Gender equality: are we asking the right questions?

When I agreed to join Icelandic leadership coach and mentor Runa Magnusdottir, for a debate on why we have not yet achieved the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals on gender equality for the occasion of the Annual General Meeting of Women Directors in Malta (WDM), I had no idea this event would capture the attention of the online media platform In his feature article, Benjamin Abela reported that one of the things that came out of the debate was my suggestion to revisit the UN’s goals on gender equality. Although I did not actually use the word ‘revisit’, what I said was that ‘before we continue with our search for solutions, it pays to rewind and take a closer look at the goals and the indicators, and assess how ‘fit’ these are to our needs.’


When Runa and I first got together to discuss the title of the debate, her proposition to challenge things rather than repeat the same lyrics intrigued me, so it was easy to agree to have what we called an in-depth, out-of-the-box debate that would capture our essence as individuals. Runa is the co-creator of the #NoMoreBoxes movement and methodology, and her basic premise is that, although placing people into boxes according to their gender and sexuality might be a way for our brain to understand the world, in reality this does not work, and creates divisions that take the focus away from what unites us as humans.

The truth’s worth it

I, on the other hand, believe that the truth’s worth it, and will find the energy to continue to dig as deep as I can. To take a few steps back and to be able to see the UN’s goals in sharper focus was precisely what I meant when I suggested we rewind and take a closer look. In my experience, very often, when something does not seem to be working, it pays to question whether we are trying to solve the real problem or whether we are simply throwing more solutions. In my view, you cannot start the journey to your vision unless you have truly identified the real problem.

I start with definitions. Gender equality is the state in which access to rights or opportunities is unaffected by gender. This means that, even if we recognise that men and women are different, and that there are, in fact, two human natures, male and female, this knowledge should not interfere with our mission to guarantee equal access to rights and opportunities.

The system does not say it all

The next thing I did was to have that closer look at the UN goals for gender equality. From this point onwards, you start opening one box of questions after the other. Starting with why the indicator we use to gauge our progress with respect to the first goal, to end discrimination against women, is whether the legal frameworks for gender equality are in place. In other words, we are looking at whether the systems are in place, not whether they are having results in terms of removing the barriers and facilitating access. Should we be satisfied with this systems-oriented approach?

Shifting burdens is not a solution

I continue to scroll and scrutinise goal 5.4 which is to recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services and the promotion of shared responsibility within the family. There are many sides to this goal. Firstly, there’s the element of care, which women have evolved to be better adapted at. Then there’s housekeeping. Even if we acknowledge that “work” became a male thing and “home” a female one through an accident of history (specifically the agricultural revolution), how many would agree that the solution to this problem is to shift the burden of domestic work from one busy working parent to another? By the same reasoning, how many would say yes to an indicator that gives us data on the proportion of time spent on unpaid domestic and care work by sex, age, and location? Why does this indicator stop short of measuring how unpaid care and domestic work is being valued through the provision of public services and infrastructure?

What women want

The third goal I visit is one that is very relevant to the context of the debate we were having as part of our event at WDM. It is to ensure women’s full participation in leadership and decision-making. One of the indicators here is the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments and local governments. My first loud objection to this is, do we expect or would we be satisfied only if the number of seats occupied by women in these halls of power were 50%? Are we assuming that, simply because roughly the ratio of men to women in the population is 1:1, we expect that ratio to manifest itself in any space or context in society? How many nannies, social and health workers are men? And how many brick masons, concrete workers, and auto mechanics are women? Perhaps, a more important question would be how many women think that the cost of giving up their personal lives, families, and professional careers is worth the benefit of holding a seat in parliament?

An honest conversation

Faced with this situation, what can we all do about it? I have my own thoughts, but a good place to start would be to ask ourselves whether gender equality is really the problem we need to solve, as Runa had suggested in the first place. My point is that we cannot get meaningful answers unless we ask the right questions. Which is why I called for an honest conversation as a process that can take us forward to create a common vision. This conversation must be deep. It needs to be rooted in fundamental realities about human nature. It must be inclusive, which is why it has to take into account the male perspective and in particular how men are experiencing these shifts in mentality and behaviour. Gender equality is not just about empowering women to access rights and opportunities. It is also about understanding the psychological needs of both men and women and setting new rules for the games that allow them to have healthy relationships in the different domains where they were meant to collaborate, not conflict.  

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