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Discussing New Approaches to Gender Equality

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

A Keynote Speech delivered to the 2nd Women Leaders Summit at the G20 Summit in Seoul, South Korea, 2010.


Originally written for Won Buddhism UN & Interfaith Office


Depending upon where one lives in the world, women experience different types and degrees of oppression and exclusion from the mainstream of what a post-post modern world has to offer. In some parts of the world women are struggling to survive physical abuse; feed their families; and have no reason to hope that they or their daughters will live to know a better life. In other regions of the world women are denied equal rights, equal pay and/or access to high level, influential, political roles, or to simply live their best possible lives.

The newly established U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) is a powerful signal for the future that has the potential to move the edge of humanity by “promoting gender equality, expanding opportunity, and tackling discrimination around the globe.” In a statement at the October 2010 UN Security Council Open Debate on Women and Peace and Security, the new Executive Director of UN Women, and former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet applauded this major step as illustrating “exceptional commitment by Member States who seek greater leadership, coordination and coherence from the United Nations on gender equality and women’s empowerment”. President Bachelet put forth a three point strategy:

  • A single comprehensive framework consisting of an agreed set of goals, targets and indicators to guide the implementation of the resolution in the next decade

  • Determined leadership

  • Determined implementation

This initiative is among numerous on-going efforts within Member States, within local communities, academia and social programs with a common premise; that women’s equality is the paramount moral challenge of our era.


I would like very briefly to challenge those who will lead such movements, programs and policy enactment to ensure that their leadership will transcend “equality” as the desired outcome and offer more progressive options for transformational change in the way that we think about inclusion and creating a world that works for everyone. Otherwise, change will continue to be too slow to ease the violence, abuse and barrier for too many women around the world and we may in our successes simply reinforce the phenomenon of “us and them” between the genders. Going forward women must not only participate fully, we must also take a critical and systemic view of reality and find methods to transform the world for the good of the whole. To do so we need much more transcendent and generative approaches as leaders. Following are examples of such approaches that I wish to propose to this Summit.


1. A Systems View of the global situation and actions to be pursued – as addressed in Director Bachelet’s statement – a comprehensive framework that addresses the interdependence of efforts across Member States and around the world.


2. A Progressive Aim for Change that breaks the “Pedagogy of Oppression as defined by Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and theorist. We must not view the architects of the current social and economic condition as the enemy. Men are not the enemy going forth. We can only move the edge of humanity by working in the interest of everyone. Just as men cannot create the best possible world without including the resources of women; women must bring our unique resources to augment and share our resources in the interest of all.


3. Cultural Humility. Creating respectfully partnerships with individuals, groups and organizations and societies. As the world has become more global we are required to work across differences such as culture, gender and age. Typically, we attempt “cultural competence”, i.e., learning as much as possible about cultural or racial characteristics and assuming therefore that we are negotiating two perspectives, that of the “other” and our own. M. Melanie Tervalon and J. Murray-Garcia, 1998 suggest that a more reliable and sensitive assumption would be Cultural Humility proposing that self awareness and a respectfully partnership that explores similarities and differences with each encounter. A life-long learning posture re differences. Gender, after all is only one factor in the total personality of a man or woman and imposing assumptions about an entire group can be misleading.


Following is an example of cultural humility as a tool for courageous and effective leadership:


In the period of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s large numbers of young black men were recruited and assigned into the U.S. Navy to remove them from the larger society where racial tensions and crimes were prevalent. This created a cultural backlash aboard Navy ships where Blacks and Filipinos were relegated to lower level jobs and rates with little promise of moving into the preferred jobs and schools. Young men from the streets of U.S. cities were accustomed to exclusion; stirred by demands for equality they were also unaccustomed to the rigid conformity required in a military culture. The result was mutiny aboard ships where they lived in close quarters with whites for the first time; there was violence and work stoppage; totally unacceptable behavior in the Navy.


The Chief of Navy Operations (CNO), Rear Admiral Elmo Zumwalt intervened by declaring that any captain unable to stop such disruption would find his career frozen. The violence stopped immediately. The CNO went a step further. He requested meetings with small groups of black and Filipino enlisted men to listen to their concerns, needs and preferences as he also firmly explained that their coping behavior would not be tolerated. What he learned was a total new insight into reality for these young men and the barriers to performance that made their lives unbearable. As a result Admiral Zumwalt created a Navy-Wide program to correct some of the institutional barriers to career development and participation of black and Filipino enlisted men accessing not only social needs but the opening of professional doors. He personally monitored the changes through a major change program housed in the Bureau of Naval Personnel. He also paid a price professionally; his career was essentially derailed as his goals and strong leadership for social change were inconsistent with military culture and norms and especially in conflict with expectations for military leadership held by the U.S. Congress at the time. The change however was phenomenal for everyone in the U.S. Navy, in long term and sustainable ways.


Admiral Zumwalt acted respectfully in the interest of this new group of young men as well as the requirement for military readiness that is the non-negotiable goal of the United States Navy. By asking and listening he created the space and opportunity for them to succeed by examining the institutional practices that could be changed without sacrificing purpose.


Important note about the Navy Story. The policies to support the work that Admiral Zumwalt stewarded were already in place and had been for years. The caution to UN Women is that having policy in place is a significant beginning point; however, policy can be empty without the right type of support. Security Council Resolution 1325 continues to be a milestone after ten years of progress; however this may be the right time to ask: “What are the questions that we must ask and lessons that must be articulated that will bring the true spirit and intent of policy at this level, to fruition in shorter periods of time?”


4. Women Leading as Women. I am concerned that as women move into positions of influence and authority we may not bring our ways of discerning, decision-making, problem-solving, managing dilemmas and opportunities to the field of leadership. In my work with women leaders I guide them in practices to access their inner knowing and intuition, and use stories from their own life experience to help them to trust their unique models and approaches in more reliable and consistent ways. This is not to abandon the established and proven management and leadership knowledge and practices that we learn from the outer world; but to reexamine the mindsets in which they were created and make space for our own. The world sees uniqueness in women that we may not see in ourselves. One of the reasons that women are becoming heads of state and CEO’s is that we bring something that the institutions of the world are crying out for. If we simply emulate what has already been practiced we miss an historical opportunity of potentially great magnitude.


5. Questioning and Courageous Conversation as essential to the art of leadership and the art of living. We have been rewarded so well for knowing answers that we have lost access to the wealth of knowledge and creativity that can be found in the ability to craft bigger questions out of genuine curiosity; questions that require us to “think deeper, together” and engage in conversations that create new intelligence and unparalleled ideas. If organizations and social movements are to create commitment, make use of talent, and stimulate innovations and creativity, they must learn, as so many at the competitive edge have done, to create a culture of dialogue and engagement of greater numbers of people. Men and women who will lead the campaign for equality must employ these principles to address tough issues exploit opportunities.


6. Inter-generational Focus. A necessary perspective for the work that is being pursued in gender equality and other major issues of the time such as ecology must engage the ideas and concerns of young people. After all it is their world that we are attempting to improve, theirs and their grandchildren. Not only do they need to have a voice, their ideas often fit the future with greater freedom and range than our ideas. Every campaign should automatically include the full participation of our youth.




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