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Gendered Languages May Play a Role in Limiting Women’s Opportunities

MD Staff

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In many developing countries, women face significant barriers to their equal participation in society. While some of these barriers are easy to see, a new line of research is uncovering a surprising and less obvious possibility: the very structure of certain languages may shape gender norms in a way that limits women’s opportunities.

“Gender equity is important not only because it can help speed up progress toward ending poverty, but because it provides everyone the chance to achieve their potential,” said Asli Demirguc-Kunt, Director of Research at the World Bank. “Understanding the deeper causes that shape the barriers women face can help countries be more effective in their efforts to create a level playing field.”

At a recent Policy Research Talk, World Bank economist Owen Ozier delivered a crash course in linguistics and its relationship to gender norms and economic outcomes for women. According to Ozier, existing research has already hinted at a link between grammar and gender. Some languages—including Spanish and Russian, for example—classify nouns as either masculine or feminine (or sometimes even neuter). Recent experiments in political science have shown that gendered languages that classify nouns this way are associated with more regressive gender attitudes. Economics research has also found that recent immigrants to the United States tend to divide household tasks along more gendered lines if they speak a gendered language.

But Ozier and his colleague Pamela Jakiela of the Center for Global Development wanted more conclusive evidence, and in a new paper they document the results of a journey to identify the grammatical gender structure of 4,334 languages, together accounting for 99 percent of the world’s population. To achieve this linguistic feat, they drew not only on existing sources of information like the World Atlas of Language Structures, but also deep dives into textbooks and academic research as well as the knowledge of World Bank staff in offices as far flung as Fiji.

Their work paid off with fundamental but previously unknown facts about language. For example, 38 percent of the world’s population speaks a gendered language as their native tongue. But more importantly, Ozier and Jakiela were able to take this newly assembled body of data and relate it to outcomes for women around the world—specifically female labor force participation, educational achievement, and gender norms.

What they found is striking. Grammatical gender is associated with a nearly 15 percentage point gap in female labor force participation relative to men, even after controlling for various geographic and economic factors that could be driving the difference. In practical terms, gendered languages could account for 125 million women worldwide being out of the labor force.

Attitudes toward women are also influenced by gendered languages—helping to explain how gendered languages could translate into outcomes like lower female labor force participation. Drawing on data from the World Values Survey, Ozier and Jakiela found that those who speak a gendered language are more likely to agree with statements like “On the whole, men make better business executives than women do” or “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.” Perhaps even more surprisingly, women are just as likely as men to hold these attitudes, suggesting just how pervasive the effect of language is on beliefs.

Not satisfied with the wide-lens analysis of countries around the world, Ozier and Jakiela also closely scrutinized a handful of countries—Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Uganda, and India—where both a gendered and non-gendered indigenous language is widely spoken. What they found confirmed their broader findings: gendered languages are consistently associated with lower female labor force participation. In these countries gendered languages are also associated with lower rates of primary and secondary school completion.

Since languages change slowly, and often outside the control of any institution, the findings may seem to be cause for resignation. Yet Ozier was optimistic.

“Grammatical gender is only one among many of the linguistic structures that we use, and only one of the many psychological nudges that we experience on a constant basis,” said Ozier. “Even without changing language, shifts in policies and social norms can change levels of labor force participation, change levels of schooling, and the opportunities available to women.”

A new wave of experiments has demonstrated that highlighting positive examples of women can make a difference. In an experiment by Oxford’s Emma Riley, Ugandan students performed better on a mathematics exam after being shown the film Queen of Katwe, which tells the story of a young Ugandan woman’s achievements in competitive chess. In another experiment by professors Catherine Porter and Danila Serra, female students who had a female role model visit their introductory economics class were more likely to take a more advanced economics class.

The behaviors and beliefs of men can also change. After Quebec reformed its parental leave program to include a “daddy-only” label, Cornell University’s Ankita Patnaik found that fathers’ use of parental leave doubled and fathers were more likely to contribute to household and child-rearing responsibilities. In households in Saudi Arabia, experimenters from the University of Chicago and University of Zurich addressed misperceptions about the typical level of support men have for women working outside the home, and women in these households were subsequently more likely to participate in a job interview.

“It’s encouraging to see that there are interventions that can trump the salience of language, but whether their effect is long-lasting is something we still don’t know,” said Caren Grown, Senior Director of Gender at the World Bank. “We need more behavioral science research that will identify the policies and nudges that can alter potentially deeply ingrained gender attitudes.”

