Gender equality is a socio-economic issue and a human right

Governments need to intervene more to drive change, says Trisha De Borchgrave, a powerful advocate of global gender equality

Trisha De Borchgrave is a freelance writer and moderator for current affairs and culture, and Senior Associate at Global Women Leaders Strategic Philanthropy. She is a strong advocate for gender equality, particularly in the IT industry, and believes governments need to intervene more to drive change.

Why are you so passionate about increasing the representation of women in technology?

Because we are at a critical stage in human evolution: today, in our male-created world, we are too carbon-intensive, too environmentally destructive, too exploitative and too unfair. And we need to re-build better.

And pandemic or not, we as humans are moving into a new hybrid version of ourselves, not just in how we work but how we will think and function, which will define our societies for years to come.

If women and diversity are not part of the transition into the era in which technology will play a vital role in addressing the challenge of how to become stewards, not ravagers of the planet, then we will fail.

Our online/offline lives are melding. Toddlers and children growing up in the pandemic are already adapting to social distancing in ways that many decry, worried that they will lack the emotional tools to connect with others. Zoom and similar technologies will move out of this primitive stage of glitches and accidental muting and become a vibrant and “human” way to communicate with each other.

Machine learning will drive our physical wellbeing – (personally, I won’t say no to implants that give me pain relief and help me remain more physically and mentally agile) – and it will also determine our economic opportunities and define our societal status.

If history repeats itself, and the thinkers, designers and innovators of this new era remain a monopoly of men, it will indeed be some weird one-dimensional dystopia. The greatest natural resource we have left is human capital, but, if it’s not inclusive, we will not grow creatively, sustainably and equitably. 

Right now the largely male tech research community is designing predictive algorithms that are making decisions over our lives – how we map out our streets, our education, healthcare, justice systems, security, immigration policies and hiring decisions. But often this is done with gender, ethnic and geographical bias. Look at how UK students reacted to the faulty A-Level predictive algorithm – one shouted to the schools’ minister: “You have ruined my life!”.  No kidding. If women do not also occupy this digital space, their human rights will be undermined.  

But ‘it’s not just a technology issue’? 

For me, this is still a socio-economic issue. We still haven’t cracked gender stereotypes, which are rooted in the social context of thousands of years. Why is it that girls in the UK have consistently academically outperformed boys at school for the last 30 years, but this hasn’t translated into any professional sector? It’s not just IT; it’s in finance, politics, law, the armed forces, architecture, healthcare, everything. Oh no, hang on, the one sector that women dominate is unpaid caring.

Even with women’s entrepreneurship, when there is ample evidence that women-owned businesses often do better than male-owned ones, they still cannot access capital in the same way as men. 80% of bank loans still go to male-dominated sectors, such as real estate, insurance and finance. But only two to three per cent of lending goes to female entrepreneurs, even when they have good proven records.

What should be done to address this gender inequality?

Robust government intervention. Some people disagree with me, but I believe that it has to be government policy.  We need mandated parental leave. Otherwise, a woman remains a high-risk asset from the age of 25 onwards, when she is “in danger” of having a child.  A man who has his first child grows in stature, in perceived responsible maturity, whereas a woman is seen to be incapacitated in her ability to do the job. 

And when I think of the impediments and challenges in girls‘ lives, nine times out of ten, it’s still about how they’ll be able to organise themselves when they have children. Of course, that includes their human right to control their reproductive and sexual health.  

What kills me is when I see women who are taken out of their profession at a crucial point between 25 and 40 in the midst of building their professional portfolios and expertise. To take maybe six of those years away because of children and then try and come back in, that’s hard. Men don’t have that extraction, and they should. 

In Japan, for example, they have very generous leave for fathers, I think up to a year. And guess how many fathers take it? Around 2 to 3%, sometimes for a whole week! I spoke to an Icelandic female minister a few years back, and she said that when they mandated parental leave, it was transformative for their country. Iceland today is arguably one of the world’s most gender-equal countries. 

Also quality subsidised childcare has the single biggest effect on women’s employment. 

I genuinely think that we have to get to the point that any person in a relationship and of child-bearing age, whether they physically have that child or not, is the same risk factor for that company because their commitment to the responsibility of family commitments is equal. And that includes looking after aged parents or family members with disabilities.

Can you see the current government bringing in such legislation?

No, but there are plenty of female civil society groups that can pressure the government to legislate, particularly for gender budgeting and quotas. But I think that this government is sufficiently aware that they’re being watched very closely. The problem is that men hold the monopoly of power and policy.  And who gives up a monopoly willingly? No one. 

Why do you think that community network groups and associations haven’t made more effort to challenge the government?  

We live in divisive times – the #MeToo movement raised awareness, but still leaves young women beholden to intimidating, male-dominated environments. Even on Zoom, there is evidence that women are becoming more silent.

What is sad is that a lot of young women are not in a position to speak up. I do because I have nothing to lose – I’m freelance and older. Occasionally, I will make a comment publicly about a “manel” or on the absence of women in a given situation, then young women email to thank me. Call me naive, but I am always surprised, almost shocked, at their sense of paralysis and professional timidity. 

