“The world has woken up!”: everywoman Founders Karen & Max on the success of the UN’s #HeForShe campaign


Since the United Nation’s #HeForShe campaign launched in September 2014, nearly a quarter of a million men worldwide have pledged their support to the solidarity movement for gender equality backed by UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson. The message at the heart of its campaign  - that the strive for gender equality is an issue that men must engage with every bit as much as women – resonated globally. The Harry Potter actress’s speech went viral, men from all walks of life – from stay at home dads to boy band members to Hollywood actors - spoke up on the futures they want for their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters.


Watch Emma Watson address an audience at the United Nations Headquarters in September 2014.



[Read the full transcript of Emma Watson’s speech]

But the campaign has not been without its sceptics. Some observers say that the notion of #HeForShe implies that women need men’s approval and backing in order to be seen as equal in all walks of life.

everywoman Founders Maxine Benson MBE and Karen Gill MBE, themselves pioneers for gender equality, discuss some of the issues the campaign addresses, why it’s been such a huge success, and where it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

"There is no one country in the world where women can expect to recieve [equal] rights. These rights I consider to be human rights." - UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson

What do you think is behind the huge amount of on-going support for the #HeForShe campaign?

Karen: The world has woken up to the fact we cannot continue to have such division in equality. The campaign hit at the right time, with the right message, delivered by a young, fresh voice. The ripple effect is huge support for every campaign that’s happening around gender at the moment. We’re seeing that in our own business; we’ve never been so busy. The market is responding to a need for urgent change.

The gender equality debate isn’t new, though it does appear to be gathering pace. What changes have you witnessed since you founded everywoman in 1999?

Max: What we’ve seen over recent years is that women in power feel a real sense of obligation to do something. There’s a definite sense that if you’re in a position of influence, you are obliged to help enable change.

Karen: Madeleine Albright’s words have never rung truer. She said: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” [The Former US Secretary Of State was speaking at a luncheon for the Women’s National Basketball Association in 2006; she reiterated this point during a CIA celebration for Women’s History Month in 2013.] Women like Hillary Clinton have continued that message. And it’s a lot easier these days – largely thanks to social media - for all women to have a voice, not just those in the upper echelons of power.

"This congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. Really. It's 2015. It's time." - US President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in Washington DC, January 2015

One of the things Emma Watson touches on in the #HeForShe launch speech is the controversy around the word ‘feminism’. What does the word mean to you and why do you think it’s become so contentious?

Max: I think it’s a bit of an excuse for some. They can put a negative spin on it, so they do. But what’s fantastic is that women like Emma are not playing the game. They’re reclaiming feminism and its true meaning. We need to stand up for the word.

Karen: For me it’s simple. It’s about equality for men and women. The 1970s feminist movement had a strong sense of male bashing around it, so when today’s young women say they’re not feminists, I think what they’re really saying is: “We don’t hate men!” What we desperately need is for more young girls like Emma Watson to help other young girls to understand what it really means; to do away with misguided legacy thinking and to return the word to its original definition.

Emma identifies times in her early childhood when she began to question gender stereotypes. She recalls her confusion around being labelled ‘bossy’ for wanting to direct the plays she and friends put on for their parents, when the boys were not. Have you had any similar experiences?

Karen: I remember being on an intense, leadership training programme as one of just two women out of 40. I was doing particularly well, so the facilitator brought along another facilitator to observe my behaviour to work out if it was ‘aggressive’ or just ‘assertive’. They didn’t do that with anyone else in the room. Some time later I ascertained that it was my behaviour in relation to my gender they were querying. It was the first time I stopped to really consider the issue, and I realised I was being treated differently because I was a woman.

Max: I don’t think I ever questioned gender stereotypes while growing up because in those days there was no social media, no access to the information or a global view on women’s place in the world and in business. Or if there was it simply didn’t filter down. The digital revolution has been a great enabler in that sense.

"Where women are included, you're more likely to have democracy; you're more likely to have stability and prosperity. It's not just a nice thing to do." - Former US Secretary Of State, Hillary Clinton, in address at Lead On: Watermark Silicon Valley Conference For Women, February 2015

Emma acknowledged in her speech that much of what she’s saying has been said before. As champions for gender diversity, how do you remain motivated in the face of such little progress in some areas – the numbers of women entering STEM careers, for example?

Karen: We have to remind ourselves that we’re talking about changing thousands of years’ worth of ingrained behaviours, biases and stereotypes. That’s not going to happen overnight. Consider that the Equal Pay Act in the UK only came into force in 1970; we’re talking about 45 years of attempting to change the gender stereotypes hardwired into our DNA. There’s a lot to unravel, but that said I think that the speed at which technology is enabling change and exposing what must be exposed, means there will come a tipping point when major change will happen quite suddenly. I don’t think that’s too far into the future.

The campaign has been both widely applauded and widely condemned. What’s behind the criticism do you think?

Max: I really hope the campaign succeeds but it’s a shame that to get the world on board with a discussion about gender equality, the campaign couldn’t have had a name that balanced the role men and women play in achieving equal rights.

Karen: I too have issues with the name. People who don’t take the time to unwrap the message and really investigate what it’s all about, will perhaps get the impression that we won’t get equality unless men decide it so. The fact is we all own the issue together, equally.

Feminism: The advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. - Oxford English Dictionary

In 2015, men can for the first time be nominated for an everywomanAward in the Inspiration Of The Year category at the FDM everywoman In Technology Awards. Is that a sign of the times and the message at the heart of the #HeForShe campaign?

Max: There was a time when the only people championing change for women in technology were other women. That’s not the case today. Male leaders recognise that they need more women in their organisations and they too have become champions for change. The decision was very much a natural progression; all our judges and everybody else involved in the programme felt it was the right thing to do.

Karen: Men have always been involved in our activities. We work with male clients, male delivery partners, and men are invited to all of our Awards programmes. But while we are inclusive, we remain true to our core values. We are and always will be about every woman and their advancement in the business world. Women occupy only 8% of top spot executive positions in the UK. We have a lot of work to do.

Excerpts from Emma Watson’s Twitter chat on the #HeForShe campaign:

Along with the content of her speech, Emma Watson has been praised for her delivery. Get more tips on powerful language in the everywomanNetwork workbook on the subject.

More about gender on the everywomanNetwork:

(Photo credit: Peter Gallagher, Russell Crowe, Harry Styles, David Tennant, Chris Colfer, Simon Pegg, Neil Gaiman)