10 things governments can do to end sexism
An emergency plan has been released to fight “alarming levels” of sexism in France, following a report by France’s High Council for Equality (HCE).
While there has been “undeniable progress in women’s rights”, the survey found that gender stereotypes, sexist clichés and everyday sexism are still commonplace five years years after the #MeToo movement began. Women are also being targeted by new forms of harassment, including online violence, verbal abuse on social media, and pornography with “barbaric” content.
The report also identified a male backlash across French society, with “masculinist raids” on social media aimed at silencing or discrediting women.
“Sexism is not decreasing in France. On the contrary, some of its most violent manifestations are getting worse and the young generations are the most affected,” the HCE wrote.
The council has published a ten-point plan to tackle sexist behaviours, starting from a very young age. The recommendations, although based on the French experience, could be used as a blueprint for many other regions to advance women’s rights, and as we can see here, have already been adopted in some way in other parts of the world:
1. Increase resources to tackle domestic violence
Drawing inspiration from Spain, which has allocated the equivalent of 16 euros (€) per person annually to fight against domestic violence (compared to €5 in France), HCE is calling for greater human and financial resources to train judges dealing in domestic violence. It also recommends having dedicated personnel to welcome victims in police stations at all times.
According to the report, 80% of people surveyed feel that existing laws and sanctions are poorly enforced, even insufficient, to fight against gender-based violence. UN Women has declared that a strong and autonomous women’s movement is the most important driver of change, while grassroots, local, feminist mobilisations around the world can mean the difference between life and death to millions of women and girls.
2. Ensure sex education is taught in schools
Since 2001, French law requires that there are three sexual and reproductive health classes taught each year in middle, secondary and high schools. However, a report released by the Education Ministry’s General Inspectorate last year found that only 15% of high-school students and 20% of middle-school pupils received proper tuition. The plan asks for a three-year period for schools to enforce the law, with financial penalties for failure to comply.
According to UNESCO, about 85 per cent of countries have policies or laws relating to sexuality education. However, the existence of policy and legal frameworks doesn’t always equate to comprehensive educational content or strong implementation. In the Middle East and North Africa, sex education is often delivered as part of a broader life skills or health course, which includes other topics, such as alcohol, tobacco and drugs, nutrition and traffic safety – making it difficult to discern how much of the life skills course actually covers the key concepts of sex education.
In Morocco, young people turn to social media to educate themselves, explains activist Yasmina Benslimane. “This is also when you come to the realisation that there’s a big lack of reasonable awareness on these issues in our educational systems because it’s considered taboo and ‘hshouma’ (shameful), as we say,” she told us in an interview. Founder of the nonprofit feminist organisation Politics4Her, Benslimane has launched an online petition asking for better reproductive rights, including the development of a plan for girls and boys to access sex education and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
3. Regulate online content
The internet must be better regulated to eliminate online gender stereotypes and degrading and violent representations of women, and to strengthen the fight against illegal pornographic content, wrote the HCE.
“Young people, in particular, are brought up digitally on these scenes of mundane violence, of relations between men and women that are completely of domination and [being] dominated, and that has impregnated society,” HCE’s president Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette said.
Amnesty International highlighted the scale of violence women face on Twitter in its Toxic Twitter research, reporting in 2021 that the social media platform is still not doing enough to protect women and non-binary users. They found that many women cannot express themselves freely on Twitter without fear of violence or abuse – particularly journalists, activists, writers and bloggers, who experience serious bullying. Those who have a voice that could “impact the world” are being pushed backwards to a culture of silence, wrote Amnesty.
4. Make training that tackles sexism mandatory in the workplace
The HCE wants to make it mandatory for all employers to provide training against sexism at work. According to their report, 35% of professional women surveyed lacked the confidence to ask for a promotion or pay rise because of a sexist work environment.
In her book The Power of Employee Resource Groups – How people create authentic change, Farzana Nayani highlights the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion to create a positive work environment. She explains how employers can empower underrepresented staff and encourage community-building.
“The biggest thing we’re battling is the idea that we don’t belong”, she told us in an interview. “Not only do you belong, but the creativity, the innovation, and the impact of your leadership is long overdue. This is not something that’s owed to us and it’s not something that we didn’t earn. We need to not shy away from those opportunities when they arise because we feel like imposters, or we feel other people may think it’s a handout.”
5. Make public funding conditional on gender equality efforts
The HCE believes in “égaconditionalité”, or gender mainstreaming. Coined by the EU, it involves the integration of a gender perspective into the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies, regulatory measures and spending programmes. According to the HCE, public funding should be conditional on companies’ efforts on gender equality. “No public money without equality,” is the HCE’s slogan.
Cities like Montreal and Vienna have successfully applied gender mainstreaming in their urban planning, creating inclusive public spaces. Malou Estenne, the founder of Transtopie, an events management organisation dedicated to fight against discrimination with art, shared her experience with us. “When I travelled to Canada, I was surprised to see pedestrian areas in Montreal, convivial spaces where people can gather,” she said. “There is also this large public space in the heart of the city entirely dedicated to festivals, entertainment and leisure called la Place des Festivals.”
6. Create a public, independent authority to root out sexist violence in politics
The creation of this new authority would make MPs accused of gender-based violence ineligible for government positions.
Last year, 285 women working in politics in France published an open letter in the daily newspaper Le Monde, asking that “the perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence” be removed from the political sphere, saying too many elected officials and candidates have been accused of wrongdoing.
This problem is not particular to France. At the G7 summit in Canada in 2019, UK Prime Minister Theresa May called on world leaders and social media firms to tackle gender-based violence, abuse and harassment online with the same urgency as they do terror threats.
7. Encourage media organisations to improve women’s representation
According to the French Regulatory Authority for Audiovisual and Digital Communication, women are featured speaking for just 36% of the time on TV and Radio. HCE recommends making public funding for media organisations conditional on providing equal and fair coverage of women. The report also suggested the creation of an independent monitoring centre that would record and publish how women are portrayed in the media.
In North Macedonia, a handbook for Gender-Sensitive Reporting in the Media was published last year to tackle the insensitive media coverage of gender-based violence. Activists and experts expressed hope that new tools, training and growing social awareness can influence for the better the way that women are portrayed in the media.
Along with Unbias the News and Zan Times, NADJA is part of a growing movement advocating for a greater and fairer representation of women in the media.
8. Address women’s underrepresentation in textbooks
HCE recommends a mandatory, annual evaluation to ensure a fair representation of women in all school books, curriculums and exams.
Textbooks contribute to children’s upbringing by teaching models of social behaviours, norms and values. They are a tool for both education and social change. In history, women’s accounts have all too often been ignored, sidelined, or dismissed as incidental anecdotes.
9. Ban gendered adverts for toys
In 2019, French toymakers signed a charter to abolish sexist and sexualised stereotypes in depictions of toys, which the government blames for limiting women’s potential and keeping them out of engineering and coding. However, in many shops toys are still displayed and advertised according to gender stereotypes.
HCE is calling for a ban on gender bias when marketing toys, following the example of the Spanish government’s recent initiative: under the new Spanish code of ethics, advertisers can no longer say a toy is for a particular gender, or designate pink for girls and blue for boys, deemed to reinforce outdated gender roles.
“The benefits of creative play such as building confidence, creativity and communication skills are felt by all children and yet we still experience age-old stereotypes that label activities as only being suitable for one specific gender,” Lego’s chief marketing officer Julia Goldin said when the toy company announced in 2021 that it it would work to remove gender stereotypes from its products and marketing.
10. Raise awareness of sexism in society
Following the HCE’s recommendations, French president Emmanuel Macron last week officially declared January 25 to be National Day Against Sexism. The move was applauded by activists, with the Ensemble Contre Le Sexism collective saying “This is a significant step that will allow us each year to mobilise a larger public in our fight against sexism in all sectors of society, including schools, universities, companies, associations and political parties.”
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