The Crucial Role of Men in Gender Equality Conference Nov 18

by Johanna Sova

Kota Day Conference on Men and Gender Equality was held at Proskauer Rose LLP. Thank you Proskauer for providing such a good setting and the Times Square view from above in morning light!


Keynote speakers were Ambassador Kai Sauer, the Permanent Representative of the Mission of Finland to the UN and Richard Lui, MSNBC Anchor with an extensive career in the field. Our panelists represeneted a variety of professionals from varied backgrounds wih a common purpose: we had Antonie De Jong of UNWomen, Aapta Garg from Promundo, Andrew Bettwy from Proskauer, Pablo Freund of BeGIrl, Joseph Samalin of Breakthrough and Jonathan Kalin of Party With Consent. 

Front row: Antonie DeJong, Pablo Freund, Andrew Bettwy, Jonathan Kalin. Back row: Jaana Rehnstrom, Kai Sauer, Richard Lui, Aapta Garg, Joseph Samalin.

Front row: Antonie DeJong, Pablo Freund, Andrew Bettwy, Jonathan Kalin. Back row: Jaana Rehnstrom, Kai Sauer, Richard Lui, Aapta Garg, Joseph Samalin.

Many important topics were presented and discussed and one specifically became central. It was the topic of language, the way we speak about women, men and the obstacles in the way of gender equality. “A nasty woman” is one good example alongside many others made used by President-Elect Donald Trump during his campaign. Leaving the election out of this, one rhetorical question must still be asked in the spirit of our conference: What does the concept of a woman mean to Trump, the President of the United States?  A president should convey the image and the ideal of a man’s perspective on women, but the language of Trump is undeniably far from the agenda of women’s empowerment. The Kota Day Conference was a wonderful example of men taking a stance.

I’m writing this post from the perspective of a Scandinavian woman. In my country, Finland, we have achieved a lot in gender equality – such as the election of a female President of the Republic, Tarja Halonen, in 2000 - as was referenced by Dr Jaana Rehnstrom, Interim ED of Kota, in the conference’s introduction. We tend to take gender equality for granted; although the fact is, herstorically, it was a hard and eclectic struggle to get to the point where we are today. In case you think I spelled that wrong, I didn’t. We use phrases and expressions that we are accustomed to without paying attention to the reality they construct. I prefer using the word herstory instead of history whenever it comes to women’s roles in the past. It’s not to say we need to rewrite history to be herstory, rather it is to emphasize how we still rarely speak about women as active participants, creators and doers. “When did women get the right to both vote and run for the first time?” could rather be asked “when did women achieve full suffrage for the first time?". 

It’s year 2016 now. Women have taken great steps globally in empowerment and gender equality. Yet as much has yet to be achieved, and maybe never before has feminism and the women’s rights movement been as versatile and globally powerful as it is today. We have all kinds of forms of feminism, as we have all kinds of women, which is exactly how it should be. An interesting phrase “women are not a minority” arose during the conference as part of being lumped together with racial and other gender minorities. Aren’t we?

Women form half of the human population, but being a minority isn’t about numbers, rather it’s a question of power. Now if we think about the phrase again, we come to realize women are still a minority because we don’t have as much power as men. As a Scandinavian woman I find that extremely hard to admit, as I’ve been raised to know my worth and been guaranteed basic human rights before I was even born. Yet I still often find myself in practical situations where gender becomes a defining, even restricting factor. 

Intersectionality was another important key issue discussed at the conference. White male dominance of both language and society is undeniable but so is the fact that women are not a single group with one voice but polyphonic body with some having their voice heard louder than others, some groups having more power than others. For example, as a Scandinavian woman, I see working for women's rights and gender equality as my responsibility, yet I admit my perspective on the struggles of women globally is limited, as I haven't been exposed to and experienced the oppression women elsewhere have. Similarly, we have to be very careful about what is considered oppression and what is not. Also, it has to be remembered that gender equality isn't just about women and men but human beings overall. Gender equality is a human rights issue, and feminism isn't just for women, it's for everyone fighting against the unjust structures of patriarchy.

Of course the question of power highly depends on the context it is presented in. There are many circumstances and occasions where women have more power than men, such as the custody of children. But no matter the race and geographic location, there’s no woman who has not in some point of her life faced gender based violence. We’re also always subject to the gaze of men, always seen as sexual creatures who awake desire in men. Generalizing, if we fail to sexually attract a man, we’re either not real women or we’re his mom. We all know this, we’ve all experienced it. 

The conference’s panel framed gender-based violence as an intersectional, global and domestic problem in which men play a crucial role in multiple ways. Both Joseph Samalin from Breakthrough and Pablo Freund from BeGirl, encouraged us to not frame sexual violence against women as assault on daughters, mothers and sisters but as attacks on humans. Women should not be referred to by their relation to men but as human beings with human rights.

Ambassador Kai Sauer giving his speech.

Ambassador Kai Sauer giving his speech.

The conference began with the speech of Ambassador Kai Sauer. I couldn’t have been more impressed and proud. There he was representing my country and the UN, speaking about men’s role in women’s empowerment. He spoke about violence against women as the huge global problem it is. It’s a problem in Finland too as in the form of domestic violence, yet our President Sauli Niinistö’s initiative on anger management education in Finnish army is a great example of the actions taken towards improvement. President Niinistö is also an Impact Champion for the HeForShe campaign of UN Women. To learn more about Finnish equality, read or watch Niinistö’s speech at the HeForShe Second Anniversary Reception here.

Anchor Richard Lui talking about human trafficking. 

Anchor Richard Lui talking about human trafficking. 

MSNBC Anchor Richard Lui continued on the same them, focusing on human trafficking in particular. Lui specifically emphasized the white male dominance of language. For example, we rather say a woman was raped than a man raped a woman. We also talk about prostitutes and hookers rather than the buyers of sex. In a second we can picture in our minds what a prostitute looks like but it is harder to depict an image of a sex buyer. Lui remarked how important it is to start to focus the talk on the men who create the demand, rather than the women who, almost always forcibly, respond to it. Lui’s message to men thinking what they can do for women’s empowerment is this: change the language used. 

At this point I’d like to refer to BeGirl representative Pablo Freund’s tactics he shared with us. Freund’s contribution to women’s empowerment includes him speaking of menstruation in unexpected situations. We have to love this man, what an advice for men to speak about the "unspeakable" to do their part!  

We hear all the time about Male Privilege. Maybe even that is a use of language that can change. As Richard Lui recalled, 67% of sex traffickers are male and three quarters of victims female. My question is, should we even use the term privilege, as in so many cases it makes things that are so wrong sound as something desirable. Power is the key again, replacing ‘privilege’ with ‘dominance’ changes the tone. 

So, thinking about the future and language we use, we should start to speak about power as something to be shared, not taken or given. The fact that we need men to advocate for women, to tell other men the things we’ve kept repeating for years, more than not reveals the existing power structure and work to be done.

I end this post by quoting the HerForShe Anniversary speech of President Sauli Niinistö. He cited Helvi Sipilä, one Finnish trailblazer of herstory who in her time said, “The impossible can be made possible”. She made many seemingly impossible things possible in her career, and a lot of what she only dreamed of has now become reality. To make new impossible things possible and to share power, both women and men are needed! 

The inspirational speeches and lively, future-oriented conversation made us all hope to have more of these! Thank you also to the active audience, gender equality is teamwork!