Six female leaders in the fields of business, politics, journalism and international development spoke about how gender issues cut across their disciplines at a panel discussion hosted by the Women’s Faculty Forum on Tuesday night.
Many of the women on the panel said that until they were directly confronted with obstacles, they had never thought of their gender as a potential barrier to success. The panelists pointed to supportive and egalitarian family structures as contributors to their confidence and said it is important to remain committed to gender issues even after overcoming gender inequality. The Women’s Faculty Forum has asked the female members of the Yale World Fellows — a group of 16 to 18 men and women from around the world invited to spend a semester in individualized academic study at the University — to participate in the panel for the past five years, said Judith Resnik, a Yale Law School professor and a co-chair of the WFF.
“We ask them to speak about when and if and why gender plays a role in what they do,” Resnik said.
Imane Rtabi, a Moroccan information technology entrepreneur and founder of the IT company Maghrebnet, said gender was not an issue for her until she entered the business world.
“I never stopped for one minute to think that maybe there would be a gender issue that might make it hard for me,” Rtabi said. “I encountered difficulty with clients.”
Rtabi said clients would often ask for her boss when she was starting her company, but that eventually people “became used to the fact that Maghrebnet was run by a woman.”
Other panelists said they did not personally encounter difficulties in their fields, but operated within circumstances that would have been challenging for most women.
Jessica Faieta of Ecuador, who directs the office of the United Nations deputy secretary-general, said promotion within the United Nations often depends on the ability to move constantly and to be present in dangerous areas, criteria that are sometimes more difficult for women to fulfill than men.
“The two elements that have contributed to my success are mobility and ability to take high-pressure jobs,” Faieta said. “Mobility has a personal cost for women. My female colleagues have chosen not to be promoted that quickly because of family obligations.”
Faieta said although family situations can be arranged to allow for female mobility, barriers still remain.
“A lot of women leave their kids with their husbands in New York, but there is still a bias that women can’t handle those high-pressure jobs,” she said.
Panelists discussed possible solutions to continued gender inequality around the world.
Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, an adviser to the ex-prime minister of Mongolia — who joined forces with women from rival political parties to establish a quota to increase the number of women in the Mongolian legislature — advocated quotas as a first step to increasing women’s prominence.
“The U.S. doesn’t have [quotas],” she said. “I would like to advocate it for you.”
Tsedevdamba said female unity that cuts across political lines was crucial to gaining more rights.
“One party’s initiative wouldn’t make it happen,” she said.
But other panelists said quotas are only a first step and in fact tend to turn women into political tokens.
“I don’t think that quotas are the solution for women,” Rtabi said. “It’s an easy way to start, but women have to be educated instead of just saying, ‘We have to fill up these ten spots with women.’”
Other panelists advocated corporate solutions to create a more family-friendly workplace. Nicky Newton-King, the deputy chief executive officer of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, said her company coordinates meeting times to harmonize with South Africa’s school schedule.
Panelists said it was crucial to keep gender issues in mind for any progress to be made, even if one is not confronted with them every day.
“For some people it’s a real struggle,” Newton-King said. “We can’t just burn our bras and pretend it doesn’t matter to anyone else. We have a real responsibility to make it easier for [other women].”
Audience members said they found the women’s different perspectives valuable.
Hannah Chapin GRD ’10 said the panel highlighted the basic common experiences all women face, regardless of background.
“In the two years that I’ve seen this program, it’s been a window into a culture I wouldn’t otherwise be able to see,” Chapin said. “There are fundamentals that are fun to see from different perspectives.”
Heidi Brown GRD ’09 said she appreciated the panelists’ discussion on the positive aspects of being a woman in the workplace, but would have preferred to hear more specifically about their experiences.
“What struck me most was they said gender wasn’t a disease, and now you can use your womanhood as a virtue,” Brown said. “I would have liked to see them expand on that a little bit more — in what ways they used that to forward [their careers].”
The Yale World Fellows Program was founded in 2002.