Women Need Not Apply – The Men Only Gender Equality Conference

On September 20, 2014, the United Nations Women’s Global Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson gave a heralded speech on gender equality to launch the UN Women’s HeForShe campaign. In a strange turn of events, Iceland and Suriname have decided to support this campaign through a conference on gender equality in which they will encourage men to lend their voices to the issues at hand. Encouraging male leaders to participate, however, will be no daunting task as only men will be invited.

On September 29, 2014, the Permanent Mission of Iceland to the United Nations delivered the following address during the 69th Session of the General Assembly:

“We must continue to fight for the full implementation of the commitments we made almost 20 years ago in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action … Iceland and Suriname will convene a “Barbershop” conference in January 2015 where men will discuss gender equality with other men, with a special focus on addressing violence against women. This will be a unique conference as it will be the first time at the United Nations that we bring together only men leaders to discuss gender equality. It will be an exceptional contribution to the Beijing+20 and #HeforShe campaigns.”

Planning for the “Barbershop” conference is now underway, and while the actual logistics are still murky, the Icelandic Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson has maintained that the conference will be fundamentally focused on bringing male leaders to the table. The Barbershop conference has indeed pledged to only invite male leaders to discuss various gender issues which has naturally resulted in a fair amount of concern from women’s activists across the globe. While Emma Watson extended a “formal invitation” for men to discuss women’s rights, this was done in the name of seeing women’s rights conferences and discussion tables sporting an equal number of men and women – not in the efforts of trading a woman dominated discourse for a male dominated discourse.

UN Women convenes the official celebration of International Women's Day 2014 on 7 March on the theme “Equality for women is progress for all."   Participants included: Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General; John W. Ashe, President of the 68th session of the UN General Assembly; Hillary Rodham Clinton, Former United States Secretary of State, United States Senator; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director; and Andrea Nunez, Vice President of the World YWCA Board. Moderated by CNN anchor Isha Sesay, Anchor, the event featured the launch of UN Women's "HeForShe" campaign.
UN Women convenes the official celebration of International Women’s Day 2014 on 7 March on the theme “Equality for women is progress for all.”

It is easy to see where a well-intentioned idea of this male-only conference could have been born; HeForShe is, after all, about getting men involved. Practically, it will be much easier to get men talking if they are the only ones in the room. It could remove a sense of intimidation for the male leaders, many of whom are probably not often involved in such discussions, as well as keep away awkward silences that can only be broken by a man stepping up to the plate. The intent is clearly to encourage these men to productively tackle large gender issues.

On the other hand, the phrase “gender equality”, by definition, means that there are equal opportunities presented to all genders. As Ms. Watson so poignantly reminded us, feminism is most simply defined as believing that men and women are equal – given this, it can be inferred that since gender issues affect all genders, these issues must be openly discussed by all. Can a conference revolving around the topic of violence against women really justify dismissing the voices of women?

The name Barbershop is also intrinsically problematic in the fact that a barbershop is traditionally an exclusive sphere where men discuss politics, escape the women in their lives, and get their hair cut. As HeForShe urges us to move beyond the gender binary and traditional notions of gender roles, naming a conference in support of the movement after a traditionally male dominated part of the community is questionable.

Beyond the scope of names and representations, the host countries of the Barbershop are an interesting couple. Iceland will be partnering with the South American nation of Suriname. This unusual pair sport vastly different political climates, both in terms of development and gender equality. The United Nations Development Program, which publishes the Human Development Index (measuring education, GNI per capita, and life expectancy at birth) on a scale of 0-1 with 1 signalling most developed, has seen a steady increase in Iceland, scoring the nation a 0.905 in 2012 while Suriname’s 2012 score was 0.684. The World Economic Forum’s Annual Global Gender Gap Index was introduced in 2006. It measures national gender gaps, scoring countries based on four subindexes (economic, political, health, and education) in a ranking format so as to “allow for effective comparisons across regions and income groups, and over time.” The index scores countries based on indicators within the subindexes, scoring each subindex on a score of 0-1, and scores the country overall on a scale of 0-1, with 1 being complete equality. The full index report can be seen here. Based on the 2013 index, Iceland currently leads the world, ranking 1st out of 136 countries with a score of 0.873. Iceland takes the top spot in two of the four subindexes, scoring a full 1 in educational attainment and 0.754 in political empowerment. Contrastingly, Suriname was ranked 110th by the Gender Gap Index 2013, with a score of 0.637. The subindex in which Suriname scored highest, and in fact tied for 1st out of 136, was Health and Survival, beating the 96th position Iceland scoring 0.980. Iceland and Suriname’s scores demonstrate two crucial facts; first, full equality in access to education and health care is possible and attainable, and second, the world has a long way to go to politically empower women.

The political empowerment subindex reveals a dismally low global average, an underwhelming 0.211, compared to the economic participation and opportunity average of 0.601, the education average of 0.934, or the health and survival average of 0.957. Even more shocking is Suriname’s dismal political empowerment score of 0.072. The political empowerment index has only 3 indicators; the ratio of women in parliament,  the ratio of women in  ministerial positions,  and the numbers of years with a female head of state in the past half a century. Sadly, these three indicators are years, and possibly decades, away from catching up with equality in the fields of health and education. This dismal world performance in politically empowering women is one of the many obstacles that HeForShe and UN Women want to overcome and it is clearly one of the most pervasive, with the US and Canada’s low rankings of 0.159 and 0.196 respectively. Female under-representation is deeply rooted in the political attitudes of many nations and this rhetoric of politics being a man’s world is made all too prevalent by the Barbershop conference.

Given the statistics of the global political empowerment of women, is it productive or even appropriate to be supporting gender equality by barring women from a gender equality conference? Hosting an event to promote gender equality in support of a women’s solidarity movement while maintaining a boys-only admission policy is not only an eyebrow-raising paradox, but it is arguably more harmful than helpful. Men should engage in feminism by turning their voices into feminist spaces, but that also means offering up their spots to those marginalized by sexism. Since the controversy that has arisen from this Barbershop’s announcement, there have been reports that women will in fact be invited but still barred from some sessions. Whether this is meant to include the necessary voices of women in the discussion or to be patronizing is not yet clear.

Given the clear amount of ground UN Women has to cover to bring about meaningful change and gender equality in our lifetimes, is such a conference in the best interest of gender equality? Only time will tell as we move towards January’s Barbershop and its unknown potential outcomes.


Anna, Cara “Iceland announces UN conference on women and gender equality – and only men and boys are invited” National Post September 30, 2014

De Bode, Lisa “Men-only conference on gender equality to invite women after all” Al Jazeera America. Oct 2, 2014

The Permanent Mission of Iceland to the United Nations “Statement by H.E. Mr. Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade” 69th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations September 29, 2014

Stefansson, Pall “Iceland and Suriname to Discuss Violence against Women” Iceland Review September 30, 2014

UN Women “Emma Watson: Gender equality is your issue too” UN Women September 20, 2014

World Economic Forum “Global Gender Gap Report 2013” World Economic Forum 2013