USG Grynspan and Ambassador Bekkers © UN Photo

Two gender champions pushing for equality
Secretary-General of UNCTAD, Ms Rebecca Grynspan and the Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Ambassador Paul Bekkers, in conversation about the collaborative effort for equal rights
1 Nov 2023

Ambassador Paul Bekkers, you started the “MenEngage circle of Geneva” initiative that aims to actively engage male senior leaders in Geneva in the gender equality conversation. What inspired you to start this initiative?

The reason I started this initiative is that I strongly believe that if you really want to achieve equality between women and men, you need to engage men and boys as allies. This is done too little. By changing the hearts and minds of men, we can break down barriers to the benefit of both genders. In addition, gender is a sensitive topic and, in my view, hampered by an atmosphere of a certain political correctness. I would like to create an environment where men and boys can have a sincere, safe and honest conversation about true and full equality between men and women. Only then can we make real progress, more than has been achieved thus far.

Ms Rebecca Grynspan, why did you decide to become involved in the initiative? Which specific change are you hoping to bring about?

I believe that this issue is at the heart of the most important major transformation that we can achieve in the 21st century. It is a topic that affects everything we represent. I was driven by Paul’s initiative – and it is a great idea, to bring men into the conversation in a more central way. 

We need to change the male perspective to make a difference. As the first woman to become Secretary-General of UNCTAD, I feel the responsibility to participate in this space.

Addressing stereotypes and breaking down the social norms surrounding our understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman can be challenging. How do you overcome resistance or skepticism to your initiative?

PB- Nowadays, few men have a problem accepting equality. It’s not so much why but how? It is more a matter of being educated and being made aware of the many gender stereotypes. To do so, we need to learn about the tools of how we tackle this. As an example, when I participated in a course on gender language, my eyes were opened to the fact that even in our day-to-day, communication bias is involved. I realized the intricacies of unconscious bias and the need to draw awareness to this.

RG- This wouldn’t be a struggle if there were no obstacles, so we know of persistence and skepticism about the movement for equality. The objectives will benefit everyone and steps are needed to make everyone aware of this. Another element is that sometimes you feel there is a sense of fatigue surrounding the gender conversation, so new initiatives are important to reinvigorate and ignite passion to the movement. During the crises of the last few years, we have experienced a regression in many areas related to gender. We have been reminded that progress is not linear. Given the recent economic difficulties in the world, women have been badly impacted and we are pedaling frantically to stay in the same place. How do we change that? Whatever skepticism is still out there, will require perseverance from those that want change.

PB- We need to understand the deeper reasons for the barriers that are limiting true equality between women and men. We all need to become aware of the fact that by sharing power, everyone will be better off, men as well as women. There is plenty of evidence. MenEngage opens up the conversation that men are not used to having – but one that is so desperately needed. Regarding skepticism: while there was huge support for the initiative, some people felt a bit uncomfortable about the idea that ‘men talk about women’. I hope and believe that we have gone beyond that stage for many years now. MenEngage is not to exclude women, but to focus on men. This is where the real change needs to be.

RG- I agree with Paul, and there are two things that I would like to share on top of that. One is that unconscious bias is one of the most difficult things to confront, so if communication is broken then issues do not get sorted out. This applies to women too, we have a responsibility to understand each other and our differences to create a sense of togetherness. 

Can you share an example of one of your initiatives?

PB- The last event of ‘MenEngage circle of Geneva’ involved three powerful and successful women talking about their experiences. Rebecca (Grynspan) and the other two shared personal stories about the barriers and problems they have experienced throughout their life and their career. The men that participated were truly touched by the stories and very much engaged. The feedback that I received from the participants was that the event gave them various new insights and the stories triggered them to consider changing their behavior. The men attending the event shared that they became more aware of the issues that confront women in the workplace.

RG- I enjoyed the event mentioned above, especially as the questions were really pertinent. It was an educational process and particularly good to share it with men as we cannot change the world without shifting mindsets. In UNCTAD, I am pushing for the targets for female parity within the organization and to improve diversity within the backgrounds of the female employees. This is not an easy task because there are not many empty posts in headquarters, and so mobility is infrequent. The second initiative is to increase the number of women in trade businesses, so they are lifted out of vulnerability. Our work with WTO and ITC aims to tackle this issue. In our eTrade program, we invite women who are successful in trade and e-commerce to share their experiences to empower and inspire others. We also work with women in science, encouraging women not to give up the subjects that they are good at. There is still a lot of work to be done by both men and women to ensure equality.

Why did you decide to work specifically with senior leaders and decision-makers in International Geneva?

PB- Simply because it is where I now live. I am privileged to live and work in Geneva with wonderful people – such as my fellow Permanent Representatives, leaders of international organizations and civil society. There is an added advantage of having ambassadors and heads of agencies participate in MenEngage Geneva, not least because they are influential decision-makers. If perceptions and behavior changes for the better, there is the hope that it will trickle down. They have a wide network of people around them, and therefore a large sphere of influence to impact. 

RG- I would also like to see senior leadership and decision-makers in International Geneva take an active role in this important work so it can trickle into important discussions, in the multiple institutions represented here.

What is the biggest personal learning you have drawn from working on this topic?

PB- The more I learn and know about it, the more I realize the need for change and the amount of work still to be done. The complexity of the issue and subtlety of mechanisms that keep women away from achieving their full potential is enormous. The fabric of society is related to who we are and how we behave, and it humbled me to realize there is so much more to be done. I am, however, optimistic about the potential of men to change. It is a matter of awareness and giving men the necessary tools. The strong and formidable Advisory Council of MenEngage Geneva consists of eight women, who give us feedback on whether we are on the right track. This is incredibly important as we firmly believe in the principle “nothing about us, without us”.

RG- This has been a long journey for me! The other day I was asked about the most important literary works I was inspired by when I was young, and I said one of them was the book by Virginia Woolf, ‘A Room of One’s Own’. It is such a complex issue and I am more reassured now that men have taken action to support gender equality. I was very focused on the women’s side for so long and time has brought about that important change. When I was younger, we wanted to open doors for women and break the glass ceiling. Through time, we have understood that men need to be a part of this revolution. I am also aware that nothing happens automatically; we are here today because of the women who fought for our rights before, so l feel a sense of responsibility for the future generations. I have become aware that there is a difference in terms of what you achieve individually and collectively. When you are young, you think you can do it all yourself, the ‘superwoman syndrome’ kicks in, but this change requires a collective effort. We must give more credit to feminism and dispel the negative connotations of aggression and the anti-men narrative that people associate with feminists. The essential desire was always for equal human rights.

Lastly, what is a key piece of advice that you would like to share with men – at all levels of the organizational hierarchy- who want to become change agents for gender equality?

PB- We need to see women for what and who they really are. People may have gifts and qualities that others may lack, so we see the value in difference and help each other achieve our full potential. Meanwhile, sometimes men need to take a step back to make place for women to be able to step into the limelight.

RG- I would advise men to have the self-awareness and reflection that you are in a multicultural environment, and that you need training for this new environment. I would also add that we need to embrace transformation and change. 

* Mollie Fraser-Andrews is Editorial Coordinator for UN Today.
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