30 June 2020

75 for UN75: A Conversation on Rethinking Gender

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and as part of its 75th anniversary initiative (UN75), United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) is hosting the "75 for UN75: 75 Minutes of Conversation" series of online dialogues with academics, educators, researchers and students around the world, to discuss their priorities for the future, obstacles to achieving them, and the role of global cooperation in managing global issues. On 19 June 2020 UNAI hosted a webinar on the theme “Rethinking Gender” as part of this series.

19 June marked the opening of the very first World Conference on the Status of Women in Mexico City in 1975, which signified a new era in global efforts to promote the advancement of women and the start of a worldwide dialogue on gender equality; 19 June is also the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict and the instances of sexual and gender-based violence have increased due to COVID-19 lockdowns that leave many women with no escape from their abusers. COVID-19 has also disrupted schooling, threatening the gains that have been made by women and girls in education. 

These occasions and thoughts inspired United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) to host a webinar titled “75 Minutes of Conversation: Rethinking Gender”, with the collaboration of UN Women and the global academic community on 19 June 2020.

After an introductory music performance by award-winning songwriter and singer, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, opened the discussion by addressing the threat that COVID-19 presents for the progress made for women and girls since the historic World Conference on Women in Beijing 25 years ago. “Education is important for preventing child marriage, trafficking and various diseases. COVID-19 forces girls out of school and recreates those conditions that make them vulnerable.” Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka went on to stress the need to ensure equal access to technology for women and girls, pointing out that COVID-19 has widened the existing gender gap in accessing technology:  “The next 10 years is the time for education to turn into a public good that is universally accessible regardless of gender and location,” she noted.

Dr. Fernando León García, President of the CETYS University System in Mexico, spoke about higher education in Latin America, where women hold 19.5% of the senior leadership positions within the top 200 academic institutions. Dr. García listed the factors that allow women to succeed in senior positions: interim appointments; having an advanced degree; and active participation in leadership development initiatives. According to Dr. García, the following steps are necessary to ensure gender equality in the senior leadership of academic institutions: “Make it a priority, set and assess goals and targets, establish clear policies that would facilitate them, encourage, promote and support professional talent and leadership development, create awareness among decision makers, support professional career flexibility, seek greater transparency in professional pathways and salary structure, promote work-life balance, engage in mentoring activities to identify and groom future women leaders and support and advance women to positions of increasing levels of responsibility.”

Dr. N’Dri Thérèse Assié-Lumumba, Professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center of Cornell University highlighted gender disparity as a pattern that has been observed throughout the continent of Africa. Although in some countries, such as South Africa or Lesotho, women are greatly engaged and more than ¾ of higher education students are female, there is a striking female underrepresentation in other locations. “The underrepresentation starts early as we do not look at the most basic (pre-school, elementary school) level in terms of gender distribution and we do not look for those who are underrepresented at the low level; therefore, we cannot start looking for them at higher education level,” Dr. Assié -Lumumba explained. She also brought attention to the term disciplinary clusters, “When you analyse by gender, you see the underrepresentation more systematically in some specific disciplines, such as STEM. The disciplines, which are most valued in terms of the planning for the future development of Africa, reproduce consistently female underrepresentation.”

Dr. Mami Katsumi, Education Administrator and Project Coordinator at Nagaoka University of Technology, UNAI SDG Hub for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9 Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, shed light on the statistics of Japan’s ranking among the countries on the achievement of the SDGs. According to a report conducted by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) in 2019, Japan ranked 15th out of 162 countries on the overall achievement of the SDGs. However, Japan ranked 121st of 153 countries on its progress related to SDG 5: Gender Equality in the 2020 Global Gender Report. Dr. Katsumi says this disparity has a historical context. “In the 1950s after the war, men and women worked equally, but with the rapid economic growth, women were left behind to take care of the household, while men continued their work.”

Fortunately, this division of labour has been changing in today’s society and Japan has been seeking collaboration with the international community to promote gender empowerment and equality. Dr. Katsumi shared some specific steps taken at Nagaoka University of Technology to increase the number of women researchers, including: the establishment of a committee for the promotion of gender equality; the allocation of a fund from the Japanese government to support female researchers; and the implementation of a project to increase the interest of girls in science and technology during which the president of the university had a talk with women researchers and staff members. “We must provide proper education and up-to-date information to all, which will create equal opportunities leading to the elimination of the gender gap,” concluded Dr. Katsumi.

Dr. Don Betz, Executive Director for Global Initiatives for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and former President of the University of Central Oklahoma, highlighted the need to disaggregate the data on gender equality among students, faculty and leadership, as qualitative disparities are prominent. “Women are less likely to pursue degrees in STEM fields; within the faculty women are highly represented, but mainly among the lower ranks at non-tenured track positions; women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions. Although data tends to show higher numbers each year, at this point, only 30% of leadership positions within U.S. universities are held by women.”

Dr. Betz highlighted initiatives at the University of Central Oklahoma to promote gender equality, such as development of the Women Research Centre and LGBTQ+ Student Centre, which holds international gender and sexuality studies conferences every year. Dr. Betz ended his intervention with a quote from a student at the conference: “The centre gives me an opportunity to feel confident and unafraid to fight gender roles and racial inequalities.”

During the Q&A segment, participants raised questions on topics such as strengthening the education system by ensuring universal access through technology; advocating for the educational rights of everyone including members of the LGBTQ community; and the necessity to achieve gender equality in all other aspects of life while achieving gender equality in education.

Additional resources:

UN7 Rethinking Gender

On 19 June 2020, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) hosted a webinar on the theme “Rethinking Gender”, as part of the UNAI “75 for UN75: 75 Minutes of Conversation” online dialogue series.