Saturday 7 October 2023

Lessons from the 2023 HeForShe Summit

By Adetayo Adetokun

The world today is  characterized by the disheartening erosion of rights and opportunities for women and girls, compounded by the looming challenges of climate change, conflict, and natural disasters. Mitigating these issues were key discussion points at the 2023 the HeForShe Summit, an event which happened on September 21, 2023, and of which Shades of Us Storytelling Initiative for African People (Shades of Us) was glad to attend.

The HeForShe Summit was a gathering  of political luminaries, business leaders, champions of global development, and advocates for social justice. The mandate was to embark on an exploration of the progress, or lack thereof, in the pursuit of gender equality that transcends borders, corporate systems, and the very fabric of our communities.

In a sobering revelation, the United Nations (UN) Women, the leading global advocate for gender equality, recently disclosed a disquieting truth: should we persist at our current pace, the realization of full gender equality may elude us for three more centuries. This casts a long shadow over our hopes and aspirations for a fairer world and raises stark questions about the trajectory of progress and the price we pay for complacency.

The HeForShe Summit emerged as an urgent call to action. It sounded a resounding alarm that reverberated across continents, imploring men from all corners of the world to rise to the occasion and embrace the mantle of agents of change, to serve as catalysts for transformation, and to propel us forward on the long-overdue journey towards gender equality.

The HeForShe Summit is a pledge that, together, we will rewrite the narrative of gender equality—a narrative that is marked not by centuries of delay, but by the determination, courage, and unwavering commitment of those who refuse to accept anything less than full and equitable participation for all.

During this gathering, members of the HeForShe Alliance convened to exchange insights and strategies for propelling gender equality forward. These discussions yielded a trove of best practices, spanning from equal representation within the workplace to the economic empowerment of women, and from the formulation of global policies to combat domestic violence to other pivotal areas of focus.

Sima Bahous, the UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, praised the HeForShe Champions, representing a diverse spectrum ranging from government and business to nonprofit organizations and academia. 

Bahous highlighted a notable achievement among the corporate champions: a significant increase in the representation of women on their boards. Specifically, she cited the admirable achievement of raising female board participation at a minimum threshold of 40 percent. This accomplishment underscored the tangible progress made in the pursuit of gender equality within corporate governance, setting a commendable precedent for others to follow.

Bahous' words underscored the importance of proactive measures and commitments to drive change, illuminating the transformative impact that dedicated individuals and organizations can have in advancing the cause of gender equality on a global scale.

On the summit stage, leaders from every corner of the world added their voices to the resounding call for genuine equality. Ms. Olena Zelenska, the First Lady of Ukraine, articulated a vision where the HeForShe initiative, while commendable in its pursuit, becomes obsolete because equality has become an unshakable norm. 

At the event, UN Women and HeForShe welcomed new members into the HeForShe Alliance, each making commitments to expedite the march towards gender equality. Mr. Fumio Kishida, the Prime Minister of Japan, and Mr. Felix Tshisekedi, the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, vowed to foster gender-equal policies within their governments, offering a glimmer of hope on the political front. Recruit Holdings emerged as the latest HeForShe Champion, pledging to achieve gender parity within its global organization by 2025.

This assembly of voices echoed a profound and impassioned plea: the time had come for a respectful disruption of the status quo that perpetuate gender disparities on a global scale.

Michael Roberts, the CEO of The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation US and Americas, and Maha AlQattan, Group Chief Sustainability Officer of Dubai Port World, directed their impassioned entreaties towards business leaders worldwide. Their clarion call implored corporate entities to establish mechanisms of accountability, thereby ensuring that gender equality transcended mere rhetoric to become an intrinsic and non-negotiable business priority.

This rallying cry for respectful disruption aligned seamlessly with the overarching theme of the summit, "Respectfully Disruptive." It encapsulated a shared recognition among attendees that the prevailing status quo was no longer tenable and that a bold and audacious recalibration of our collective efforts was imperative. This recalibration was envisaged as a course correction, steering us steadfastly towards the long-cherished destination of gender equality. Integral to this transformative journey was the indispensable role of men as active partners, allies, and advocates, rather than passive observers.

Sima Bahous, the UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, continued with  a sobering reflection on the troubling regression in the attitudes of young men, as revealed by a UN Women-supported survey which unveiled that 58 percent of young men aged 16–19 held the belief that men were inherently superior as political leaders when compared to women. This raised poignant questions about the prospects of achieving genuine gender equality in leadership roles, highlighting the need for comprehensive and intersectional education and advocacy.

Equally disquieting was the revelation that nearly 1 in 4 young men harbored the belief that there were justifiable circumstances in which it was permissible to resort to violence against a partner or spouse. This grim mindset represented a formidable impediment in the global struggle to eradicate the pervasive scourge of violence against women.

Also at the Summit, the discourse surrounding AI bias was illuminated by Sasha Luccioni, a Research Scientist and Climate Lead at Hugging Face. She emphasized that AI bias is not an abstract concept but rather a reflection of the societal patterns we perpetuate. 

