When gender equality becomes practice

“I know what to do to make gender equality work succeed, but it is only rarely that I am allowed to do it.” This is how Eva Mark began her lecture at the Network Meeting for gender equality workers 29 May.

June 11, 2006
Eva Mark

When Eva Mark delivered her lecture in Oslo in May it was practical gender equality work that was on the agenda. Mark has worked as a gender equality expert in Sweden for a number of years and is concerned that practical knowledge is necessary for working with gender equality in organisations and institutions.

“I am both theorist and practitioner, and I write ‘theory about practice’ – in other words theories about practical gender equality work. It is no good beginning with theories of gender. There is a difference between beginning with these theories and beginning with practice – what you do – and then later theoretically describing that practical work.”

Think Organisation

That we need an organisational perspective in order to see real progress in gender equality work was Mark’s main message at the meeting in Oslo. In other words – you can’t just think people, you need to think organisation.

For example, Mark referred to work she has done at an institution in Sweden where episodes of sexual harassment have led to a chaotic situation. While rumours flourished in the organisation, Mark chose to overlook who was guilty of what, and focused rather on how the organisation could begin to function again.

“I think like this: The problem is not the people, the problem is that the culture within the organisation permits sexual harassment. Consequently, as far as I’m concerned, it is not so important who is doing what to whom. What is important is to change the culture within the organisation, and that’s how I work with gender equality. I work with changing cultures. I work with the things that everyone needs to go along with in an organisation,” explains Mark.

The Management must want change

But if you want to achieve success in your work to change an organisation then you need to set certain conditions. “The management at various levels must support the work, otherwise it’s impossible. If someone calls me and asks me to help them the first thing I ask is: ‘Shall we begin with leadership development, then?’ If the answer is no then I tell them I won’t come. I would just be wasting my time. We are completely dependent on the leadership’s desire for us to be successful in the gender equality work we are doing in an organisation,” says Mark.

“I often say that I cannot desire for other people. I can help them, I can tell them how to do it, that’s not difficult, but I can’t supply their desire for them. They have to want it themselves. And that’s the catch. If the leadership don’t want it, then it will not happen, there will only be entertainment. Fortunately there is a great deal of pressure from the Ministry there. So the leadership do not have a great deal of choice. Yet, I know that when leaders stand there and lie and say politically correct things, then the work to change the organisation will not succeed.”

Experts organised in parallel

Mark also used her lecture to tell of the changes that have taken place in Sweden concerning gender equality work.

“If you look at gender equality work from an organisational perspective, then it is clear that the work has been organised in parallel with the day-to-day management and run by experts. In other words gender equality work has been done in small groups alongside leadership. So when gender equality has been on the agenda, the leadership have been able to say, ‘Yes, that’s wonderful. Margaretha and her friends can deal with that.’ And so it has not been necessary for them to do anything themselves.”

“We had committees and groups working alongside the normal administration at the institution, who were very interested in gender equality and were well qualified in this area. But very little actually happened in the organisation. Today, these groups can represent a problem for gender equality, because they gained exclusive ownership of the problem. And they don’t want to let it go. Now, I know I’m beginning to sound quite negative, but it’s because I work with a different approach. I would, however, like to express my respect for the work done in these groups. They did something very important which was to put the issue on the agenda. So they weren’t all bad, but it’s just that they are inadequate in today’s conditions.”

In addition to these groups which were organised parallel to the administrative structure and run by experts, the form gender equality work in Sweden took was such that it was women who were the problem, according to Mark. It was women that bore the absence of gender equality. This meant that women were sent on courses to improve them a little. Women would be taught to speak, talk to lead, and taught to be interested in technology. Women were the problem, because they did not conform existing standards. But they were also the solution – by changing them.

“There were many events where only women would meet. I work with leadership development, and I loathe programmes that are only for women. I have mixed groups, and so men and women learn to work on gender awareness together. The two parties must learn to meet and to work together.”

25 different perspectives

Mark has a great deal of experience working with such groups.

“I can tell you about the very simple way in which I go about my work. I have a one year programme at Göteborg University with leaders from all parts of the institution. This involves getting professors, faculty heads, administrative leadership etc. to all meet together – I think it’s a very interesting to mix. At the meetings we start with a few rounds of open discussion in which everyone is free to talk about and discuss what they like. On the third round I take out my watch so everyone gets exactly the same amount of time, and everyone must contribute; it’s not voluntary. Then, the absence of equality shows itself.”

In democratic processes, where everyone is free to say what they will, inequality is often reproduced, according to Mark. If you want to work against that then you must dare to manage the processes.

“You can have something as simple as a controlled round of contributions, so people experience what it is like to have 25 different perspectives on a subject instead of hearing only three people speak. They get a surprise about how much content is generated from such a small round. When you have 25 short commentaries, then you have an issue reflected from many different positions. You also learn what the quiet person thinks, what women think, and what people of diverse ethnic backgrounds think.”

Mark thinks it is good that women and men do this together and experience it on the same level, instead of taking women off to do a course where you tell them to be tough. It is not necessary, says Mark: There’s nothing wrong with being shy. You do not need to be tough; being capable is good enough. It’s enough that men can learn to listen to women, and that women can learn to listen to men.

A new method of working

Today, it is gender mainstreaming that is top of the agenda in Sweden. Something that Mark says many are talking about, but few are doing. In her lecture she gave an example from a job she has done for the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Sweden.

