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How The U.N.’s #HeForShe Initiative Is Tackling Gender Equality Early

The head of the HeForShe Initiative explains why gender equality in the workplace starts in college classrooms.

How The U.N.’s #HeForShe Initiative Is Tackling Gender Equality Early
[Photo: Flickr user Jirka Matousek]

Debates over paid family leave, the gender wage gap, and women in leadership roles finally seem to be making an impact. These are all important issues to tackle in the business world, but we need to start making more headway much earlier. We need to go back to college.

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While gender and on-campus behavior have been in the spotlight lately, especially when it comes to sexual assault, discussions about women’s experiences and positions in the institutions they enter after graduating remain largely apart. That represents a missed opportunity.

Bridging The Divide

This was apparent last month when the U.N. Women HeForShe movement toured several major universities and asked students about their most pressing concerns. Four key issues kept coming up: academic equality, career equality, sexual harassment and assault, and implicit biases.

Students didn’t feel there were adequate systems in place to ensure that curriculums and the approach to instruction were empowering to all. Some of those concerns strongly echoed complaints professional women make about their employers. (Many student activists we spoke with even called for equal benefits for all professors and administrators, including parental leave and pay equity.) And many also described facing implicit gender biases that damaged their academic, athletic, and professional opportunities.

What’s more, the issues we heard about were voiced by students across the spectrum of gender, race, class, and sexual identity. These are universal, they’re valid, and they’re solvable. By taking action with an eye to each of the distinct and overlapping communities concerned, we can create change on campus that can then carry into the office, the boardroom, and beyond.

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What Colleges Can Do

Universities need to listen more. Although campuses share many of the same issues, every one needs to measure its own shortcomings individually and commit to distinct plans of action. Canada’s leading engineering school, the University of Waterloo, recently established the first-ever HeForShe scholarships for female engineers in order to close the gap in STEM.

The University of Leicester in the U.K. is taking a different approach. It’s identified the six disciplines with the largest disparity between male and female enrollment, committing to narrowing those gaps by a percentage point each year. The university is also launching a campaign to get more men to pursue psychology and women into engineering programs.

From Awareness To Action

This isn’t a question of having more people support the idea of a gender-equal society. Most people already do. Now we have to convert supporters into practitioners.

That’s why the education we need to do in college has to be substantial and far-reaching–including tools and skills training that create more inclusivity in other organizations, too. For instance, HeForShe is currently working with its IMPACT Champion, Stony Brook University, to develop a range of programs that redefine masculinity in a more positive way.

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The stakes are high, and the implications of gender inequality can be as severe for young men as they are for women. When we launched HeForShe in September 2014, we never expected to get so many letters from incarcerated young men. No matter who they were or where they came from, these men and boys all had one thing in common: They’d been told that their feelings made them weak, effeminate, and inferior. This shame was so strong and unrelenting that it had misshaped their lives.

Making Diversity Matter To Everyone

So HeForShe has built a platform to help young people feel liberated from those gender-based social constructs. The #GetFree University tour aims to create a world where we can all be free to be ourselves–that is, to be emotional, strong, ambitious, vulnerable, and real–on our own terms.

The main challenge today is getting people of all genders, backgrounds, and affiliations to feel equally invested in gender equality. That will always be a grassroots effort–moving from individuals and student bodies to universities and corporations. At HeForShe, we have one very ambitious goal: to achieve a gender-equal world by 2030, and to do that we need everyone to get involved.

After all, there’s no one whom gender inequality doesn’t affect. Small actions add up, take root, and spread through society. It’s okay to start small, as long as we’re always thinking big.

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Elizabeth Nyamayaro is the senior adviser to the under-secretary-general at U.N. Women and head of the HeForShe Initiative.