Last month, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, the world discussed equality between genders and celebrated the day with the Theme – Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” with the hashtag #BreakTheBias.
And recently, we got an apt opportunity to interact with Ms Sofia Calltorp, Ambassador for Gender Equality and Coordinator of the Feminist Foreign Policy, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Sweden on her views on gender equality and also on what the western world thinks about the issue.
Here are a few of Sofia’s viewpoints:
- Why is gender equality an issue? Why talk about Gender equality in the modern world?
There are many reasons to continuously work for increased gender equality. The reason why Sweden pursues a feminist foreign policy can be described as twofold. Of course, gender equality is an objective in itself, but it is also essential for achieving the Swedish Government’s overall foreign policy objectives, such as peace, security and sustainable development. In recent decades, progress has been made for global equality and women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of human rights. For example, more girls go to school, child marriages decrease, and more women are represented in parliaments and in leadership positions.
However, although we have seen progress still today, the daily life of women and girls around the world are marked with bias, discrimination, and systematic subordination. The Pandemic has had a severe impact on women and girls worldwide. We see a deeply worrying worldwide increase of violence against women and girls in the shadow of the pandemic. The economic downturn has also had a disproportionate impact on women. Women’s position in the labour market is less secure, they often work in informal sectors, they bear most of the responsibility for unpaid care work, and they have less access to social security. Globally, the gender gap is widening. All this poses a serious threat to gender equality and to the economy. Additionally, the effects of climate change and a shrinking democratic space in many contexts are further challenging for gender equality. Women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of human rights is intrinsically the unfinished business of the last century. We do still have much to do before women and girls are offered equal opportunities in life.
At the same time, there is growing awareness that gender equality is a fundamental prerequisite for economic growth, democracy, and sustainable development. All experience speaks that the more equal a country is, the more stable and prosperous it is. Equality, democracy, and economic development simply go hand in hand. Women’s economic empowerment is key to sustainable development and economic growth. For example, the OECD estimates that the increase in female employment accounts for 10-20 per cent of the overall average annual growth rate in Sweden and the Nordic countries over the past 50 years. In other words, it makes no sense – economically or otherwise – to exclude half the population from the labour market and from active participation in the economy. Consequently, the whole society, men and women, boys and girls, benefit from a more gender-equal development.
- What according to you are the barriers to gender equality?
I would say that barriers to gender equality exist to some extent in all contexts although manifested differently. It is important to acknowledge that there are both formal and informal barriers to gender equality that are often interrelated and must be addressed.
Sweden’s feminist foreign policy adheres to a holistic approach with a framework based on three R: s to identify and address the barriers to gender equality, these are to strengthen all women’s and girls’ ’‘Representation’, ‘Rights’, and ‘Resources’. Rights refer to all women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of human rights, which includes combating all forms of violence and discrimination that restrict their freedom of action. Representation refers to women’s participation and influence in decision-making processes at all levels and in all areas. Resources are meant to ensure that these are allocated to promote gender equality and equal opportunities for all women and girls to enjoy human rights. Additionally, a fourth R is ‘Reality’, which refers to the notion that gender inequalities are contextual.
These dimensions are advantageous to enable a systematic analysis of gender inequalities in different contexts and identify the specific barriers and how gender inequality is manifested differently. For example, what do statistics say about the difference between women and men, girls, and boys? Do they have the same rights – to education, work, inheritance, marriage, and divorce? And are they represented where decisions are made – in parliaments, local councils, and other political arenas? And is gender equality considered when resources are allocated – in central budgets or development assistance projects?
In parallel, it is crucial to address informal barriers to gender equality such as stereotypical social and gender norms, although they might be more difficult to identify. Formal and informal dimensions of gender inequalities interact and produce gender unequal outcomes in different contexts.
- How can we reduce gender discrimination? How do you intend to achieve gender equality in your office?
Based on the reasoning above, I believe that it is necessary to emphasize a holistic and inclusive approach when working for increased gender equality. Gender equality must be integrated into ordinary systems, processes, and responsibility structures. Additionally, it requires strong leadership.
A lesson learned from working with the feminist foreign policy is that gender equality often arouses strong feelings. It touches upon key issues such as the distribution of power, resources, and influence. To counteract resistance towards working to increase gender equality, it is important to be inclusive and context-specific and to rely on research, experiences and arguments which show that gender equality benefits the people personally and interpersonally as well as the workplace, community, and society at large, for example when it comes to social and economic development.
