Wendi Momen - from justice to business, passing through the UN, contributing to gender equality

(ebbf continues its celebration of International Women’s …. week)

When I think of Wendi Momen, I think multitasking. I have met few people with so many spinning plates in the air, all having some positive effect on the world, from Justice of the Peace to Soroptimist, from book editor to international policy activist, mother, grandmother, administrator.  And she makes it look so easy, with a look in her eyes that says: “whatever is stressing you… It’s not worth stressing over!”

She is truly a remarkable woman, and has recently returned from representing – ebbf – at the Commission on the Status of Women, at the United Nations in New York. She shared her reflections for this week’s One to One.

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is one of the most important functional commissions of the UN. It is charged with formulating and delivering the agenda for women agreed by the United Nations through its various declarations and conventions. “At the same time,” Wendi explained, “there is a tendency for programmes to slip and it is the role of civil society to encourage governments to stay on track and to improve their efforts for the advancement of women.”

– ebbf – is an unusual player at the CSW, as most NGOs attending represent women’s organisations. – ebbf – is one of the very few that represent business as business (rather than as women in business). It has a unique perspective in that it sees the role of business as itself advancing the status and work of women and at the same recognises that business must be a contributor to the advancement of civilization.

“I go to the CSW” Wendi told me “to put forward this point of view, to ensure that this perspective is heard by governments and by other NGOs and to support our sister organisations in their efforts.”

As might be expected, the organisations of civil society attending the CSW fully agree with the perspective of – ebbf – on the role of women, something largely taken for granted in such fora. What is interesting, is that Wendi experienced that our civil society colleagues at the CSW are very pleased that a business organisation is an advocate of the equal partnership of women and men at all levels in business. They are also very interested to learn that – ebbf – not only advocates this equality but demonstrates it within its own organisation by having women on the board and `running’ and developing its key activities.

“You would be surprised” Wendi told me, “how many organisations advocate equality but are unable to demonstrate it. So  ebbf’s coherence of principle and practice is refreshing.”

So what does gender equality actually mean beyond the declarations and ideals? I ask someone whose entire life has been devoted to the search and realisation of this answer:

“Equality is not just a question of what job a person does, or how high she ranks in an organisation. It is much more profound than this. The equality of women and men is a fundamental truth about human reality, not just a desired condition to be achieved for the good of society or business. Translating this fundamental truth into practice is a primary goal of – ebbf -.”

That does take the issue above the realm of political contest and organisational policy, but how, I insist, does Wendi Momen experience it, understand it, live it in her own life?

” I was very lucky to  be born into — and later marry into — a family that believed and practised equality of women and me. All the women in my family worked, albeit in jobs other mothers in the neighbourhood didn’t have. My mother was a drummer and singer in night clubs! But I learned early on that the paid job was only one of the jobs a woman has – along with looking after a family, doing voluntary work and serving the community. I thought this was normal, just as I thought it was normal for my parents to come home from work in the morning and go to bed, whereas other kids’ parents got up in the morning and went to work.

“As I got older I realised that my home experience was not all that typical. At school I was discouraged to discover that I was steered away from studying astronomy and law and even at university was turned down for a scholarship to do my PhD on the grounds that I would never finish it because I had a young child and another on the way!

“But it was meeting women in parts of the world where the plight of women is bleak, that really stirred me up. In 1976 I was speaking to a woman with a deeply lined face in West Africa who was working in the rice field, standing hip-deep in water. She had a small child on her back and I was really amazed that such an old woman could do such work. Afterwards, I mentioned this to the friend who had introduced us. `How old do you think she is?’ asked my friend. `Oh, about 70, I guess’, I answered. `She’s 32,’ was the reply. And then we talked about how hard the life is for a woman, how many demands are made upon her and how few resources she has to draw upon. From that point I decided to try to work with and for women and with men who would enable women to advance.

“Since then I have co-founder Advance, a partner organisation of – ebbf – , which works to advance the status of women, and have joined a number of organisations which, in their different ways, advocate and work for women’s rights. Principal among these are Soroptimist International and UN Women (formerly UNIFEM), on whose UK board I sit as secretary. I began working on the international level in 1994, representing – ebbf – at UN summits and conferences and meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women.

“But more importantly, I have tried to work with my own children, young people and every organisation on which I sit to encourage them to see women as valuable, equal partners whose contributions are important to the stability of every community and the advancement of civilization.”

As I ponder her full and compelling answer, it was interesting to me to reflect that from a lifetime spent in advocacy of woman’s rights, in a wide range of organisations at the very highest level, what Wendi harvested as the most significant labour in this field, was not the gender specific services she is evidently so legitimately proud of being a part of, and so deeply committed to – but rather her work in her family, with young people, and in her broader professional life.

And in that sphere, educating one’s children in equality, promoting it in organisations – what is sometimes called ‘mainstreaming’ equality, as compared to making it a special interest or focus (which also has it’s place) – in that sphere I, as a man, could potentially play just as active and important a role in service to what Wendi so powerfully describes as “a fundamental truth about human reality.”

And so I asked, in that key area of endeavour, where both women and men not only can but must collaborate to translate that fundamental reality into action, what Wendi’s suggestions might be, for practical and effective action.

“The experiences of women are often missing in the decision-making processes of our communities and businesses. They frequently face constraints on their participation in social and business affairs, and fail to rise to positions of leadership because so many businesses are designed in ways that make it difficult – or impossible – for women to advance and at the same time fulfil parallel roles at home, in the community and in the voluntary sector, which so many women need to do. It is not women who are failing here but the very nature and shape of business and politics. Men are recognising that the way business and boards are designed militates against them also taking on these other interesting roles.”

That evidently implies some sort of restructuring. What does she have in mind?

“Looking at the way our businesses are designed – the hours that are kept, the locations that workers work, seeing whether teleworking and home-based offices might be effective, asking employees to spend some part of their working week doing voluntary service in the community, celebrating `take your daughter to work’ day, recognising employees who give time outside the office as well as doing a great job in it, encouraging workers to take `reflection breaks’ during the busy day – these are some ways to begin making businesses more user-friendly for all workers.”

Wendi’s vision seems to me as ambitious as it is necessary, indeed overdue. And again it strikes me that actually, that is the kind of environment I would like to work in too. And it becomes clear that gender equality is not exclusively a “women’s issue”, but a human issue. That businesses designed to harness and benefit from the experiences of women will in fact liberate the wider potential of all of us, men and women alike, perhaps because in doing so, in incorporating such thought processes and redesigning our organisations accordingly, we will be not only be bringing equity to the workplace, not only aligning ourselves with a broadly gendered agenda, but also coming in touch, if Wendi’s right (and I for one am persuaded), with a deeper insight into what it means to be human.

Keep daring.

Wendi Momen

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