The Demand for More Gender Equality: HeForShe x UvA
By Olga Ellinghaus
Published Sun Dec 20 2020
Feminism. What does it mean to you? When I hear the word feminism, I think of women standing up for their rights, demanding social, economic and political ownership and equality. Women being bold, being loud, speaking up. But something is wrong with this association, something is missing. Or someone. A fundamental problem in the gender equality movement is its failure to include other genders. Although third-wave feminism aimed to make the previously white and upper-class movement more accessible and inclusive for different classes, races and genders, gender equality is still widely considered a ‘female issue’. We have reached a point in time, where female empowerment and gender equality can only advance if they become a universal and collective effort, if everyone understands that equality may only truly be achieved if existing social and hierarchical structures are ruptured, also by those who seemingly benefit from them.
Since this October, a new initiative called HeForShe x UvA has surfaced at the University of Amsterdam, aiming to promote gender equality among students at the university. Founded by the United Nations global solidarity movement for gender equality, HeForShe invites “men and people of all genders to stand in solidarity with women to create a bold, visible and united force for gender equality,” striving to increase particularly male allyship for achieving a more gender equal world. The goal is to offer a variety of formats for students in Amsterdam: networking events, open discussions, formal guest lectures from a diverse range of fields and backgrounds, as well as provide an informal meeting space for members to network and exchange.
The two co-chairing HeForShe x UvA presidents Aleksandra Lankamer and Simone Bisscheroux first came across the United Nations initiative while analysing Emma Watson’s 2014 speech on the HeForShe campaign for a rhetorics class. Since late 2019, the two UvA Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics (PPLE) students have been working on the recognition process of HeForShe as a study association and, finally, after one year of administrative processes and mobilizing the minimum requirement of 100 members online, HeForShe x UvA was recognized by the University of Amsterdam.
The board is currently made up of 5 members: Alongside Lankamer (top right, left) and Bisscheroux (bottom right, right), the UvA students Dana Steltenpool, secretary (top left), Nykka van Tunen, in charge of events (top right, right), Alison Wetzelaer, communications (bottom left) and Kirsten van der Kruijs, communications (bottom right, left). Starting a new association during a pandemic is a brave step. All the planning, organising, recognition process, and the launch event had to happen on Zoom. The whole board has not been able to meet in person yet. “We had our first event last week, and we also have to adapt, try to make it as interesting and as dynamic as possible. We have been focused more on trying to create a space where people are comfortable, even though they are at home,” Lankamer shares.
Opening up a space for conversation about gender equality lies at the heart of HeForShe. It is not simply about changing statistics, there is more to it than that. HeForShe is about educating and empowering people of all genders. Speaking about her motivation to start HeForShe, Bisscheroux recalls some of her personal experiences of sexism and encountering gender norms, such as having a driving teacher who would consistently make inappropriate comments towards her. “It made me feel nauseous. And at first, I was thinking it was my fault that I created the space where he thought it was okay to make such comments. But that’s not okay. And I wish that in those situations I had felt empowered enough to know that it's okay to say something about it and that you don't just have to sit there and just let it happen.”
Albeit a large piece of the puzzle, HeForShe x UvA is not solely about the empowerment of women or gender equality for the benefit of one gender. The aim is to deconstruct existing gender norms and stereotypes, but also address struggles that men or non-binary people experience, such as toxic masculinity. Education is key to reaching a more gender-equal world. And as Bisschieroux puts it, this can only be achieved by involving everyone in the effort: “We don't just need more women in high places, we also need educated men [and non-binary or gender-fluid people] in high places. Together we can make a real difference but if it's only one part of the population pushing for it, it's going to take a long time to achieve gender equality.”
The university’s purpose is to educate and, for many, it is a stopover between school and work, occupying an important transition phase in the lives of young adults. The education that students receive at these institutions, the lessons they learn, shape the way they think and move forward. During the initial recognition process, the students were met with light resistance and asked whether this kind of initiative is really necessary at the UvA, ‘one of Europe’s most prominent research-led universities.’ “It doesn’t matter if there is equality by law. There are still gender stereotypes that affect people’s lives,'' Lankamer explains. With HeForShe x UvA, the founders hope to contribute to a generation of educated UvA students who move on into the world of employment and take knowledge and understanding of gender struggles and inequality into their jobs and future decision-making processes. The recent scandal of sexual misconduct at the UvA – met by the university’s virtually dismissive reaction – shows how necessary these conversations remain to be, even in progressive and leading modern institutions.
The two co-presidents have big plans for the future of HeForShe in the post-corona era. All board members come from the social- and behavioral sciences background of the UvA, a very privileged and mostly white setting. The current lack of representation and diversity on the board is obvious and something the members are aware of. Would introducing quotas help in the future? Fact is, the group of 6 women is aware of their privileged position and that change needs to happen for HeForShe x UvA to implement its intentions. The board was created in a rush, so “this year we did base a lot on motivation and on the people we knew were motivated enough. Although we do realize that the board may not be diverse, it is something we hope will be the case in the next years of functioning of HeForShe x UvA,” Lankamer says.
The importance of advancing gender equality and empowering all women is indisputable. Yet, history shows that mainstream feminism and the women’s movement haven’t always managed to be inclusive and representative of women of all backgrounds. Those who struggle most under existing patriarchal structures of society are usually not the most privileged, or the most visible. Experiences of gender inequality and sexism are as much determined, even heightened, by one’s race, social class, or dis-/ability. And those at the bottom of the social ladder are the ones who need to be empowered, while the larger structures of patriarchy need to be dismantled for sustainable change to happen. One of the main goals of HeForShe x UvA is to reach a more diverse range of members, in order to become more representative of reality and intersectional feminism, and not only give a voice to the already privileged students of the university. Another future ambition is to reach more of the Bèta-studies (natural sciences) students, as these are more male dominated fields of study. However, with online classes and lockdown restrictions in place, it has become increasingly challenging to enter new spaces outside one’s natural environment and to spread the word about HeForShe x UvA.