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Keynote Address at the Launch of the Women's Network at the Hague

Keynote Address at the Launch of the Women’s Network, Den Haag
Nazhat Shameem Khan, PR of Fiji to the UN in Geneva and Ambassador of Fiji to Switzerland
28th March 2017
Australian Mission


Gender barriers in the workplace, how do we recognise them, and how do we deal with them?



Perhaps life was simpler when women were simply told that they could not enter university, could not become doctors and could not practice at the Bar. At least then we knew where we were and recognised the barriers for women in employment clearly because they were entrenched in the law. Gender barriers have now become more obscure because in principle, we are all equal, and in principle there are no barriers. Not long ago I conducted gender training for civil servants in Fiji. It was the first of its kind, and like many other examples of gender training, was never repeated again. However, the workshop was opened by a senior official who spent 15 minutes explaining that gender equality was a fact in Fiji because the law said that there must be no gender discrimination, and because there were equal numbers of men and women in the civil service. This very shallow view of gender equity demonstrates the obscurity of gender barriers. They are there. We know this because we women have experienced them in the simplest of workplace challenges (going to the water dispenser, case allocations, and opportunities for promotion) and also because the numbers of women in the workplace have not translated themselves to the numbers of women in positions of seniority and authority. Numbers, representative though they are of the lack of legal barriers, must be analysed by gender, ethnicity and age, to investigate the existence of barriers in the workplace. Importantly, there is often an intersection of the sources of discrimination, creating different barriers for different women. Women of colour may face stereotypes which create barriers based on race and gender. Younger women may experience different manifestations of gender barriers than older women. A challenge for us all, men and women, is recognising a barrier as a barrier generated by gender and other types of stereotyping. Why is it important? It is important so that we women stop blaming ourselves for failure. It is important that when we have the authority to create our own management teams, we can guard against creating such barriers ourselves, for other women.

Gender stereotyping and the sources of discrimination

Women have lived with gender stereotyping for generations. When combined with racial stereotyping, or with age discrimination, gender stereotyping can produce a host of assumptions, none of which are conducive to recruitment and promotion. Gender barriers in the workplace arise from the assumption that women should not work because their proper place is at home. That assumption creates the greatest barrier. However other stereotypes ensure that women have to overcome negative assumptions before they have a chance to work on a n equal basis with others. One such assumption is that women are weak, fallible and emotional, unable to make the tough decisions. Another is that women are evil seducers of men (the Queen in Snow White, Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians, and Ursula in The Little Mermaid). Gender stereotypes must be set out and confronted, so that we can recognise them when we see them, or feel them. They can be summarised thus;

  1. Women are supposed to be shy, passive and submissive. Women are organized and clean. Men are expected to be tough, aggressive, dominant and self-confident. Men are lazy and messy.
  2. Women are supposed to cook and do housework. Women are better at raising children. Stay-at-home mothers are better than working mothers. Men are better at household repairs. Men cannot cook, sew or care for their children. Men tell their wives what to do.
  3. Women should have “clean” jobs such as teachers, nurses, secretaries and librarians. Women are not good at maths and sciences. Women are supposed to make less money than men. Women are not politicians. Women cannot be presidential candidates. Men are supposed to have “dirty jobs” like mechanics, construction workers, plumbers and engineering. Men are all good at maths and sciences. Men are better doctors. Men are supposed to be in charge at work and should make more money than women. Men are better politicians.
  4. Generally speaking, women are expected to be short and slender, small and delicate while men are supposed to be tall with broad shoulders. However, physical appearance gender stereotyping varies from culture to culture. In cultures where men are small in size, masculinity is determined by acting macho. Acting macho for men would mean getting involved in fights, drinking alcohol, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and getting into fights. Female gender stereotype occurs for women who act “macho” in some cultures. Women who smoke, drink, and swear often are considered “masculine”. 

Often, women who experience negative stereotypes over compensate and try to show “male” characteristics. Often women try hard to convince their peers that they will not rock the boat, and that nothing will change as a result of a work place which has women in it. Ethnic stereotyping has a similar effect. If you keep telling people of an ethnic group that they are not intelligent and have no place in the world of banking, they will soon start to believe it themselves. They will either stay out of that profession, or if they enter it, will try very hard to disprove the stereotypes. Women of colour are often stereotyped as being subservient, submissive, habitually subjected to female circumcision and forced marriages, and unable to make decisions for themselves. The intersection of these beliefs, is in the disempowerment.

