Feminism isn't a 'female' issue – it's everyone's – and that's why it needs support from men as well as women. By Debra Walton (Chief Content Officer, Thomson Reuters)
A lot has been said about gender inequality and the things we can do to put an end to it. But the actress Emma Watson, best known for her role in the Harry Potter movies, hits it out of the park in a recent speech given at the United Nations. She touched on some very simple but profound ideas about equality and feminism, many of which resonated strongly with me because I've advocated for some of the same ideas for a long time.
Feminism gets a bad rap these days, mostly for the wrong reasons. It’s seen as a negative term by many people, and there’s no doubt it can be used in a strident or militant manner.
And yet there’s no reason it should be problematic. In her speech, Watson says the definition of feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.”
This seems simple enough. And yet clearly it isn't, or things would be very different in today’s world.
The Gender Trap
The fact that feminism remains such a complex and divisive issue harms both men and women, since both sexes find themselves trapped in archaic gender roles prescribed by the societies in which they live, and which curtail freedom and stifle creativity.
Women are told either directly or indirectly that they can’t do things such as play sports or become chief executives. They are criticized for being too strong, or called “aggressive” if they aim for an office in the C-Suite or a seat on the board.
For men, on the other hand, aggressiveness is deemed a good quality. Sensitivity is un-masculine, and expressing certain feelings becomes taboo, something that can have dire results. Men are supposed to “get it done” and not worry too much about feelings or emotion.
Watson’s solution to rectifying this is one I've long supported and spoken about: getting men involved.
Women can’t do it on their own, whether they be a struggling mother in Africa or Pakistan or a career mom in London or New York. I've dealt with both sides of the spectrum, as a board member of the Women’s Refugee Commission and as an executive at Thomson Reuters. The key to the solution, regardless of what country or society or income level we’re talking about, is for men to make sure women are at the table from the very beginning.
This entails not throwing roadblocks in the way of women when they’re young. Watson points out that at the age of eight she was called “bossy” for wanting to direct a play being put on for her parents. Is that the message we want to send? Let’s encourage children to see each other as equals, so that as they grow up they can pursue their dreams, unfettered by criticism they’re somehow overstepping their bounds.
Watson speaks of “inadvertent feminists,” the men who encouraged, influenced, and mentored her when she was young, helping her become the success she is today. She says the world needs more of these types, and I couldn't agree more. These are the men who by ensuring women succeeded help themselves (and their company or enterprise) succeed as well. And therein lies the real secret: everybody stands to benefit when gender inequality is diminished.
Let’s face it, we’re all in this together. That’s why Watson is helping launch a new campaign called “HeForShe.” The goal is to galvanize as many men as possible to create tangible results in eliminating gender inequality. Without men on board—remember, feminism isn't just about women, it’s about equality—the problem will always lack a solution that could make the world a better place for all. I can’t stress this point enough: Everybody needs to take action.
The process will differ from place to place, but if a true effort is made, the outcome will be the same.
What does the word 'feminism' mean to you?
About the guest blogger: Debra Walton is currently the Chief Content Officer at Thomson Reuters and an executive sponsor of the Thomson Reuters Women’s Network. Follow her on Twitter at @Debra_Walton.