“They have a large project where they will gender mainstream within all government departments. When I joined the project it had foundered. I was going to do a process analysis of the project, and why it had not worked. And I did that. And to be brief it had not worked because they had continued with the practice of having experts organised parallel to the administration. They had repeated the old pattern, and the experts had not been able to adapt to their new role.”

So what does gender mainstreaming actually mean in practice? According to Mark, it means that we do not need gender equality experts in the way we did before. It means that when you work with gender equality, then you are working with such things as operational analysis, strategic planning, and the analysis of working practices.

“Gender equality work has acquired a different profile because it is not so much a question of attitudes, but rather how the work should be accomplished from a gender equality perspective. And what is important in this process is that we really only need leaders and workers. Experts can also be necessary, but experts now have a coaching role. They are no longer the keepers of this problem, they shall no longer be experts in the politics of gender equality, but they shall help by assisting the processes to work. They coach leaders and workers so that they themselves can learn to see their work and the activity around them from a new perspective. And when people in an organisation can do that, then you no longer need gender equality workers. They are then free to achieve something somewhere else. In other words they work to become redundant.”

An example

See what has now happened? Gender equality work now has a different focus, and it has a different place. In her lecture Mark provided another example, from the Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, to show how she works to get gender equality perspectives integrated into the organisation.

“The Film Institute has been given the task by the Culture Minister of distributing funding for films equally to both genders. This is a fantastic situation, and it is in such situations that I usually work. In other words an exterior authority has decided that the organisation shall do something that it would definitely not have decided to do by itself. It starts with a change in the rules, and I think it is a very good way to start gender equality work. It has already been decided that the rules are changing. What my work involves is making sure the organisation manages to live with the change,” she explained.

She described the situation that met her as follows: There is a group of consultants that distribute funding for films. When they can act spontaneously and free from directives then the money does not go to women who want to make feature films, only to men. Their explanation is that it is the men who submit the best applications. The funding of films is looked upon entirely as a question of quality, and has absolutely nothing to do with gender.

“The first thing I asked was: ‘Do you believe that the minister has decided to reduce the quality of Swedish films?’ They were silent. ‘What is it he has decided? And how should the decision be understood? Should it be understood as reducing film quality or should it be understood as a question of democracy?’ There followed an interesting discussion.”

They can do it

How does one do one’s work on a practical basis in such a situation? Mark begins with the view that the consultants are competent people who know how to do their jobs.

“This is important! It is very easy to say, but quite difficult to do in reality. But I assume that the consultants are competent people. I assume that they have been chosen because they know how to distribute money to fund films. Many people find themselves in the situation where they question the competency of people. I don’t. They are very capable, and besides: I know nothing about how to do it. On the other hand, I introduce the idea that given their competency for doing their job, there can still be elements in the process that they are not aware of. There can, for example, be discrimination within a practice.”

When the consultants go along with this, Mark asks them to write down how they do their jobs. They would describe exactly what they do, without giving it any gender or gender equality analysis. And when they have written down their work process, then the results would be read by the group.

“Then we look at these processes in an gender equality perspective. What we do is to break them down into small pieces. And then I ask them about things – since it is the consultants themselves who use all the tools and do all of the analysis. I just ask questions. ‘In this process, where do you think gender has a role to play? Where could something important be taking place?’”

And this works, she emphasizes. It works because I have entrusted responsibility to the qualified parties. So gender equality work today is to give responsibility to the qualified people and to be a supervisor in the process. That is gender mainstreaming.

“I just need to add that for this communication and these processes to work, then one must be very honest; nobody must be politically correct. One must be totally improper. Otherwise it doesn’t work.”

“I met the consultants only three times. In terms of time economy this is completely doable. I don’t just want to come and visit, have a good time and then go home. They must make sure that this process will continue in their organisation. And I am only indispensable for a short time, until everyone is competent, and then I am thoroughly dispensable and can go home. And this is a good example of gender mainstreaming in practice. But the leaders must want it; they must have expressed that this is what they want. They must be participants in the process. They are the people who do the job, it’s they who adapt the tools, and it is they who know where in the process to concentrate their efforts. I have a coaching and supervisory role. And for me it is this that is new in relation to the expert situation in gender equality work.”

Two years

Eva Mark has worked with organisations for many years, and she knows how one makes an organisation more gender equal. The problem is, according to her, that she never gets the opportunity to do it in practice.

“For two years an organisation will mange to work with me. They then need time to digest everything that has happened, undisturbed. They need to take a break, and that’s only natural. It usually happens like that. An organisation can work on making changes for about two years, and then it needs to consolidate its position.”

And in reply to a question from the auditorium of how long she actually needs to work with an organisation Mark answers:

“I have never had the chance to continue to my limits. Give me such a job, and I will take it. I am actually serious. Of course we can do it, it’s just that we are never given the chance. I would be able to work on the operational processes throughout a whole organisation, for example, and I’m sure I would be able to manage to do it. But I have never been allowed to do it,” she says.

Translated by Matthew Whiting, KILDEN

Eva Mark

Eva Mark is a Doctor of Philosophy. However, she left her job as a university lecturer in order to work on processes. Today, she is working on leader development at Göteborg University, and as an independent gender equality expert. Mark recently delivered the lecture, “When gender equality becomes practice” at the Network Meeting for gender equality workers on 29 May 2006 in Oslo.