Can you recognise stereotyping when you are subjected to it? Or are you unable to recognise the source of unfair conduct detecting only your emotional response to it? When I was appointed Fiji’s first women prosecutor, perceptions of me, from the office, to the police station, to the courtroom, swung from the weak and pathetic little women perception (Snow White) to the evil witch (the Queen). It depended very much on whether I was speaking (evil witch) or remaining silent (Snow White). Either way, I could not win. I was being judged not on the merit of my performance as a lawyer, but on society’s perceptions of what women should be. Very early in my career, I stopped trying to convince people that I was not a sweet little women or an evil witch, and simply did what I thought was right and professional. However, because I was aware of the destructive effect of gender stereotypes at work, I knew that those barriers had to be dealt with for the sake of every women who came after me. This meant making the connection between gender stereotypes to gender barriers. The work place is discriminatory because it translates stereotypes into workplace ethics.

Recognising the gender barriers

At recruitment, the link is easy to find. If all women applying for jobs are expected to be homemakers, there will be unconscious bias at the outset. That bias continues into allocation of work, creating hostile work environments, promotion and partnerships. The Harvard Business Review[1] in 2013, examined the question of second generational gender bias- a bias based not on “neutral” rules, but on the biases implicit in the implementation of those rules. In an article in “Psychology Today”[2], psychologist Bourg Carter says that “unlike first generation gender discrimination (intentional acts of bias against women), women in today's workforce, especially those working in traditionally male-dominated fields, are experiencing a much more camouflaged foe--second generation gender biases that are impeding their advancement and adding stress to their lives. According to researchers at the Centre for Gender in Organisations (CGO), second generation gender biases are "work cultures and practices that appear neutral and natural on their face," yet they reflect masculine values and life situations of men who have been dominant in the development of traditional work settings.These deeply entrenched gender-biased dynamics exist in our culture, norms, and organisational practices and directly impact hiring decisions, promotion, and salaries.”

A clear example of a gender barrier in the workplace is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is called sexual, not because there must be a sexual assault or proposition involved in it, but because it is a form of discrimination based on sex. Persons who are largely affected by sexual harassment are women (although LGBTIQ employees have also been subjected to such sexual harassment). In simple terms, sexual harassment is bullying in the workplace. It can involve sexual conduct and propositioning (quid pro quo) or it can be an act or a series of acts which create a hostile work environment which undermines equality and respect. It is a form of gender discrimination, and can be evidence of discrimination on a number of grounds. In 2016 a jury in the United States awarded almost $8 million to a former Houston-based Chipotle Mexican Grill employee after she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit.

The young woman who worked for Chipotle Mexican Grill shared graphic testimony with the jury of what she said a manager did to her.

The jury determined that the girl was sexually assaulted and sexually harassed and that at least one other manager knew about it, according to court documents. The employee was awarded $7.65 million. She said the assault and harassment began shortly after she started working at Chipotle Mexican Grill on North Eldridge Parkway near Memorial Drive.

Her lawyer told the media;

"In a matter of six weeks, her supervisor was bumping into her breasts, commenting about her breasts. Other supervisors were using cameras to look at the butts and breasts of women at that restaurant." The employee told the court that was only the beginning and that it continued with her supervisor with the knowledge of the manager, forcing her to have sexual intercourse with him on many occasions.

The guideline case of sexual harassment in international law jurisprudence was the 1997 case of Vishaka v State of Rajasthan[3]. In 1992, a social worker named Bhanwari Devi tried to stop a child marriage in Rajasthan. She was gang raped by members of the upper class men of the community. After a long and protracted court battle, the Supreme Court of India held that this was a case of sexual harassment and a breach of the Indian Constitution.

Sexual harassment was defined by the Court and guidelines issued for how to deal with such harassment. The court held;

Sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as:

a) physical contact and advances; b) a demand or request for sexual favours; c) sexually coloured remarks; d) showing pornography; e) any other unwelcome physical verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

Where any of these acts is committed in circumstances where under the victim of such conduct has a reasonable apprehension that in relation to the victim’s employment or work whether she is drawing salary, or honorarium or voluntary, whether in government, public or private enterprise such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem.

It is discriminatory for instance when the woman has reasonable grounds to believe that her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment or work including recruiting or promotion or when it creates a hostile work environment. Thus, sexual harassment need NOT involve physical contact. Any act that creates a hostile work environment - be it by virtue of cracking lewd jokes, verbal abuse, circulating lewd rumours counts as sexual harassment.

The creation of a hostile work environment through unwelcome physical verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature may consist not of a single act but of pattern of behaviour comprising many such acts.

Thus, it is important that the victim report such behaviour as soon as possible and not wait for it to become worse. In some cases, the psychological stigma of reporting the conduct of a co-worker might require a great deal of courage on the part of the victim and they may report such acts after a long period of time. The guidelines suggest that the complaint mechanism should ensure time bound treatment of complaints, but they do not suggest that a report can only be made within a short period of time since the incident occurred.

