Crediting women on their long-fought and continuing battle for gender equality, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said more men should start taking action to combat sexism and violence against women.
Joining Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, on an episode of the BBC World Service’s Global Questions, the two former heads of state took questions from listeners around the world, sharing their insights into why gender-based discrimination and violence persist today.
Acknowledging that the issues in question are often deeply rooted in the fabric of society, Madam Sirleaf said that “long-standing cultural assumptions are what give credence to patriarchy.” While she was thankful that attitudes were changing, Madam Sirleaf was adamant that more men needed to step up and:
“Recognize the value of women… the contributions that women can make to society. They are equally smart, they are knowledgeable, they are courageous.”
Ms. Robinson agreed, adding that patriarchy itself can be a self-perpetuating cycle—she said that because boys see that more male leaders hold positions of power, it can “reinforce… that sense that men are more important .”
This gender imbalance in leadership is often reflected in the way women leaders are judged differently than their male counterparts. Madam Sirleaf shared the example of media coverage of EJS Center Board Member Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala when, earlier this year, she became the first woman and African to lead the World Trade Organization. Instead of “giving her credit for her talent and her managerial expertise,” some media outlets positioned Dr. Okonjo-Iweala as “merely a grandmother,” Madam Sirleaf recalled.
Ultimately, when it comes to addressing the underlying cultural biases that perpetuate sexism and violence against women, Madam Sirleaf said the solution didn’t just come down to legislation, but required a collective shift in attitude:
“We need the laws, we need the policies, no doubt, we need constitutional change, if that is required—but we have able to change the attitudes for people to see women beyond those stereotypes… Yes, they’re good mothers. They’re good at taking care of the home… But we’re also everything else that a man is, and need to know that.”
Listen to the full Global Questions episode, ‘Sexism and Violence Against Women,’ here (registration required).