Not just men biased against women


Breaking the glass ceiling: In Finland, which has the youngest prime minister, Sanna Marin, only 25% of people think men make better political leaders. Marin (third from left) with her education minister, Li Andersson; finance minister, Katri Kulmuni; and interior minister, Maria Ohisalo. — AFP

A new UN report has found at least 90% of women in the world hold some sort of bias against females too. In Malaysia, women's rights advocates say the new government needs to push ahead with the planned reforms to advance gender equality in the country.

HOW big and thick is the glass ceiling?

A new United Nations report suggests that this ceiling covers all aspects of women’s lives – including the household – and that it is constructed, not of glass, but of pervasive bias and prejudice against women held by both men and women worldwide.

The Gender Social Norms Index released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on Friday found at least 90% of men and women hold some sort of bias against females, highlighting the “shocking” extent of the global backlash towards gender equality. Despite progress in closing the equality gap, 91% of men and 86% of women hold at least one bias against women in relation to politics, economics, education, violence or reproductive rights.

Analysing data from 75 countries that are home to over 80% of the world’s population, this index measured how social beliefs obstruct gender equality in areas like politics, work, and education.

It showed that while in some countries there have been improvements, in others, attitudes appeared to have worsened in recent years. Of the 75 countries studied, there were only six in which the majority of people held no bias towards women.

Zimbabwe had the highest amount of bias with only 0.27% of people reporting no gender bias at all. At the other end of the scale was Andorra where 72% of people reported no bias. In Malaysia, only 1.46% of people reported having no gender bias.

There are no countries in the world with gender equality, the study found. Globally, close to 50% of men said they had more right to a job than women, and over 40% feel that men make better business executives. Some 28% think it is justified for a man to beat his wife.

According to the report, about half of the world’s men and women feel that men make better political leaders.

In China, 55% of people thought men were better suited to be political leaders, while in Malaysia 80% believe that.

Around 39% of people in the US, which is yet to have a female president, thought men made better leaders. However, in New Zealand, a country that currently has a female leader, only 27% of people thought that. Similarly, in Finland, which has the world's youngest prime minister, 34-year-old Sanna Marin, only 25% of people think men make better political leaders.

The number of female heads of government is lower today than five years ago with only 10 women in such positions in 193 countries, down from 15 in 2014.

When it comes to seats in parliament, though, there is a slightly higher percentage of women in these roles.

The UNDP is calling on governments to introduce legislation and policies that address ingrained prejudice.

“We all know we live in a male-dominated world, but with this report we are able to put some numbers behind these biases, ” said Pedro Conceição, director of the UNDP’s human development report office. “And the numbers, I consider them shocking.

“What our report shows is a pattern that repeats itself again and again. Big progress in more basic areas of participation and empowerment. But when we get to more empowering areas, we seem to be hitting a wall.”

Conceição said the data show that perceptions and expectations in society about the role of women are prejudiced against them.

“While in many countries these biases are shrinking, in many others the biases are actually sliding back. If you take the overall average of the information we have, we show that on average we are sliding back – that biases, instead of shrinking, are growing back.”

With 2020 marking the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Beijing+25), the most visionary agenda on women’s empowerment to date, UNDP is urging for change in these discriminatory beliefs and practices through education, and by raising awareness and changing incentives.

For instance, by using taxes to incentivise fairly sharing child-care responsibilities, or by encouraging women and girls to enter traditionally male-dominated sectors such as the armed forces and information technology.

“The women’s rights demonstrations we’re seeing across the world today, energised by young feminists, are signaling that new alternatives for a different world are needed, ” said Raquel Lagunas, UNDP Gender Team Acting Director. “We must act now to break through the barrier of bias and prejudices if we want to see progress at the speed and scale needed to achieve gender equality.”

The report came as rights campaigners around the world called on their leaders to accelerate action to meet global targets on gender equality.

It was reported that an open letter, signed by nine presidents and CEOs of organisations including Plan International, Women Deliver and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, had cautioned about the risk of failure in meeting the 2030 target for gender equality in the world.

“As representatives of leading organisations championing gender equality, we’re raising the alarm about the pace of progress. There is no time left for business as usual: gender equality can be achieved for billions of girls and women by 2030, but it requires everyone to move faster, ” the letter was quoted by The Guardian.

“We’ve found that, if the current pace continues, 67 countries – home to 2.1 billion girls and women – will not achieve any of the key gender equality targets we studied by 2030.”

Reforms must persist

Sumitra: The Gender Equality Act would mandate the government to accelerate gender equality.Sumitra: The Gender Equality Act would mandate the government to accelerate gender equality.

In Malaysia, Sumitra Visvanathan, executive director of Women’s Aid Organisation, urged the government to continue the push for reforms to improve women’s rights and achieve gender equality in the country.

“Before the political upheaval, there had been steady progress towards reforms to improve women’s rights. Many of these reforms were close to being tabled in Parliament – and would have improved the lives of millions of women in Malaysia, ” she said, identifying the five law reforms that “must persist”: the Sexual Harassment Act, Gender Equality Act, anti-stalking laws, paternity leave and protection against discrimination in the workplace.

As Sumitra pointed out, “The Gender Equality Act would comprehensively protect women from discrimination – not just in the workplace but in various sectors. It would also mandate the government to take proactive steps to accelerate gender equality.”

She stressed, all these slated reforms were the fruit of years of activism.

“But these reforms now hang in the balance. We must ensure that they are not derailed – if we are to create a Malaysia where women can thrive and flourish.”

Read also: Keep going with reforms

For women’s rights activist Ivy Josiah, the main reform needed is in education.

“To achieve gender equality in the country, we need to start our children young. Gender equality must be incorporated into early childhood education, ” she said.

“Evidence has shown that six-year-old girls believe boys are smarter than girls. Stereotyping starts very early especially in the classroom.” Josiah: Do we have to wait another 25 years for reforms to advance gender equality in Malaysia?Josiah: Do we have to wait another 25 years for reforms to advance gender equality in Malaysia?

Josiah hopes the new government will build on what has been done the past two years and make it even better.

“I hope that they will not throw the baby out with the bathwater. For example, they should recognise the hard work put in by several stakeholders including civil servants to draft the sexual harassment bill and anti-stalking bill and simply table them in Parliament, ” she said, adding that she also wishes for every minister to undergo “a crash course on why gender equality policies are key to a nation’s success”.

It is also imperative for the new government to fulfil the commitments it made under the Beijing Platform for Action, she said.

“The promises made by our governments to advance equality, development and peace for all women 25 years ago have not been fully kept. Therefore instead of waiting for another 25 years, it is imperative that every cabinet minister to fulfil the promises made by the Malaysian government in 1995 to advance gender equality in the country.”

Social activist Marina Mahathir agrees that to achieve gender equality in the country we need to start with the young.

“It starts with respect for one another which needs to start from young.

“It seems to me no coincidence that Finland, which has a really good education system, also produced a young female prime minister and political parties whose heads are all female. So we need to see how we constantly undermine young girls and women all the way from school up to university.

"If we treat girls and women with respect, then it would be the most natural thing to have a female PM one day, ” she said.

Marina also urged the new prime minister to appoint a dynamic minister for women affairs and one “who is committed to women’s rights and will not bow to pressure.”

“I hope the new government will also pass the bills that have been worked on before especially the Sexual Harassment Act, ” she said.

For arts activist Bilqis Hijjas, the way to achieve equality is to nurture and support more women to engage in the political process and to assume positions of leadership and authority.

“Studies have suggested that women in positions of power can reduce corruption. Women leaders may also be more cooperative and more altruistic, and to value equality and a focus on education and health, ” she said.

“Women should not just be nominated to visible but largely token ministerial positions at the top of the food chain; they should be encouraged in every level of government, from the grassroots upwards.

"This requires a holistic approach that addresses challenges in the workplace including parental leave, unequal pay between sexes, lack of childcare and inflexible working hours, as well as combating workplace harassment.”

Activist-lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri believes we have to identify systems or structures that enable and perpetuate patriarchy and other forms of oppression (given that oppression is always gendered, she said) and articulate issues associated with them.

“To effectively do so, we need to employ intersectionality as a tool to understand the different issues that are not only gendered but also raced and classed.

"This approach is important in helping us craft the right analysis which is needed to enable us to formulate ways and strategies to dismantle those systems/structures, ” she added.

Fadiah: We have to identify systems or structures that enable and perpetuate patriarchy. Fadiah: We have to identify systems or structures that enable and perpetuate patriarchy.

Grassroots empowerment is key, stressed Fadiah.

“The struggle belongs to the people and it needs to be articulated at the grassroots level.

“Only people power can realise the people’s dream to build a just and fair world for everyone, in particular marginalised communities, ” she noted.

Dorathy S. Benjamin, executive director of human rights advocacy group Empower concurs that everyone is responsible in creating an equitable Malaysia, not just those in power.

“All Malaysians must play their part to end discrimination in all its form and work towards achieving a better Malaysia for all. We must all use whatever power and privilege we have to ensure that every single person is able to live lives of dignity, ” she said.

She added everyone also has to understand that gender equality is a win-win situation for all.

“There seems to be a misconception that gender equality only benefits women and not men. We need to engage in more constructive dialogue with all sectors/peoples.

"As part of the larger world, Malaysia needs to honour the commitments made to the international community to promote and protect women’s rights. Keeping our promises should be the Malaysian way of life.”

Benjamin also hopes the government can create spaces where honest and intelligent conversations can take place so that people can understand gender/women’s rights better.

“The time is now to stop hiding behind religion and/or culture to justify discriminatory practices, such as child marriages. Honour commitments that have been made either for legislative reforms or socio-cultural reforms. Discriminatory practices based on out-dated/ conservative understanding of gender should be eliminated now.”

Ultimately, it is vital for the government to be more inclusive, said Benjamin.

“Everyone must be involved in decision-making posts, it has to be more inclusive – include not only women but also representatives from other marginalised communities such as persons with disabilities and indigenous communities.

"Women representation should be beyond the 30% quota - in ALL sectors.” – Agencies/ Additional reporting by Hariati Azizan

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