulnerability, and more likely to adopt risky behavior. To counter these stereotypical roles and have a better influence towards gender equality since childhood, he suggested to “let the father be the caregiver and the mother be the financial provider” in movies and TV shows. He also called attention to how domestic and public spheres feed each other, and how women are in general confined to the domestic sphere of life.
In addition, Sheryl Sandberg stated that we need to be outraged and optimistic at the same time. Sandberg is known as an advocate for gender equality, especially since her book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to lead” (2013) came out. She called attention to the importance of role models: “You can’t be what you can’t see”, and stated that “No countries ran by a women would go to war”. Indeed, among the 192 countries represented at the Expo Dubai 2020, only 12 are ruled by women. She also mentioned the “broken rung” phenomenon, this critical first promotion to manager, as still holding women back in the workplace. Furthermore, she reminded that the #Metoo movement has caused fear among some men, which might provoke a backlash in advancements for women in the workplace. As she argued: “Don’t harass us, but don’t ignore us”. Sandberg summarized three main important factors in her view to achieve gender equality: Equal division of tasks at home; Corporate equality regarding maternal and paternal leave; Affordable childcare. Gender equality is the unfinished business of our time, she concluded, likely referring to the book by Anne-Marie Slaughter (2015).
The most moving moment of the forum was the one when “Letters to the next generation of girls” were read. Reading a letter to her future granddaughter, the French actress, film director and producer Julie Gayet tells this girl of the 21stcentury that “as long as one single woman is not free, none of us will be free”. Nadine Labaki, actress and film director, tells her daughter that in the future she “imagines her unapologetic and highly artistic”. Labaki reminds the high price girls and women through History paid and quoted Benjamin Franklin when he stated that “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are”. She hoped that when her daughter will be older, a forum like the one we are in that day will not be needed anymore, since gender equality would have become something of the past.
Equality, may it be gender or of another kind, is not achieved in a linear way. The progress towards more equality is filled with advancements and backlashes throughout History, nevertheless always improving (Piketty, 2021). The question of affirmative action and quotas is complex and far from unanimous. While some are supporters of quotas, others believe that at the end of the day, the best and the brightest will rise anyway. This discussion is very relevant currently and recent research by Michael Sandel (2020) deconstructs the myth of meritocracy.
France has the highest percentage of women on boards of directors and the second highest percentage of female board and committees. These results are highly due to the Copé Zimmerman Law, adopted in 2011, with board quotas – set at 40% minimum of either gender. According to Wittenberg-Cox (2021), the fallacious arguments that there were not enough sufficiently qualified women to achieve the quotas, or that the quality of boards would suffer from under-qualified women, have almost disappeared.
All the issues raised in the #Break the Bias forum were relevant and important. The quality of interventions was high, addressing the most recent research findings on women at work and gender equality. I would have liked to see more of the discussion on agency versus structure. Breaking the biases is extremely important. Nevertheless, collective action is essential. As argued by Arruzza et al. (2019), feminism should not start – or stop – with the drive to have women represented at the top of their professions. It must also focus on women at the bottom and include other inequalities. The famous and highly mediatized historian Yuval Noah Harari claims that feminism is likely one of the most pacific revolutions in Human’s history (Casanave et al., 2021). Indeed, feminisms of yesterday and today are certainly among the most important challenges that humanity faces in our times (Pavard et al., 2020). The #Break the Bias forum of the Women’s Pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020 is an important step. We can sincerely hope that these conversations will continue and that collective issues towards gender equality will be more salient in the near future.
Acker, J. (1990). Hierarchies, jobs, bodies: A theory of gendered organizations. Gender & Society, 4(2), 139-158.
Arruzza, C., & Bhattacharya, T.; Fraser, N. (2019). Feminism for the 99%. London: Verso.
Casanave, D., Harari, Y. N., & Vandermeulen, D. (2021). Sapiens: a Graphic History, Volume 2: The Pillars of Civilization. Signal.
McKinsey (2015). The power of parity: how advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth. McKinsey Global Institute, September 2015.
Mukhi, U., & Quental, C. (2019). Exploring the challenges and opportunities of the United Nations sustainable development goals: a dialogue between a climate scientist and management scholars. Corporate Governance: The International Journal of Business in Society, 19 (3), 552-564.
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Pavard, B., Rochefort, F., & Zancarini-Fournel, M. (2020). Ne nous libérez pas, on s’en charge. La Découverte.
Piketty, T. (2021). Une brève histoire de l’égalité, Seuil, Paris.
Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean In: Women, work, and the will to lead. Random House.
Sandel, M. J. (2020). The tyranny of merit: What’s become of the common good? Penguin UK
Slaughter, A. M. (2015). Unfinished business: Women men work family. Simon and Schuster.
Unesco (2021). Girls’ education and COVID-19: New factsheet shows increased inequalities for the education of adolescent girls. https://en.unesco.org/news/girls-education-and-covid-19-new-factsheet-shows-increased-inequalities-education-adolescent. March 9 2021. Retrieved in April 15th 2022.
United Nations, Economic and Social Council (2015). Commission on the Status of Women. Political declaration on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women. 5 March. E/CN.6/2015/L.1.
Wittenberg-Cox, A. (2021). France Unanimously Votes Gender Quotas for Executive Leadership. Leadership Strategy, May 15 2021.