The Indian Government finally issued legislation incorporating such guidelines in 2013. However, since 1997, many countries around the world have legislated a definition of sexual harassment on the lines of the Vishaka definition. Fiji did so in 2006. However, legislating for it, and dealing effectively with it are two different things. Despite the case law, women still find it hard to report sexual harassment and are often the ones who leave the work place, not the perpetrator.

This is because of the very gender barriers which caused the harassment in the first place, existing to prevent reporting, prevent effective processing off the complaint and effective sanctions for the perpetrator. Cruella de Vil has surfaced to bring the poor browbeaten perpetrator to his knees yet again.

Sexual harassment is not the only barrier for women. Inconsistent laws for maternity leave, flexible hours which operate against the interests of women and create an unequal work place (which they were intended to redress in the first place) and gender attitudes which give to senior positions stereotypical male characteristics, such as aggression, refusal to compromise and family unfriendly hoursare the barriers which have led to an unequal gender balance in senior positions in almost every profession and workplace in the world.

Gender barriers are cultural barriers. However, when combined with traditional values in traditional societies, they can exacerbate existing barriers to exclude women from the work place altogether. Traditional male attitudes which judge women who go to work, which judge women who wear non-traditional clothes, and which judge women for having adopted “Western” attitudes can lead to even more marked exclusion. Often we women from conservative societies experience more gender bias from men and women from our own cultures because we are judged for failing our cultural values. There is an inextricable relationship between gender bias and culture.

What can women do? What can gender competent men and women do to ensure the work place is equal and gives to men and women equal opportunities to apply, be recruited, and be promoted? What we must do, especially when we ourselves have attained seniority and authority is to ensure the barriers do not exist.

Removing the barriers

What we must first resolve to do is to avoid the trap of hyper femininity to boost the male ego. We must also avoid the trap of adopting what are seen as male characteristics. Celebrating our gender identity is a right. We are women and we are proud to be women. We will not flutter our eyelashes to get a promotion. Nor will we bully our junior staff because that is what many think strong male leaders should do. We must stand up for the right to be women, to express our gender identity and to change the work place so that it respects this choice.

Second, we must transform the work place. I recall my experiences when I first became a judge in an exclusively male domain. A fear expressed was that I would change things. That I would rock the boat. Indeed. If a woman who joins a gender biased work place does not rock the boat, she has not forced an examination of gender barriers with a view to removing them.

Rocking the boat is inevitable.

Third, we must commence gender training. There is no alternative to gender training, which is done competently and in an enlightened manner. Gender training is painful and often forces an examination of heartfelt values and beliefs. However, a work place will remain unequal without gender competence training. Such training must be compulsory for all staff.

Fourth, recruitment, performance evaluation and promotion processes must be examined with a gender lens. Recently our Ministry of Foreign Affairs circulated a draft Foreign Service Regulations for all Missions to examine. Examining them with a gender lens with my staff (diplomatic and non-diplomatic) proved to be an enlightening exercise. Very simply every rule must be examined from the point of view of women and women’s experiences. Are the child care allowances as fair to women diplomats as they are to male diplomats? Is a single female diplomat who has a child disadvantaged under the Regulations compared to single men? Are the working hours family friendly? What are the rules on maternity leave and the right to have the leave treated as active service when promotions are considered?

Of course, with the best processes in the world, a gender biased attitude will still find a way to discriminate against women in the work place. Attitudes silently discriminate leading the employee to suspect a lack of equity but with no evidence of it. Further, we may have no power to correct the daily stereotyping in the media. The commercials which show women as either home appliance obsessed goddesses, or beautiful and seductive temptresses, brought into the world to feed the male ego. However, we do have power to correct inequality in the work place. We do have power to take down posters of women draped over cars from office walls, to scrutinise recruitment panels to ensure fairness and gender balance, and we do have power to ensure that there is in our offices a sexual harassment policy which is reliable and fair.


This paper asks how we recognise gender barriers and what we can do about them. Gender barriers judge us as women. Not as employees on an equal footing with other employees. They exist on their own, and with other types of discrimination, based for instance on ethnicity and disability. They exist because many members of society, both male and female, believe that women’s place is not in the work place. They are perpetuated because persons holding senior position have not taken steps to identify the barriers until forced to do so by legislation. They are also perpetuated because women themselves have failed to transform their work places when, at last, they can. When we leave a work place we must leave behind a more equal work place. And we must never apologise for the fact that we are women. Nor must we pretend that we are men. Women bring to the work place, diversity, the empathy which comes from generations of discrimination, and an understanding of how discrimination translates itself to unfair employment practices. Women have the capacity to change, to transform and to revolutionise the work place, to make it equal, equitable, and respectful of all members of society. Working together to work on such a transformation is the most important thing we can do.



[2] Sherry Bourg Carter










Suva, Fiji