Male political leadership is combative, which doesn’t help with female solidarity. Men support each other, even their mediocre counterparts because they’re part of the majority club. Women have not reached a critical mass and, therefore, haven’t had the chance to grow into a comfortable position of professional and societal equality, so, as a minority, we tend to pick on each other first.

A female MP said to me recently that she didn’t understand how women haven’t coalesced over the reprehensible personal behaviour of a leader like Boris Johnson. Maybe because he represents other things that they want, I replied. The ruling Conservative party has a built-in patriarchy which means the gender agenda gets sidelined in favour of taxation policies or, indeed, Brexit. 

Some Republican leaders in the States, for example, don’t even have to have an unconscious bias, they can have a conscious bias; they think it’s perfectly acceptable to make racial and misogynist slurs. If you want to see what gender bias looks and sounds like, listen to Senator Yoho publicly insulting Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes. It is the outrage and infantile petulance of a man who cannot fathom that a woman can stand in the same space as him, as an equal, and challenge his views.

Yet this would have been viewed differently, 10 or 20 years ago?

The fact that we can call it out means we have moved on from just a few short years ago. And to a large extent, we have #MeToo to thank for that.

But where does this leave men today? In a weird place. When a young man, a friend of one of my daughters, said he ‘didn’t know how to behave’ in today’s environment, I asked him if he defined himself as straight? He said yes, so I told him that whatever he felt comfortable saying to a male colleague, he should also feel comfortable saying to a female colleague. After all, there is nothing wrong with pointing out you like someone’s haircut or a new coat, but, if it feels uncomfortable based on your professional relationship, not your gendered one, then you shouldn’t say it.

This patriarchal system is not bringing out the best in any of us. We all have to be on that competitive wavelength, and women are still competing inside assumed masculine primacy and, because of it, between themselves. All minorities tend to be their own worst enemies, turning on themselves to define what is wrong and what is right in light of approval from the more dominant group.

They take on the male persona?

Absolutely. Although the perception that women defer their own ambition for the better good of their families and communities is a baked-in bias against their own sense of ambition. It’s worth noting that this characteristic, arguably fine-tuned by generations of role relegation for women as child providers and carers, has also evolved into a deeper understanding of perspective and context. If their natural inclinations and instincts were at 50-50 participation levels, we really would have a much better chance at rebuilding our economies around principles of controlled growth and planetary wellbeing.

Meanwhile successful women continue to incur the motherhood penalty, and fall into the likability trap, often imposed by their own sex.  “How does a woman with a high-powered job dare have children at home?” conflates into, “she must be a tough bitch, her poor kids,” which means we’re still competing within those male persona parameters.

Do you know of many male allies? 

A few … and when one lives and breathes an environment of fifty-fifty camaraderie, friendship and professional relationships it is so much fun. But I can think of more cases where I know the opposite. For example, a senior European politician published a book on feminism a couple of years ago. During an interview, I asked him how many of his office staff were women? Not one. Though there may have been a junior aide, he recalled.  

At a conference this year with live people crammed together in rooms – which now seems like some sort of vague dream – there was a half-hour conversation with the new CEO of Alphabet, which was being live-streamed. He defended some of the criticism aimed at big tech companies, and gave examples about their vision as a force for good etc., etc. 

The chairperson opened it up to the floor for questions. A woman put up her hand and, although she was in his direct line of vision, he chose a man to her left. When the woman raised her hand again, this time he turned around 180 degrees, and chose another man. So, the entire conversation was done through the voice of men. Gender bias really does make women invisible. I know he simply didn’t see her.

And then to top this off, there was a session on gender parity chaired by a well-known commentator. The panel was five people – three women and two men. One of the women on the panel was Sanna Marin, the thirty-two-year-old, female Finnish prime minister. His first question to the Prime Minister of Finland was how, as head of a coalition of five different parties, all led by women, did they get to know each other? Did they, for example, get together in the sauna as a bonding exercise? 

‘Isn’t there the problem of just viewing ‘women’s achievements through the lens of gender?

Yes, when they continue to be seen as outliers and exceptions within their industries. But maybe we should. Especially today as exceptional female political leaders dealing with the pandemic; from Finland to Taiwan, their ego-free ability to listen, learn the facts, empathise, build consensus, and communicate are gender related.

Do you think men fear women to an extent?

I do, and yet, if we created the environment in which men don’t have to conform to these types of masculinity, I think much of that fear would diminish. How can men be let off the hook of patriarchy? They need it as much as we do. 

So, more legislation is the answer?

Laws are not just about enforcement; they have the power to encourage the moral element outside a patriarchal system. They can limit degrading treatment, inequality, marginalisation and discrimination. We need a legally binding nudge factor. The private sector will not willingly move definitively in this direction. Imagine them all becoming B-corps, for example. It’s hard, painful and expensive. They need incentives.

Laws on quotas, equal pay, parental leave don’t have to last forever. Give them a ten-year warranty, and see what happens. I think it would be transformative. We need to fast track this.

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