Since arriving at Yale from Belgium, I have received invitations nearly every day from female students at this university who want to discuss how to combine a career and family life. In some sense I consider this phenomenon to be a little scary: Why are these women at one of the best universities in the Western world not, instead, asking for advice on preparing themselves for a top career?
Three years ago, then as the first-ever woman serving as Minister of Home Affairs in my country, I was invited by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris to speak about this issue. I still use the arguments of that speech when my fellow students at Yale come to me with their questions.
I always begin by recounting my personal experiences. When I was 18, I honestly thought of feminism as a movement of the past. I felt self-assured, and I had the impression that all this feminist noise was much ado about nothing. Why did women not take matters into their own hands if they felt discriminated against?
I’ve managed to break through a lot of glass ceilings in my career, and I am now an outright feminist. I am convinced the Western world has come to a point where both women and men fully accept the equality of women as a principle.
For the moment, I will not elaborate on the situations of women outside that Western world. In the West even I have, in the course of my career, met obstacles that men never confront. It started with the attitude that following the best possible studies is less important for girls than for boys. It continued with the idea that it is normal that women, even if they choose a full-time career, should combine this with taking care of their kids. As a woman minister, I found that interviewers ask how I manage to combine this task with family; these are questions that they never ask men.
Gradually I have come to believe that the remaining problem in the West is the unconscious bias within men. And I’ve concluded that this bias is a remnant of a deep-rooted, thousands-of-years-old tradition in which men have dominated and women have submitted.
The discussion of quotas in business constitutes a typical example. The board of a company is definitely about the last fortress of male supremacy. In the U.S. women hold only 19.9 percent of the seats in the boards of companies listed on the S&P 500, according to the Washington Post. Under public pressure this proportion has gone up extremely slowly.
The remarkable thing is that most male bosses are not even aware of the problem. Their boards were solely recruited based on talent, they say, adding insult to injury. This is not true, other criteria than talent – like old boys’ networks, laziness in seeking real talent— do play a role in the composition of the boards.
How can you indeed have a good idea of markets and consumer patterns if you exclude about half of the participants from your decision process? In my view these companies are sending out the signal that they do not understand the 21st century.
The question now is: How can we change this? Men are mostly willing to stop discrimination, no doubt about that. It is no longer about rules, it is about mentality, culture and irrationality.
I sometimes try to explain this with an extreme form of discrimination, one that still exists but draws little attention: gendercide. Millions of females and girls in China and India are killed simply because males are preferred.
Endless discussion is the best way to uncover this and to push the gender balance in the right direction. That’s why I answer every student who writes to me about this topic. That is why we should not remain silent about the fact that not one single religion in the entire world has ever been led by a woman. Why have all those noble courts so keen on human rights never dared to complain about that?
Maybe we should even be more provocative, as Madeleine Albright was when she said that “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women”; or even like Marilyn Monroe when she said that “Women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition.”
Then we should openly wonder if the male species direly needs restructuring. In my country, 90 percent of our prisoners are men. Men have been programmed during thousands of years to seek conflict, to use violence if needed, to operate in terms of power and struggle. The question is: Are these still the master-skills of the 21st century? Or are women better programed and indeed more subtly prepared for modern times? It is a tempting thought.
There is plenty of reason to end on an optimistic note. I see more and more women reaching top positions. I see more and more professions becoming equally balanced between men and women. I see more and more girls and women doing better than boys and men in schools and universities. We have to take our opportunities. Let us continue our struggle to change mentalities. Let us be more self-confident. Let us just go for it.
Annemie Turtelboom is a Yale Maurice Greenberg World Fellow. She was the first-ever woman serving as Minister of Home Affairs in Belgium. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .