Talking openly about women and gender

Copyright: Dieter Telemans / Panos

Speed read

  • Looking at people through a gender lens risks reinforcing stereotypes
  • Being a woman or a man does not define us and nor should it limit us
  • Openness about women and gender is a crucial step towards diversity

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Gender is a complex issue to navigate. Simply put, women and men should neither be limited nor defined by gender.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about gender — about women, to be more precise.
Next week, at the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59), the world will gather to review the progress made since 189 countries unanimously adopted the Beijing Platform for Action 20 years ago — widely regarded as a defining moment for gender equality. [1] The Beijing+20 gathering will commence in New York a day after International Women’s Day.

My thoughts are driven not only by those events, they’re also driven by experience as well as wider discussions in science and development. Like anyone who reflects on women’s place in society, it only takes a look at news headlines to see evidence of violence against women and girls, violations of rights to education and health, and even less obvious issues such as their contributions in productive sectors such as agriculture being overlooked. That many discriminatory laws remain in place, according to a recent report, despite the Beijing declaration, shows one structural barrier to equality. [2]

From the perspective of science, debate tends to centre on barriers to women’s full participation and advancement in scientific fields. These barriers often start at an early age, with social norms and misconceptions about gender-specific abilities. But they often persist through to advanced career stages, with overt or nuanced disadvantages including the lack of family-friendly employment policies.

Yet over the years, I’ve often felt uneasy about how these issues might apply to my own life and career.

The risk of focusing on gender

There are those who believe passionately in the gender equality agenda and others who may see it as only one of many important issues in science and development. Similarly, some scientists and science journalists may believe there is too much emphasis on barriers along gender lines, while others may have experienced obstacles or stereotypes first hand.
I’ve slowly come closer to identifying my unease. It is a worry that looking at people or activities through a gender lens risks unduly focusing on gender above everything else that makes up that individual or action. Defining ourselves and others in terms of gender has a strange way of reinforcing the stereotypes we are trying to dispel. And that risks creating something akin to a parallel track that is specific to women but separate from the world in which they demand, and should have, a stronger presence.

“We are not all on the same page — and this only serves to reinforce the need for open conversations about women, gender and equality in the workplace and in societies.”

Anita Makri, SciDev.Net

Simply put, being a woman, or a man, or of any other gender identity, is part of who we are, but we are made up of much more. Take any female or male researcher profiled on SciDev.Net’s pages. Does their gender have an overwhelming influence on their work?

Changing mind-sets

This is, of course, one side of the coin, one to do with individuals. On a collective or social level, the picture looks different.

Without a doubt, how individuals and societies perceive women, their capabilities and their roles affect women’s lives and their rights. This applies to participation in both science and development. Gender equality and empowerment initiatives by the UN and others are crucial for raising awareness, changing mind-sets and promoting change that will put men and women on an equal footing.

Gender mainstreaming is part of our strategy at SciDev.Net. Guest blogger Henrietta Miers regularly offers incisive commentary on the gender implications of — or indeed omissions in — science and development news headlines. Other analysis blogs have tackled issues around gender that go beyond women: about LGBTI persecution or sexual violence against men.

To return to women: in 2011, a collection of articles explored barriers to women’s participation in science. More recently, a data visualisation piece explored the proportion of female researchers in countries around the world, and interviews have highlighted women’s personal stories and routes into academic institutions.

Last November, in collaboration with the organisation GenderInSITE (Gender in Science, Innovation, Technology and Engineering), we hosted workshops for editorial staff on understanding social gender dynamics in science reporting. The Practical Guide we publish this week, on reporting science through a gender lens, began with conversations during those workshops.

Beyond definition and limits

The problem is that arguments for gender perspectives on science or development are sometimes understood as arguments for gender as a defining feature of anyone’s contribution. But being a woman or a man does not define us — and crucially, neither should it limit us.

The aim is equal opportunities, equal rights and equal power — and more to the point, it is about being open to diversity that enriches any task, any conversation, any society.

This brings me to two of the reasons why gender is a complex issue to navigate.

The first is confusion over the individual and collective aspects of how we understand gender. For example, inequalities and injustices for women in many societies are undeniable; covert messages, patriarchal systems and entrenched beliefs have a disempowering effect, often in subtle ways, discouraging women and girls from participating fully in society.
But it would be a mistake, and part of the very definition of discrimination, to use collective characteristics as a way to understand an individual woman — and vice versa, to use an individual woman’s experience to understand the collective.

Scepticism about gender barriers in science might come from women who haven’t experienced them or who have achieved success regardless. Neither case offers an argument against what might be a reality for the majority.

The second reason is that each person has a different perception of gender in their life and wider society, even as that might change over time. For all of us, things like upbringing, social environment, education and experiences influence perceptions and attitudes. Similarly, each society is at a different place, historically and relative to each other, in the value it places on women and the structural barriers to women’s participation.

We are not all on the same page — and this only serves to reinforce the need for open conversations about women, gender and equality in the workplace and in societies. For many parts of the world, getting there is a long road and will take changes in policies, laws and systems that reinforce entrenched inequalities.

But even though we may all be on a journey, there should be no question as to the destination: a world that values diversity, where men and women share the same space with equal opportunities, rights and power, neither limited nor defined by their gender.

Anita Makri is opinion and special features editor at SciDev.Net. @anita_makri