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New Social Compact

Marcia Andrade Braga: A ‘stellar example’ of why more women are needed in UN peacekeeping

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Brazilian peacekeeper Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga serves in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Photo: MINUSCA

Training gender advisors and focal points in the Central African Republic (CAR) has earned a Brazilian United Nations peacekeeper a special gender advocate award, it was announced on Tuesday.

Secretary-General António Guterres will bestow naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga, with the UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award during the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial conference due to be held at UN Headquarters in New York this Friday.

“UN Missions need more women peacekeepers so local women can talk more freely about the issues that affect their lives”, said Lt. Cdr. Braga.

“I am so proud to be selected”, she said, upon receiving news of her award, also expressing gratitude to her colleagues in the UN Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

Serving as the Military Gender Advisor at MINUSCA Headquarters since April 2018, Lt. Cdr. Braga has helped to build a network of trained gender advisors and focal points among the Mission’s military units and promoted mixed teams of men and women to conduct community-based patrols around the country.

These “Engagement Teams” were able to gather critical information to help the Mission understand the unique protection needs of men, women, boys and girls, which in turn helped develop community projects to support vulnerable communities.

Projects include the installation of water pumps close to villages, solar-powered lighting and the development of community gardens to cut down the distances women have to travel, to tend their crops.

Lt. Cdr. Braga is also a driving force behind MINUSCA leadership’s engagement with local women leaders, making sure that the voice of Central African women is heard throughout the ongoing peace process.

Moreover, as a former teacher she has also helped train and raise awareness among her peers on gender dynamics within the Mission.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, who heads the UN Department of Peace Operations, spelled out: “Marcia Andrade Braga is a stellar example of why we need more women in peacekeeping: Peacekeeping works effectively when women play meaningful roles and when women in the host communities are directly engaged”.

Created in 2016, the UN award recognizes the dedication and effort of an individual peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace and security, which underscores the “3 Ps”, to prevent conflict; protect women and their rights during and after conflict; and to increase the numbers of women participating in all mechanisms, to prevent and resolve conflict.

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New Social Compact

Davos: The Other Side of the Mirror

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It has been a couple of months since I was hanging out in Davos learning about this year’s World Economic Forum.  Perhaps I have a unique view, because I am the founder of Peppr and Ohlala, described as “the one dating app where everyone’s intentions are very clear.”  and the person said to be responsible for the #escortgate controversy, in which paid escorts showed up at one of the world’s most exclusive investor conferences in Berlin in 2016. I am also the author of the statement that “We all have sexwork to do,” I follow up on all conversations related to escorting and sexwork, which I deliberately call “paid dating.”

I have been following up on the conversations ever since: about world leaders said to be not acting as role models (or acting as bad role models), about the hypocrisy over sustainability, philanthropic models or the proposals to adjust taxes for the wealthier among us to secure a basic standard of living for all, a conversation the ones directly affected seemed to be avoiding.

Davos, as we know, brings together so many of the world’s most powerful leaders –parleys occur, deals are made and opportunities appear that likely don’t ever arise elsewhere. And among these deal makers are people whose drive takes other avenues. 

As one woman was quoted as saying: “It’s the kind of place where if a woman turns away to exit a conversation and looks back just quickly enough, she’ll find her posterior aesthetic being carefully dissected by the man who just asked her for her business card — even if he is the CEO of a major bank. When we weren’t being asked how we got here, we were constantly being stared up and down by CEOs, hedge fund managers, finance ministers and embassy heads.”

However, I am still a bit confused about the opinionated statements that were going on this year after Davos. It’s the same debates and thoughts we had around #escortgate.I have been wondering how to productively progress the conversation around this morally, emotionally loaded topic, because clearly we are running around in circles.

What I have seen is a whole lot of personal, subjective judgments of people sometimes labeled as “escorts” and how they are not supposed to be around in places like Davos. I had hoped for a more deliberate thought-through conversation, a dialogue, but mostly what I read stigmatizes and judges people on their very personal choices and agreements: how they want (or have to — as most of us do) to make money, to afford a living.

“I don’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute”

You might wonder which conversations or statements I was so confused about. First, about the existence of escorts at the Forum, by a young woman named Baillie Aaron:

“And then I heard the whispers of what happens at night, at the parties, in the hotel lobbies and at the famous Piano Bar where it was an unspoken understanding that some men ‘took off their wedding rings.’ Almost all my male colleagues commented on the presence of female escorts at these venues, many of which were guest-list only, or required a hotel badge to access. A quick online search displayed a number of articles confirming that the existence of and easy access to escorts at Davos is nothing new, and what for some delegates, could be a strong motivator to attend.” Statement found here.

