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Equal yet not the same. A reflection on gender equality

A blog on a training done in Armenia, on the issue of gender equality – not my usual subject – and on a rumble around Europe.

There is something slightly disconcerting about entering a new country by night. The plane lands in the darkness, and as airports have more or less the same feel everywhere, you think the country you have just entered has not yet begun. But then there is a taxi driver waiting with a sign with your name on it, and very soon you exit the airport and, combined with the fact that the driver does not speak a bloody word of English or German, you know you are definitely not just outside of Amsterdam Airport. In the case of this country, you are immediately greeted with explosions of light. Flashing lights, pin lights, laser lights, lots of lights. It is like driving through the outskirts of Las Vegas; all casino’s and clubs. Even the gas stations are lit like a Christmas tree. It stops when the shadows of big buildings announce the beginning of the capital. But the strobes, pin lights and neon lights reappear after we leave the big city, and it takes quite a while before true night comes. After a while the taxi leaves the main road and starts climbing. Somewhere at the end of a road there is a man in soldiers fatigues, his dog dancing barking around the car. Still, he lets us go through to a massive building, our hotel. A receptionist leads my colleague and me to our rooms. It is about five o’clock in the morning, local time. I want to get up around nine. So I close the curtains of my big room, hoping to keep the morning light out and catch some sleep.

When with bleary eyes I rise, I open the curtains to a glorious sight of multi coloured hills. I am in Armenia.

Women in politics

I am here as a trainer for a course on political leadership for women, on behalf of the Dutch Eduardo Frei Foundation (EFF) and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS). The group consists of women from 8 different parties in Armenia, both in government and in opposition. All are between 24 and 45 years of age and can be considered talents in their party. The aim of the two-day training is to talk about political leadership, the (legal) position of women in politics and to train the participants in presentation and network skills. My colleague, a woman, is to talk about the first two elements, looking at it mostly from a Dutch perspective. Two Armenian trainers do the same from an their country’s perspective, and I may lead and start the training and do the skill part.Armenië 1

Doing the training is a joy. The fact that this is an inter-party training did made it more competitive than it otherwise would have been. The ladies can be sharp towards one another, even though it is also part of the training (and politics) to build a relation with each other. Listening to the participants, my co-trainers and our interpreters – all in all 37 ladies – I once more feel privileged to learn so much about another country in such short time. At the same time I sort of keep my distance from the theme of the training. I noticed that I am inclined to let the women talk about gender issues and sort of let me do the rest. Is that fair?
Anyhow, I still had a blog to write and decided to make it a bit difficult to myself. So here I address an issue that I should have written about long before: gender equality. You, male reader, can skip this blog here if this subject does not appeal to you. That will leave you however, with this image on your mind of a single Dutchman between all those ladies. Now what does that do for your ego?

After the vote

In Armenia women got the vote around the same time women did in the Netherlands. In fact, things went faster for women in Armenia than in our country. It quickly became normal for women to work and have responsible positions in society. An audible gasp went through the group when my colleague said that, in the eyes of the Dutch law, (married) women were not considered to be able to conduct their own affairs until 1956. In that sense the position of Armenian women has been stronger than that of Dutch women.
Still, this position seems to be reversed. Possibly the difference is made by the feminist wave from the 70s, as it seems to have had a bigger impact in the Netherlands then in central and south European countries. Armenian women are strong, but the traditional role pattern with macho man en feminine females also seems strong. And whereas in the Netherlands it appears that through factors like demographics, working conditions and higher education levels, the balance between men and women is truly shifting, not as much seems to be changing in a country like Armenia.

While the women were talking about these differences and how far there still is to go, I thought: do you all realise it is now about a century since you got the vote? Look at where you are now. Yes, you have made progress, but is it not the kind of progress that makes a snail look fast? How come?

How come?! You male chauvinistic … yes, yes, I know all that and I accept the blame, even though it seems to me that women themselves have played a large part in holding themselves back as a group. Still, it seems to me that every time we talk about gender, we all box ourselves into those two dominant gender labels, while life is about so much more than being male or female.

Equal is not the same

Let me state the obvious in another way. After all these decades of talking about women’s emancipation, I think we have come a long way with the word ‘equal’, but are still tricked by the word ‘same’. Man and woman are equal, but not the same. Watching the number of participants wearing blue jeans and blouses instead of skirts, it is easy to think that wearing the same uniform makes man and women more the same, but it is literally a superficial thing. In that way many attempts to make us more equal is translated into making us more the same, simply does not work. Somehow our instincts about how we are the same or not, reaches parts of us that are hard to reach with laws, quota’s, good intentions or nice speeches. Most of us accept the principle of equality, but always have a ‘but’ ready when it comes to the practice[1]. And then suddenly we are not the ‘same’.

