Are feminists redundant?

Femke Bartels
Article by: Femke Bartels
Are feminists redundant?

Famously, female staffers, who were a minority in the first Obama administration, adopted a strategy called “amplification” to ensure their voices were not ignored. When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it and reinforce it, giving credit to its author.


Last week at The Reykjavík Global Forum – Women Leaders, this strategy was not needed as the vast majority of the 450 participants – including Presidents, prime ministers, CEOs and leaders from civil society – were women. I found this refreshing, after having been part of other gatherings like the World Economic Forum where still 77% of the participants were male.


It was an extraordinary and energizing experience to be part of such a large and diverse group of women sharing ideas and solutions for the world’s most pressing challenges and the lack of gender equality more specifically.


My 18-year-old self would have been surprised.

Reykjavik Global Forum

My 18-year-old self would have been surprised at my attendance at the Reykjavik Global Forum – Women Leaders. Nonetheless, it was an extraordinary and energizing experience.

As a teenager, I loved to read. Growing up in a small, sleepy, Dutch village, books served as windows to exciting worlds. Devouring a novel a day, I finished the obligatory school reading lists well before the exams so I asked my teachers for recommendations. My German teacher suggested Peter Handke, whose quest for existential meaning turned out to be well beyond either my understanding or need.

I asked my teacher why he’d recommended Handke. He replied, matter of factly: “The writer is a feminist, like you.” A feminist? I can still recall standing in front of my teacher, indignant. A feminist? “I am not a feminist,” I told him. Feminists were of the past, of my parents’ generation. They cleared the path so that we could all have equal opportunities to pursue the lives and careers we want as women. Feminists were redundant and anachronistic.

I wish! If only I’d been right.

Throughout my career, I’ve learned – as so many have with me – that no matter the passion, purpose and skills you bring, the playing field is far from level, far from equal. My 18-year-old was so far off: today, it is estimated that another century is needed to close the global gender gap.

Reykjavik Global Forum
It is estimated that another century is needed to close the global gender gap. #genderequality #equality #womenempowerment #feminism #womensrights #WomenLeadersIceland Click To Tweet

Gender inequality can be played out in many ways, from the brutality of exclusion to the subtleties of unfulfilled potential. At THNK, we understand that finding the right solutions requires a detailed understanding of the problem, that you have to look well below the surface. Too often, women are still being blamed for their underrepresentation at the top. We are being told we lack the self-confidence and drive of men.

Inequality should not be reduced to individual qualities: it is a consequence, or even a design feature, of systemic biases that promote some and disadvantage others. In order to make and accelerate progress, we need to dismantle the obstacles that are built into our social systems. We need new laws, new approaches to education, and different mindsets.

Iceland has understood this really well. It is, arguably, the best country in the world to be a woman. It was not always so. On October 24, 1975, 90 percent of Icelandic women rose up and refused to show up for work in order to demonstrate how much their society depended on women’s labor. This helped catalyze a wide variety of developments including political empowerment, economic opportunity, educational engagement, and health services. Five years later, in 1980, Iceland became the first nation-state to democratically elect a female president. The journey continues: recently the Íslandsbanki announced that they would no longer place ads in media where women are underrepresented. They are actively removing barriers to creating an equal society, as far as gender balance is concerned.

Reykjavik Global Forum
'Inequality is a consequence of systemic biases that promote some and disadvantage others' – THNK MD @fbartels. #WomenLeadersIceland #genderequality #womenempowerment #systemschange #womensrights #feminism Click To Tweet

Surrounded by inspiring examples from Iceland, the conversations during the Reykjavik Global Forum highlighted the many benefits of supplanting the current world order that is the old boys’ club. We discussed and described a 21st-century “fit for purpose” egalitarian approach in which women leaders took their rightful share of seats at the table, bringing a fresh perspective and new ways of working to resolve old problems.

We are making progress, but that progress needs an “accelerator.” It needs radical upscaling.

In addition to the empowering approach of amplification – repeating and acknowledging the views of other women – I have three more takeaways to share from the Forum on how we can all help speed up gender equality:

  1. Small actions, big impact.
    According to research from McKinsey, 64 percent of women experience daily slights, indignities, put-downs, and invalidations by people who might be unaware that they’ve delivered a put-down. Women of color are even more likely to be exposed to microaggressions. Knowing that this happens on a continuous basis, prepare your response. Say a man asks a female leader how she is able to perform her job well considering she has children – a question he would never ask a male colleague. Have the courage to call him out and use it as a teachable moment.
  2. Numbers count.
    An IMF study shows that we still have a long way to go for gender parity in leadership positions. Women account for one-third of managerial positions, one-quarter of parliamentary membership and only one-fifth of ministerial posts. If women were to participate in the economy equally to men it would add $28 trillion, or 26 percent to the annual global GDP in 2025, compared to business as usual. This is the size of China and the US’ economies combined. One effective measure to get more women in leadership positions is for governments to require it. Quotas do not challenge meritocracies; they strengthen them. Think about it: the keys to success not only depend on your own qualities and character, but also on your personal connections and professional access, something that candidates who aren’t white men simply have less opportunity to come by.
  3. Use your agency.
    Among the root causes of unequal outcomes for women and men are social institutions – norms, laws and practices – which discriminate against women and girls. Vatican City is the last place in the world that still prevents women from voting. This means that we all can use our votes and advocate for laws and incentives that make our countries equitable and inclusive.

I have come to appreciate the naivety of my privileged teenage perspective and the importance of putting that privilege to work. I have embraced feminism as a purpose – not simply receiving the opportunities that other people struggled for but for joining that struggle and passing it on. Now, I call myself a feminist.

I have twelve-year-old twins, a girl and a boy. When their teachers ask them if they are feminists, I hope they will answer with a resounding “yes.”

To play your part in tackling gender equality, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.