Demand creates supply. It’s as simple as that and from an economic standpoint, I do understand wo/men going there to seek business, in any sense. Also, on that particular one.

However, I wonder: What is so bad about the “existence of and easy access of escorts” in the first place? Why shouldn’t there be men or women who get paid to date at the World Economic Forum? If it’s true, maybe some men took off rings because they are in an open marriage? Why would you care about someone else’s choice? (Unless you are the wife of that person and you have a personal private agreement to stay physically faithful and not take the ring off.)

In Switzerland, at least, if there really were some men or women paid to have sex, it would be legal and regulated — not even a breach of law. For me, these workers should be as much part of the conversation as anyone else in Davos.

Actually, given the current political environment in the US around the topic of sexwork, they should definitely be part of the conversations, because this industry screams:“Please reinvent me and improve circumstances for those who are not protected. Make it safer for everyone involved.”

Some politicians already seem to be having a change of heart. Decriminalization is their way forward. Going along with all the standing proposals of Amnesty International.

What else has been subject of the realm on feeling “unsafe” or “discriminated” at Davos.

I look and check bodies all the time myself, with men and women. I can appreciate a beautiful person without having the urge to hook up. We do checkout people all the time — on Instagram and Facebook. But we are not allowed to look in real life? Everyone does it. Recently, I have found myself with other people in the office kitchen wondering how cute the new intern is. #Wetoo do it.

Third quote about warnings regarding sexual harassment

“At the Davos opening Women’s Reception, with some male allies in attendance, I asked a question: Why is it that in 2019, young female delegates are forewarned about sexual harassment — as if it’s our responsibility to protect ourselves — but the delegates themselves aren’t given training on how (or why) not to harass? There was no answer, other than a murmuring recognition that it was a known issue: many of the women who attended in past years had personal experience of sexual harassment.”

What is actually sexual harassment?Can we come up with a definition?Does sexual harassment go both ways?Where does it start?Where to draw the line?

There is always two sides of the story and I feel like, in the realm of the “gender narrative debate” (certain traits assigned to genders because of a gender), we need to let both parties speak in order to find a common ground. What one attempt-to-hit-on-someone finds okay, another may feel totally offended.

Of course we could be confused anyway. Every third relationship evolves in a work-related context. So that means, including these events, it could be a dating market as well, right? Personally, 90 percent of my time, I am surrounded by people with whom I somehow work together. The chances that I meet someone that I want to partner up with is high. So naturally, events like this also create a space where I might get to know someone for a night, maybe more.

I understand, there are certain limits: If someone runs up to someone during the day time event in a straightforward business context and does a pussy or penis grab (Presidential style?), I understand negative sentiment. But if people (yes, men AND women) hit on each other in a Piano Bar to romantic music at 2 in the morning, after a couple of glasses of wine or even four gin and tonics, where people go to hang loose and left the laptop in their hotel room, you cannot possibly be surprised that this is happening.

Again, it goes both ways. We all forget our manners sometimes, when we are drunk (or high, or whatever). On a personal note: The most aggressive hit on me ever was by a drunken woman, not a man.

“I think about what I wear more because there are a lot of prostitutes in Davos, especially at the Piano Bar,” one woman said, referencing the popular late-night hot spot. “I don’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute.”

When we gender mainstream almost everything, even adjust anthems of countries, toilet signs, why don’t we just get rid of that particular word too? Or best: all of them: escort, prostitute, whore. Those devaluating terms are connected directly to women. We will not evolve in any of the conversations if we use preconceived terms. We need to let go of these terms.When we talk empowerment, we need to empower all women (or people in general). That certainly includes also those who get paid to date.

I would like to start proposing a couple of solutions and quick fixes.Here are some ideas that I would like to propose as to how to progress in this entire discussion:

Power of perception: Could you, instead looking down toward this type of entrepreneur, take it as a compliment?Flip the coin. Be bold and brave. So what? Maybe that person misread the signs? If he/she thinks you want to be paid to date: just say. ‘No, I don’t‘.  This way you are still respecting other people, especially women who do this — as a personal choice entering into an agreement — and you maintain your own integrity. Problem solved. That I find acting out of a position of power, instead of victimizing yourself.

Let’s stop gender blaming!People can have female and male traits. This makes the whole gender debate almost irrelevant. This is “how men are” or this is “how women are” is simply stereotyping our way to further separation. Even the Davos Vanity Fair – as my legendary professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic calls the WEF – advocates the gender neutrality.