These concerning societal attitudes were linked to AI's tendency to reproduce and exacerbate stereotypes when attempting to mimic human expression, as noted by Leonardo Nicoletti, a data visualization journalist at Bloomberg. For instance, when Nicoletti asked AI image software to generate images of "judges," only 3% of the results depicted women.

In response to this challenge, Joakim Reiter, Chief External and Corporate Affairs Officer at Vodafone, advocated for the establishment of clear rules and a robust ethical framework for AI projects. He stressed the need for ‘guardrails’ to prevent unchecked experimentation with technology that impacts society. Reiter emphasized that companies launching products and services bear the responsibility of understanding how these offerings interact with societal norms, discrimination, and biases, recognizing that they cannot operate in isolation from these critical considerations.

Dr. Joy Buolamwini, the Founder of the Algorithmic Justice League and the author of ‘Unmasking AI’, a rising star in Artificial Intelligence and one of MIT Technology Review's 2023 ‘35 Innovators Under 35’" lent her  expertise to the discourse. Their shared message was clear and resonant: the advancement of Artificial Intelligence must be carefully balanced with the looming threat of perpetuating and exacerbating gender bias, highlighting the pressing need for ethical considerations in the realm of technology.

Poet, activist, and artist Rupi Kaur graced the stage, unveiling her unpublished poem titled ‘to believe in equality’. Additionally, Composer, Pianist, Activist, and Sony Masterworks recording artist Chloe Flower delivered a mesmerizing performance. 

The complexity of the discourse surrounding masculinity was illuminated by Rachel Lowenstein, the Global Head of Inclusive Innovation at Mindshare, who noted the stark difference in responses when comparing questions about womanhood and masculinity.

Masculinity experts Richard Reeves, a nonresident senior fellow at the esteemed Brookings Institute and the President of the American Institute for Boys and Men, alongside Michelle Terry, the CEO of the Movember Foundation, spearheaded a call for a transformative paradigm shift in masculinity.

Their collective vision called for a new model of masculinity, one that serves as a beacon of inspiration and reframes the entire discourse surrounding gender equality. Importantly, this new vision moved away from the traditional zero-sum game mentality, recognizing that the journey toward gender equality is not about winners and losers but about forging a more inclusive and equitable world for all.

Complementing these insightful perspectives, Christine Emba, a prominent writer and contributor to the Washington Post, lent her voice to the conversation. She skillfully illuminated the intricate challenges faced by many men in our contemporary world. In this rapidly evolving landscape, a growing number of men find themselves grappling with a sense of loss and uncertainty, unsure of how to navigate their roles and identities. This profound sense of unease is exacerbated by the dearth of clear examples and guidance on what constitutes positive masculinity in today's context.

Emba's words underscored the notion that many men are in search of new models of masculinity that align with contemporary values and aspirations. The absence of clear role models and an evolving societal landscape have left them in a state of flux, yearning for guidance and understanding in a world that is rapidly redefining the traditional boundaries of gender roles.

The overarching message that reverberated throughout the summit was unmistakably clear: it is time for a disruption of the patriarchal structures that have long impeded the progress of gender equality. This disruption aspires to create a world where every individual can thrive and realize their full potential, unburdened by the constraints of gender, and where the concept of masculinity evolves to reflect contemporary values of inclusivity, respect and shared humanity. In embracing this transformative journey, we take a collective step towards a more equitable and harmonious world where everyone's voice and potential are celebrated, regardless of their gender.

In the wake of the HeForShe Summit, a confluence of voices, wisdom, and calls for change, several profound lessons have emerged, guiding us toward a more equitable and inclusive future:

  • The Power of Advocacy: The Summit showcased the indispensable role of advocates and allies from diverse sectors in driving progress toward gender equality. It underscored that meaningful change requires collective action.

  • Ethical Tech Innovation: The intersection of technology and gender equality was a central theme, highlighting the urgent need to develop and deploy AI and other technologies ethically, ensuring they do not perpetuate bias or inequality.

  • Artistic Expression as Catalyst: The inclusion of poetry and music in the Summit demonstrated the power of artistic expression in conveying messages of equality, empathy, and hope, underscoring the importance of creativity in fostering a more vibrant and equitable world.

  • Redefining Masculinity: Experts in masculinity urged a reframing of traditional notions of manhood, emphasizing the need for new models of masculinity that align with contemporary values, highlighting that gender equality benefits everyone.

  • Inclusive Dialogue: Christine Emba's insights highlighted the challenges men face in navigating evolving societal roles. It underscored the importance of inclusive dialogue and the provision of guidance in reshaping individual identities in a changing world.

  • Respectful Disruption: The overarching message of the Summit was a call for respectful disruption. It emphasized that dismantling patriarchal structures, while challenging, is essential for creating a world where everyone can thrive, transcending the constraints of gender.

As we carry forward the lessons learned from the HeForShe Summit, we embark on a shared journey towards a more equitable and inclusive future, one where gender equality is not just a goal but a lived reality for all. Together, we have the power to reshape the narrative, challenge ingrained biases, and build a world where every individual, regardless of their gender, can flourish and contribute to a brighter and more harmonious global community.

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