Within the field of staffing in general, the Swedish Foreign Service is continuously working to strengthen gender equality. This involves a review of the entire chain, from recruitment and leadership programmes to the process of appointing managers. Moreover, specific measures are being carried out to increase the number of women applicants for management positions, including ambassador roles. This has proven to be effective as the proportion of women managers has also increased. We continuously strive to strengthen gender equality and to maintain a gender balance in all staffing categories, including the number of women in senior management positions. In this regard, I am glad that I can say that my team is almost gender balanced.
- How do you want to overcome issues of women facing stereotyping by colleagues, preconceived notions, and paternalistic attitudes of bosses?
I must accentuate the importance of working systematically and holistically to address the complexity of structural discrimination against women also in the workplace. I believe that awareness-raising can be a starting point, as some behaviours and attitudes that manifest stereotypical gender norms are deeply entrenched and unconsciously maintained. Additionally, it is important to include men in this work. As gender norms are maintained and reproduced by women and men alike, it is vital to emphasize an inclusive approach to address discriminatory behaviour and attitudes based on gender.
- What kind of role do you see for women in global warming, wildlife protection, and other sustainability issues?
It is vital that we acknowledge both the increased vulnerability of women and girls in the context of climate change as well as their role as change agents. First and foremost, we must act on the fact that women and girls are disproportionally affected by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change, competition for natural resources and conflict situations alike are exacerbating the situation of women and girls. Furthermore, when disasters and crises strike, women are often more vulnerable due to deeply entrenched gender inequalities, and in the aftermath, women and girls are less able to access relief and assistance.
However, it is equally important to emphasize that the response to climate change must be inclusive, and recognize women and girls are important to change agents. Women are central in the work for sustainable environmental and climate solutions. For example, women often have the main responsibility for food production, water supply and family welfare and therefore have knowledge of how, for example, climate adaptation measures locally should be designed. Additionally, communities often perform better during natural disasters when women play a leadership role in early warning systems and reconstruction. As such, participation, representation, and leadership of women is essential for the effectiveness of climate action and for sustainable development.
- What Embassy of Sweden is planning to bring in India, and what are their new initiatives?
The Embassy works actively with gender equality. I recently took part in one interesting event that was organized by the Embassy together with the Swedish Chamber of Commerce on the topic of gender sensitization in the workplace. The event was a graduation of a gender sensitization task force for Swedish companies in India. Over 20 companies have taken part in gender sensitization workshops to discuss equality in the workplace. It was great to see the engagement of the participants, including some of the CEO: s of Swedish companies who are keen to discuss and share experiences to raise awareness of these issues. The Embassy is currently an EU Gender Champion, which means it is the EU-flag bearer for gender equality for a period of six months. This is a great opportunity to shed light on the work that is being done and connect with relevant stakeholders in India.
The Embassy is also planning to work with issues related to norms and in particular discussion around masculinity norms. This is a fundamental part, which is sometimes overlooked, in gender equality work. The Swedish Institute provides a tool kit for engaging discussions on for example toxic masculinity norms. In close collaborations with Indian partners, the Embassy hopes to initiate more conversations around these issues. Work on these matters has been done by different Swedish Embassies in the past under the name of Global Guy Talk.
Talking about her Personal Experiences, she said:
- What has been the most significant barrier in your career?
I have been very fortunate to grow up and work in a society and organisation where gender equality has been very high on the agenda. But of course, I have encountered many barriers. To combine a demanding work with family life has been a challenge.
- Have you ever been afraid of the job? Have you ever been so discouraged you wanted to quit?
I have always had strong support, from colleagues and superiors but also from my family – in particular my father and my husband. That has been of utmost importance to overcome fear and to continue to fight and strive!
- How have you built confidence and/or resiliency over the course of your career?
Having strong support from colleagues but also from my family has been crucial to building confidence and resiliency over my career. I have been fortunate to work with very inspiring people who have believed in me and pushed me forward.
- How do you balance your career, personal life, and passions? Is there such a thing called balance?
I think everyone with a demanding job is struggling with those questions, and that there is no such thing called balance. The key is to realize that you have to make choices, that you cannot do everything at the same time. At certain periods you prioritize your work, at other times you put your family and personal life first. There is no such thing as an optimal formula or “balance”, but very much up to everyone to make their choices according to their overall situation. But once again – one has to realize that one can not have everything at the same time!
- What benefits have you received from your leadership experiences?
I have learnt tremendously from my leadership experiences and grown both professionally and as a human being by being confronted with various management and leadership issues.
To end up her views, Sofia has some advice for professional women:
- Your advice to professional women
Believe in yourself! In your capacity and capability to make a difference in whatever field to choose to engage!
- How do you encourage women to not give up?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help or support – from people around you who believe in you and support your strive. Colleagues, family and friends are essential to realising your full potential.