This whole finger pointing and mansplaining doesn’t solve anything but create negative sentiment because we simply sometimes don’t know anymore as to how to behave in certain contexts. I feel like the whole dynamic is ruled by fear, as to what we are not supposed to do, instead of relearning how we can handle each other in certain contexts. Reframe it in a positive way. Look at it as a chance or opportunity.

And it goes both ways, this #metoo. We have to find a common ground towards a #wetoo. From he said, he did, she said, she did. We need to evolve to a “#wetoo are going to solve this together.”

3. Education is key.We need proper training of all sorts on how to handle each other. Why not invest in our (work) relationships?

Maybe we need to elaborate a guideline. We could design a new sort of “Knigge” or a Code of Conduct on how to behave in a work-related context. This could help navigate through some uncertainties, especially if cultures vary across borders and continents.

Or maybe even a defense class to train people for difficult situations. For example: I had a compulsory defense class in middle school. We were trained by really big guys to defend ourselves. The impact in my life? I always feel/felt safe, because though I might be physically inferior, I know some really important tricks. It gave me a lifelong confidence.Maybe that’s what we all have to learn at the end of the day: articulate our intentions properly and (be able to) show the limits.

Imagine a world, free from personal judgement, where “it” would be decriminalized. People active in this field could seek help if they needed it and would pay taxes. The proceeds of the taxes could be used to combat negative forces within this market.

That for me, is a desirable future. One I would like to help shape.What do you think?

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New Social Compact

A Calamitous Week

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Something is infinitely wrong in the picture, a juxtaposition of polar opposites:  New Zealand, a country of unfailingly courteous and kind people, and an extremist terrorist killing 40 Muslims at prayer.  Of course, modern guns made it possible, a hate-filled extremist of Australian origin set the stage, and a country not familiar with such violence — thus an easy target.  All together they broke the proverbial camel’s back.

My own experience of New Zealand — visiting universities and delivering the occasional lecture as academics do — was uniformly pleasant.  It was as if a piece of 1950s England had been sliced off and transported to the Pacific, down to the egg, sausage, bacon and tomato breakfast.  The numerous small kindnesses of the people one met left a warm glow.

I was therefore, quite unprepared for Australia, the only country where I have been taken aside into a room to be grilled by an immigration official for what seemed an eternity.  People are people:  The hotel receptionist was welcoming and helpful.

At the Sydney Opera House, Joan Sutherland was appearing in The Daughter of the Regiment to a sold-out first night.  As luck would have it, a ticket return was my ticket in .  Quenching a thirst during intermission, the withering looks of fashionably-dressed matrons is now an aide-memoire.  Otherwise, I might have forgotten, as I have, for example, the performance at Schloss Schonbrunn outside Vienna.

Universities are different of course, and students and professors tend not to harbor such prejudices or exhibit them within the ivory towers.  The conference was much like others.  Australians in person seem friendly, unselfconscious and lacking the class prejudice common in England.  I must add that I have counted quite a few as friends and academic colleagues over the years.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outburst at New Zealand following the shooting was a trifle premature.  Of Turkish origin, 40-year old Gorkmen Tanis opened fire inside a tram in Utrecht, Netherlands killing 3 and wounding 3 others.  Hate and more hate in a world of conflicting values and customs, coming into sharper focus as people travel outside their own countries (and comfort space) in quest of greater economic reward.  Necessity or greed, opportunism or adventure, each individual has his own motivation for leaving home. 

The situation is not improved by jingoist politicians exploiting it during elections or otherwise (Modi in India or Trump in the US) trying to boost standing with their base support.

Calamities other than from the barrel of a gun but perhaps not unaided by human hand gave us an historic deluge mid-March, flooding almost the whole state of Nebraska.  Rich countries have the resources to limit deaths in these catastrophes but not the devastation and the ruined lives of those who have to start all over again.  In Mozambique, however, President Felipe Nyusi fears the death toll will be far higher than the present 200 estimate in the aftermath of cyclone Idai which hit the port city of Beira.  We are told it is possibly the worst storm ever to hit the southern hemisphere; its path of destruction enveloped Zimbabwe, Malawi and of course Mozambique.  In addition to the deaths in the latter, another 150 at least have perished in the other two countries, and thousands injured.  The inundation and loss of crops are expected to impact the lives of more than 2.6 million people.  

Calamities engineered by man or by nature aided by man are the story this week.  Can we change? 

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