Now let me translate this to politics. When it comes to modern politics, differences in personality, the pitch of your voice, your length, your clothes and your verbal skills all play their part. Some of it is gender related, much of it is not, or not clearly noticeable. The days that politics could be described as ‘Hollywood for ugly man’ are to a large extend over. Politics has become Hollywood and vice versa. Uniqueness – ‘star quality’ – is the coin politics deals in, not ‘sameness’. This search for individual uniqueness also breaks through standard gender roles – Ms Thatcher lowering her voice an octave, making her sound more like one of the boys – and turns talk about equal rights into what some like to call ‘a boring sideshow’.

Beyond principle

It is not. But what I guess I am saying, is that the moral principle of equality – logical and compelling as it is – can only thrive when you mentally make room for the idea that it is not about being, doing or looking the same as ‘a’ woman or ‘a’ man. Diversity breeds equality, not the other way around. The more elements are added to someone’s profile, the harder it is to reduce her or him to a single label. The label of gender is perhaps the hardest to shrug off, as it is hard wired into our genes and brain, but with enough diversity even that label becomes moot. I guess that the only way to overcome the real biological differences between man and women, is to bury them in the differences between people. In other words: if talking equality starts empowerment, than it is diversity that finishes the job. Sameness seems to help with equality, but in the end only slows the process down.

Writing this feels like tiptoeing through a minefield, but I do am aware that as a man I am quite part of the issue. One of the participants asked how many women I had on my staff when I was campaign manager, and I had to answer that they were just a few. On the other hand, I feel that if I would have been a woman with the same drive and skills I have, it is likely I would have been asked for a political position a long time ago. So what to do? Thinking about this while my Dutch colleague and the women from Armenia were debating, I first tried to find a position by just listening to them. After a while I thought that the solution was not in the arguments, no matter how skilfully they were deployed. So I started doing the other thing: looking, thinking, observing. How do they express themselves in what they wear? How do they carry themselves?

Vive la difference

It was in this that I thought: this group is truly diverse. There is much promise here. Of course there is the obligatory uniform of blue jeans, blouse and long hair, but individual approaches to clothes shine more through than in your average Dutch audience. Their voices were often flat to my untrained ears, but their body language was energetic, most of it strong. Combining this with what I learned from their backgrounds – more musicians than lawyers, more journalists than economists, a fashion designer next to an astro physicist – and I knew that the level of diversity is truly promising in this group. So what should stop these women from breaking through any glass or any other ceiling? I guess it is most about the economics of it all, the lack of jobs, the lack of prospect in a country that has not enough natural resources. But in principle it is all there. So let’s just say: Vive la difference! – especially when it leads to more equality. Armenië groep

A rumble all around us

We left Armenia again in the night. But this time the flashing lights along the highway could not distract from the memory of a great training with fine people, of sunshine and beautiful buildings in Yerevan, of art and politics in South Caucasus. So I wish I could conclude by just saying this was another great training for EFF and KAS.

However, there is something else to report. The conversations with the participants were all about a recent trade agreement. An agreement with Russia, with as a precondition to the agreement that another agreement with the European Union was to be cancelled. The government had to decide. I am certainly not going to express any opinion here on whether or not the Armenian government was right to step into the agreement. My point here is what is happening around the edges of the European Union from Armenia to the Baltic States. There is a rumble all around us. Along the south and east side of the Mediterranean there is this corridor of failing, falling and fracturing states. Along the east, Russia makes its ambitions felt in direct and indirect ways. We in Europe, we in the Netherlands, are too busy with ourselves and with our economic troubles. Wake up, and hear the rumble around us.

Peter Noordhoek



[1] This includes the issue of quota, one of the themes addressed in the meeting. In a recent theme number of the Flemish / Dutch political science magazine ‘Res Publica’ (vol. 55, 2013/3) and overview is given of recent research on quota. And even though the research seems to indicate that quota have a measurable effect, one of the authors, Laure Michon, describes how people approach the subject of quota so much from principle, that a real valuation or workable compromise does not seem possible. (Michon, p. 377-388).

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Onze wereld is groot, complex en hoog als een berg. Weersomstandigheden wijzigen zich voortdurend. Hoe kom je dan aan de top?
Kaarten en instrumenten kunnen helpen. U vindt er hier vele. Het echte geheim schuilt in de mentaliteit waarmee u de berg te lijf gaat. Dan geldt wat iemand ooit vertelde: "De noordkant van een berg is het moeilijkste om te beklimmen, maar het meeste de moeite waard." Bij Northedge gaan we voor kwaliteit boven kwantiteit. Het vergt meer denkwerk, meer inspanning, meer van meer. Maar het is zo de moeite waard.  

Peter Noordhoek