On 4 November 2015, Justin Trudeau was sworn in as Canada’s new prime minister and presented his cabinet. Asked why it had been important for him to have an equal number of men and women in his cabinet, he answered “because it’s 2015”. This straight-forward iconic answer was quickly and eagerly picked up by the global social media and news networks.

In Iran, Ali Rahbari, the conductor of the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, refused to play a planned concert, because the female members of the orchestra were refused access to the stage. His message was loud and clear: “either we all play together, or nobody plays”.

And after the team captain of the Iranian national (women’s) football team had to stay away from a tournament in Malaysia because her husband would not allow her to leave the country, the campaign “It’s men’s turn” spread. Under the hashtag #itsmensturn, progressive Iranian men declared the rights they would give back to women and shared them on the social media.

In the US, President Barack Obama used the 95th anniversary of women’s right to vote to introduce “Women’s Equality Day”. In his proclamation he underlined that women are vital for our prosperity and safety in terms of everything from business life to world peace. But as we celebrate the progress, we must rededicate ourselves to the idea that the work to achieve gender equality is far from done: “there is still more work to do and more doors of opportunity to open”.

Feminist men step forward

At the beginning of the month, I had the privilege of being invited to two important Nordic gender equality conferences. First, Tipping Point in Sweden where Peter Norman, the former Swedish minister for financial markets, and Ulf Ewaldsson, member of Ericsson’s group management, participated. During the debate both expressed a sincere wish to achieve improved gender equality and outlined how these efforts are part of their work.

And then a conference in Oslo about how men can play a bigger role in improving gender equality. The panel included Thorvald Stoltenberg, Jonas Gahr Støre and Kjell Magne Bondevik. So here we had three former foreign ministers (the latter even a former prime minister) who were all as fervent feminists as the two Swedish men mentioned above, emphasising that gender equality is fundamentally a question of human rights, democracy and ethics.

At both conferences it was widely agreed that we will not experience the necessary growth, cohesion and peace in the world without improved gender equality. And men need to assume their part of the responsibility to create change.

“And men need to assume their part of the responsibility to create change.”

100-year celebration – and a step backwards

In Denmark, 2015 was the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Queen Margrethe and the Danish Women’s Society shared the stage and celebrated the event in front of the Parliament, reminding us of the battles that men and women have fought throughout the times on our behalf to bring us to where we are today.

Unfortunately, Denmark also suffered a setback in 2015 in terms of gender equality. While we see improving gender equality and clear messages from government heads and decision-makers in other countries as noted above, Denmark took a step backwards in 2015. The setbacks included documented harassment of women participating in the public debate, documented sexism in the public space and impaired conditions for compiling statistics of equal pay for men and women. 

We lost our position among the top five countries in the Nordic league in the World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap report, plummeting to number 14. In terms of women in management Denmark also dropped from a ranking of 72 to 81 in the same report.

One of the main obstacles to gender equality in Denmark is the notion that the goal has already been reached. But unfortunately, progress and development are not automatically constant variables. You cannot just imagine a linear curve with a positive coefficient and assume that the train keeps moving forward once it has been put on the tracks.

“One of the main obstacles to gender equality in Denmark is the notion that the goal has already been reached.”

Recently, I met with one of the world’s leading researchers and lecturers on the topic of masculinity and gender equality, US sociologist and professor Michael Kimmel. He was puzzled about what has happened to Denmark, making us slide down the WEF gender gap survey in 2015 and showing a disappointing performance relative to our potential. His own overall answer was that “It’s in the nature of gender equality work that it’s always two steps forward and one back. You have to fight constantly; if you relax you fall. And more men need to be involved in fighting for gender equality”.

Unfortunately, some men still do not see gender equality as an issue that concerns them as much as it does women, so how should they become more committed?

“Most men live in a world where they are totally blind to the privileges they enjoy and have enjoyed throughout history. At the same time, they see gender equality as a zero sum game. What one part wins, the other part must necessarily lose. This builds a wall of resistance whether it is deliberate or not. But what men need to understand is that gender equality benefits everybody: our children, our relationships, businesses, society, the world”, Michael Kimmel said to me.

“It’s in the nature of gender equality work that it’s always two steps forward and one back. You have to fight constantly; if you relax you fall.”

We can all contribute to change

Being committed to improving gender inequality is both about sending a clear message and showing that this is the direction that you want and strive for. But it is also about making a clear stand when you see people being put down or discriminated against, about being supportive.

The men that I mentioned in my previous examples – the conductor of the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, husbands in Iran and our Nordic political leaders and businessmen – all determinately took steps to improve gender equality in 2015 or showed firm support, siding with women and clearly denouncing discrimination.

Let us be inspired by them and others who also take a stand in the public space. Luckily, we also have examples in Denmark of men who clearly stand up for and support gender equality.

I also hope that you will find inspiration in my below references to literature, Ted Talks, business networks etc.

It is difficult as a visionary leader to help break the glass ceiling or remove other barriers to gender equality in the business community if we do not understand the dynamics that create the barriers.

The gender equality challenges at the corporate level are part of a larger structural and cultural paradigm, which we at least have to understand if we are to have any hope of utilising the potential that lies at our feet.

We all have to shoulder responsibility for moving forward in terms of growth and development to close the gender gap rather than falling behind. And in Denmark we must also take up Barack Obama’s challenge to rededicate ourselves to the idea that the work to achieve gender equality is far from done.

So start the new year with the courage to be more attentive towards all the visible and removable barriers to gender equality, but also the more subtle ones.

Be inquisitive and look into what you can do specifically in your life to avoid becoming one of the barriers but instead taking actively part in writing a new piece of Danish gender equality history in 2016, which future generations can celebrate.

”There is still work to do”.

Happy New Year!

Inspiration for men’s role and opportunities to take responsibility for gender equality work:

In 2015, Henrik Marstal, lecturer and debater of gender issues, published the book “Breve fra en kønsforræder” (letters from a gender traitor) where he with great insight directly addresses men (and other interested parties) about the core problems concerning men’s role and responsibility in the promotion of gender equality. Read it.

See Ted Talks and read articles by Michael Kimmel here: http://www.michaelkimmel.com/

Or follow the Catalyst initiative: “Men Advocating Real Change” MARC here: http://onthemarc.org/home, with a lot of inspiration on how men can take responsibility for and take part in gender equality work in businesses and society at large.