Paris Meeting of International Gender Champions

On 12 February 2024, the IGC Paris Hub held its first Champions meeting of the year at UNESCO’s Headquarters, themed “Nothing less than gender equality in leadership”.

The meeting opened with remarks by members of the Paris Hub's Steering Committee. Ms Gabriela Ramos, Assistant-Director General for the Social and Human Sciences Sector of UNESCO, ignited the conversation by addressing the challenges of elections and the representation of women in decision-making – 2024 being a "super elections year" with half of the world going to the ballot box. Her speech was followed by the Ambassador of Ireland to France, H.E. Mr Niall Burgess’, remarks, which set the tone of the IGC meeting: “No half measures, no complacency, no compromises.”

Keynote speaker Ms Arancha González, Dean of the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA) Sciences Po, and former Chair of the IGC Global Board, expressed her concerns regarding the setback in women's economic empowerment, citing a decline in the presence of women leaders worldwide, especially in STEM fields. She continued by delineating the challenges faced by women in elections – as voters and candidates.

Ms Natasha Quester-Séméon, Director General of Jamais Sans Elles, delivered the second keynote speech on the engagement of men in gender equality. She stressed the importance of their contribution in driving effective and concrete change. Jamais Sans Elles, a French non-governmental organisation, promotes gender diversity by advocating for the presence of women in decision-making spaces. It unites leaders across all sectors of society in a shared commitment to enact several measures, with the first pledge being their refusal to attend a roundtable if there is not at least one woman at the table. The UNESCO Transforming MEN’talities Initiative supports this: we must engage men and boys for gender equality by promoting positive masculinities and the development of inclusive policy frameworks.

After the keynotes, a roundtable was facilitated by Ms Gabriela Ramos. The six Champions were invited to exchange insights, experiences, and recommendations on achieving gender equality in leadership.

H.E. Ms Blanca Jiménez Cisneros, Ambassador of Mexico to France, discussed the intersection of water issues with gender equality and leadership. She underscored the critical link between water, economic productivity and the disproportionate impact of gender disparities on women's resilience to the climate crisis. To tackle these challenges, she suggested to produce more data to inform strategic planning and set precise targets. The Gender-Based Resilience framework developed by UNESCO shows: only 40% of women report being able to swim compared to 66% of men in 2019. It stresses the urgency to equip all individuals with equal sets of skills to tackle climate change-related threats.

H.E. Mr Niall Burgess pointed out a contradiction: although most men are favourable to gender equality, very few of them are actively involved. This gap is even more important in the tech sector which remains mostly dominated by men. He expressed his concerns given the essential role of technology in shaping the future.

Ms Emmanuelle Larroque, President and Director General of Social Builder echoed these concerns by identifying the integration of women in these sectors as a pivotal avenue for their economic empowerment. She pointed out the absence or underrepresentation of women in STEM, emphasizing the urgent need to provide women with greater opportunities and self-confidence to work in these fields.

H.E. Ms Delphine O, French Ambassador and Secretary General of the Generation Equality Forum, raised concern about the backlash against women’s rights, mainly rooted in the global resurgence of conservatism. There is a growing divide between young women and young men: in the global North, young men are becoming more conservative while young women are adopting more progressive values and behaviours. She urged to join forces to combat this upsurge of misogyny and gender-based violence.

Ms Elisabeth Moreno, Founder of La puissance du lien & former French Minister Delegate for Gender Equality, Diversity, and Equal Opportunities started with a striking fact: women are the only majority treated as a minority. Through her experience in politics, she observed a recurring pattern of men resisting women's presence in politics, paralleled with many women feeling intimidated to occupy such spaces. This partly explains why women only take up 28% of political positions. Ms Elisabeth Moreno concluded by acknowledging the power of voting as democracy is in danger.

H.E. Ms Unnur Orradóttir Ramette, Ambassador of Iceland to France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Andorra, Monaco and Lebanon & Permanent Representative to the OECD, concluded the roundtable. She presented the challenges and good practices implemented in Iceland for more and better participation of women in governance and leadership. To achieve 48% of women in Parliament, Iceland promotes high level education for women, enforces existing laws with the equal pay certification, supports grassroot mobilisation, as well as a balance of mental load for parents thanks to the twelve months parental leave.

The roundtable was followed by a Q&A session, during which H.E. Ms Natasha Cayer, Ambassador & Permanent Delegate of Canada to UNESCO, delved into the gender divide. She highlighted the dichotomy of progress: on the one hand women are advancing in certain sectors of society, on the other hand there is an alarming backlash. She expressed concerns about this second path, particularly regarding the propagation of rape culture through violent imagery consumed by young men.

Following this, H.E. Ms Jean E. Manes, Acting U.S. Permanent Representative to UNESCO, shared insights from her expertise in security, a field where she experienced resistance to women in leadership positions. She stressed the importance of having gender Champions as catalysts for change and suggested framing the achievement of gender equality as a competitive necessity to bolster inclusion.

Ms Begoña Lasagabaster, Director of the Gender Equality Division in the Office of the Director-General of UNESCO, wrapped up the meeting by highlighting the "painfully slow" progress of gender equality and women's empowerment. She outlined sectors and projects where gender equality is key at UNESCO, including sports, artificial intelligence, and neo-technologies. As H.E Ms Cayer, Ms Lasagabaster raised awareness regarding the danger of new technologies for women’s rights. Lastly, she questioned the concept of power, and whether women, despite their increased presence in decision-making, truly wield more power.

Following the public event, a lunch was organised for the Champions, where they advanced the recommendations and proposals that emerged during the discussions to enhance the network’s impact and visibility. They expressed their desire to organise yearly events and more regular meetings at themed lunches, to discuss gender equality issues with experts.

The Champions also brainstormed several project ideas for 2024, with a focus on youth empowerment. They proposed organising a masterclass on women in AI to add a gender perspective to new technologies. They also expressed their commitment to advocating for youth mental health amidst increasing digitalisation. Finally, the Champions suggested coordinating an event during the Paralympic Games, to promote inclusion and the prevention of abuse and harassment in sports, with a gender perspective.