By Avery Jameson, columnist for the New York Times
The workspace, in many ways, is the public arena of most relevance to everyday working people, and thus it is vital that gender inequality in this key space not be overlooked. Yet in focusing on this problem as the most visible manifestation of gender inequality in most modern societies, one must not miss the forest for the tree.
One has to understand the virtue of intersectionality as it applies to addressing the problems present in any particular field. Sexual harassment in the workplace doesn’t start or end in the workplace, and you cannot combat symptoms without digging at the root cause.
This highlights a key troubling issue – how do you address workplace sexual harassment as a singular problem, when societies as a whole influence professional attitudes? Women do not start to believe they are less capable than men just because they acquire these beliefs in the workplace.
So, now what? Of course, the first step is the toughest to make, and one wonders whether you begin in the courts, in codifying our commitment to equality, or in the classrooms, shaping and reinforcing the foundations of equality in the ideals of youths.
Indeed, one can observe the failure of workplace laws in places such as the United States to achieve the full extent of their goals, while also realising that they nonetheless have made a difference, and that such action is important but by itself insufficient.
It is easy enough to make rules and regulations, yet strikingly impossible to actually enforce them when dealing with a society fundamentally opposed to their basic principles. You can outlaw unequal pay, but companies will then try to skirt around these. Even when caught, often the pressure of dealing with unsympathetic relatives and coworkers and a legal system reluctant to take such cases forces affected women to simply give up rather than fight for their rightful pay.
You need champions. People, whether justified or not, look up to individuals who have fought for and won that to which they are entitled, and the UN can by championing such heroes create figures around which to rally. Think of every young female athlete who saw in Serena Williams or Simone Biles a role model, a dream to chase, and you’ll understand the power of heroes.
You need a culture ready to have the conversations which need to be had. Too often, the status quo violently protects itself, and the urgency to make change must be instilled in them in order to force such issues forward. Look to Greta Thunberg for a potent example of how only by forcing people’s hand will you get things done.
Gender equality, therefore, can only be established in the workplace when the surrounding culture is conducive to it. Action starts from everywhere.
At the same time, however, you need both top-down and bottom-up action. The buds of change are found not just in the key figures which drive it, but in every individual who represents its success. Every woman who, against the odds, makes it in a STEM field, every female CEO and board member, will be one more step on the arduous journey toward true equality.
Organizations such as the UN have the greatest imperative to make a difference in places where. Many women cannot afford or access professional degrees, and many others have to deal with workplaces that remain informally or even explicitly gender-segregated. In those regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, action is most sorely needed.
Yet, one must note that action in any field toward combating gender inequality will make a difference in every field. Equal education opportunities help make the entry into workplaces so much easier, and vice versa. Gender inequality is a problem that permeates every space of society equally, and
This reciprocal relationship is key, and gender inequality is a problem that we solve by equidistant steps in every field, moving forward societies toward equality being a process that must be approached from every angle.