Almas Jiwani on Gender Equality
UN Women Canada President Speaks at McGill
03 Feb, 2012 3:55On January 27, the newly formed McGill Students Club of UN Women Canada National Committee hosted their first ever event, featuring guest speaker, Almas Jiwani. Jiwani is the president of the United Nations entity of Gender Equality & Empowerment of Women (UN Women) Canada National Committee and the President and CEO of Frontier Canada Inc. A successful businesswomen, she advocates for women’s rights and gender equality, volunteering much time and effort to this cause. Jiwani shares her insights on the topic of gender inequality in an exclusive one on one interview with the Bull & Bear.
What is the role of UN Women Canada in advancing equity for women across the world?
Overall, UN Women Canada’s role is to support the advocacy work of UN Women headquarters in New York, to urge governments and organisations to accelerate gender equality and women’s empowerment initiatives and legislation, and to raise funds for United Nation’s humanitarian projects for the betterment of women and girls.
What is the current economic status of women in developing countries? Are they more underprivileged than men in those regions?
In a nutshell, UN Women and other studies suggest that women represent 70% of the world’s poor. Typically focused in the underdeveloped countries, women are generally paid a fraction of what men earn, and are forced to take only the most menial jobs through rampant discrimination and overall gender inequalities. Women have a tough time getting credit to open their own businesses, and are often disadvantaged when it comes to the availability of food, health care, education and basic human rights. When it comes to legal systems, in many societies women have no rights whatsoever. It’s all of these things that UN Women is trying to change.
Have your messages of gender equality met any resistance from the societies that don’t place women in very high value?
Yes, of course. There are many patriarchal societies that have a great deal of difficulty seeing any role for women other than running a home and bearing children. In many cases it’s a matter of breaking through religious, cultural and social barriers, and educating them in how their economies and their lives could be improved if women were allowed to play a role in community life outside of the kitchen. Most of the time it’s a pretty tough fight, but in many areas we’ve made those breakthroughs and both women and their communities now enjoy better and more fulfilling lives.
A lot of your work also focuses on gender equality issues in Canada. As one of the most progressive countries in the world, why do you think that gender inequality is still a prevalent issue in our nation?
While Canada has certainly made great strides in gender equality and women’s empowerment, it still ranks only 20th in the world on the Urn’s Gender Equality Index. We ought to be #1. Yes, women have the vote, sit in parliament, run big companies, and have a strong voice in society. But that doesn’t mean they’re equal.
Women are still paid less than men doing equal work or carrying equal responsibility. They still have less access to the better, higher paying jobs, particularly at the corporate executive levels, and there are still far too few women serving on the boards of the leading corporations and institutions.
Canada ranks 20th on the Gender Equality Index, which is bad news for a progressive and mature democracy such as our country. Some of the gender equality issues facing Canada are in some ways similar to those in the developing world. We can be proud of what Canada has achieved, but under no circumstances is there any reason to be complacent. There’s still a lot of work to do.
Which do you think is a more prevalent force in advancing women’s rights: private enterprises or governments?
I don’t think it’s a case of one or the other. You need both. We need legislation that recognises gender inequalities and does things to ensure that women get the same opportunities and access as do men in terms of jobs, wages, appointments and promotions. But we also need a private sector that buys into gender equality, with enlightened corporations and enterprises that recognise the right and just plain common sense in giving women the opportunity to compete and work equally in the business world.
Following the uprising of women in Arab countries earlier last year, what are your predictions for the change of women’s roles in society in that region? How will attitudes towards women change in theocratic regimes in that region?
For me the most obvious thing that has come out of the political uprisings in the Arab world has been that women have been at the very front of petitions for change. Just think of the media images of women speaking to and marching in front of huge crowds demanding change.
The Arab Spring has allowed women to experiment with a fundamental human right that was denied to them for many decades – democracy and self-governance.
I don’t know for sure where and how the role of women will change in the Arab world, but it certainly will change and women will play a much larger role in government and civil society. But the models and interpretation of democracy and women’s rights in the Middle East will be somewhat different from the Western idea of democracy due to the unique circumstances, history and culture of the region.
I believe that women can and will play a guiding role as these new democracies evolve, ensuring that gender equality is embedded in new legislation and governance in ways that ultimately will change attitudes and protect the rights of women.
As a businesswoman yourself, do you believe that the so-called “glass ceiling” can ever be broken? If so, how will society and businesses change?
I don’t think the glass ceiling is going to broken by just one crack. It’s going to take many cracks to before the glass ceiling disappears. Positive change doesn’t come overnight. it comes from consistent effort, inspiration and motivation over time. I would submit that often times, success comes through taking what the poet Robert Frost calls “the road less taken.”
Glass ceilings can definitely be broken, and societies and businesses can adapt to allowing women opportunities to pursue leadership roles through company mentorship programs. Many gender sensitive businesses have mentorship systems in which they pair more mature, successful women with less experienced ones.
At the same time, human resources policies that encourage women to grow, and foster innovation and an equitable corporate culture can also facilitate women who are motivated and working hard to break the ceiling. For example, including maternity leaves and accommodating women’s family responsibilities in their work yields productive results for the corporation and the women workers. Breaking the ceiling requires dual effort. First by women to work hard and prove their capabilities, and then by corporations through equitable human resource and work policies.
How has the world progressed throughout the last century in advancing women’s rights? Do you think citizens of Canada can follow up on this progress and continue to enact positive change in developing countries?
There is no doubt we’ve made huge strides over the last 30 or 40 years. The UN Charter of Human Rights, Conventions on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Fourth Beijing Platform for Equality, and UN Resolution 1325 on protecting women against violence in peace and war are all examples of how far we have come in recognizing and protecting women’s human rights. This shows that world leaders and society are acknowledging the enormous socio-economic potential in empowering women and encouraging gender equality. A recent study by The World Economic Forum (WEF) confirmed that empowering women fuels thriving economies, and spurs productivity and growth.
Nevertheless, gender inequalities remain deeply entrenched in every society and a lot more work needs to be done to continue the momentum. That’s why UN Women was created. To to be a dynamic and strong champion for women and girls, providing them with a powerful voice at the global, regional and local levels.
As for Canada’s role, I believe we can continue closing the gender gap, ensuring more women’s participation in the country’s politics and implementing policies and laws that facilitate equality and fairness for people of both sexes. Canada can be a stimulus for change and equality for the developing world, and especially for the aspiring new democracies we see in the Arab spring and other socio-political movements around the world.