Speech van Annemie Turtelboom tijdens de plenaire zitting van het ‘Wereldforum voor Vrouwelijk Leiderschap’ van de OESO te Parijs, 3 april 2014

Mr. Secretary-General
Mr. President
Dear Colleagues
Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for inviting me to this Global Forum on Women’s Leadership in Public Life
And so thank you for allowing me to share with you my personal experience, as a woman and as minister of Justice in my country, on gender equality

At first sight, my country, Belgium, seems rather advanced in these questions
We’ve just crowned a new king last year, but the next one should be a queen
Five of the thirteen ministers in the national government are women
The CEO of the biggest telecom company is a woman, and the boss of the biggest electricity company used to be one

There are more famous Belgian women than men these days
Kim Clijsters, Amélie Nothomb, Axelle Red, Ann Demeulemeester to name but these

When I see the statistics in the remarkable report on Women in Government and Public Policies
My country is in the Prime League of parliamentary representation, with almost 40 % women in our assemblies
And in the Prime League of participation in governments, with slightly more than 40 % women

And in my job, at the Justice ministry of Belgium
About 40 % of all lawyers and 45 % of all judges are women these days
But as far as the topjobs are concerned, there is still a lot to do, as your statistics show
Only 25 % of our court presidents, and less than 20 % of our supreme court judges, are women

Of course the boss of the department is a woman nowadays
Only the second time this happened at the ministry of Justice
Before I was the first woman-minister of Home Affairs ever in my country
It is a trend of the last years in western Europe, that the exclusively male security-jobs in government have opened up for women, with Theresa May on Home Affairs in England, Ursula Von der Leyen on Defence in Germany, Christiane Toubira on Justice in France and of course Michelle Alliot-Marie in France – who did all three: Interior, Justice and Defence

Nevertheless the findings of your report sound all too familiar to me
In all professions the share of women at work is growing rapidly, even with the engineers who seemed to have resisted the longest
But there is still a though glass ceiling before you can reach the top as a women
In almost all professions
In the administration, as your statistics show
Surely in the judiciary, as I just mentioned
Still more if you want to become a banker or a CEO
The European Central Bank last year was an exclusive male club, as if in a novel of Conan Doyle
Some say it was the ECB who got us out of the Eurocrisis
Yes, of course, but should we not ask how we got there in the first place?

To make this analysis, based on statistics, is one thing
To explain it, is far more difficult
We do no longer speak about blatant discrimination
It is more about deep-rooted habits, tradition, and prejudices, some, if not all, belonging to the area of the subconscious

Ladies and gentleman

When I was eighteen, a quarter of a century ago now
I honestly thought of feminism as a movement of the past
I felt self-assured, and had no feeling of being discriminated
I even had the impression that all this feminist noise was much ado about nothing

But now, 25 years later,
And although I am at the top of my profession
And broke a lot of glass ceilings in reaching that point
I am more feminist than ever

Why is this so?
It is not that I have the feeling of being discriminated by my male colleagues in the Belgian government these days
On the contrary, they have learned to work and cooperate with women as ministers in a fully professional way
As do almost all the judges, officials or police officers that I meet every day again

No, it is on the road to a top position that you meet the most obstacles
It starts with less support from home and school to push the girl towards the highest performance in studies
It continues with the attitude whereby it is normal that women, even if they choose for their career, should evidently combine this with taking care for the kids
It is always felt when, to qualify for a top function, questions are asked that are never asked to man
I’m still confronted with it when journalists, mostly male, but even female, ask me how I combine my job with the kids, a question they do not ask my male colleagues
No longer than yesterday a newspaper wrote about the return of Ségolène Royal ‘the ex is back’.
So I tweeted that I never saw such title when her ex became president

I am convinced that feminism in the western world has come to a point where it is fully accepted as a principle
Most men these days even think of themselves as behaving without any discrimination towards women
The remaining problem is unconscious prejudice

The quota discussion in business is a typical example
It is definitely about the last fortress of male supremacy
And it is probably no coincidence that it is about jobs and functions with the highest incomes
In my country the boards of the 50 largest companies are still manned with on average 85 % men
Under public pressure this proportion has gone down with 5 % the last ten years
At this speed I will never see the balance in my lifetime

In most of the European countries, except for the Nordic ones, the proportions are barely better
But the remarkable thing is that most of these male bosses are not even aware of the problem, not even when they are confronted with the obvious statistics
Their boards were solely recruited on talent, they say
Adding injury to insult

They are completely unaware of the handicap they are creating for their company
How can you have a good idea of markets and consumer patterns, if you exclude about halve of the participants from your decision process?
In my view companies with a board where male domination is still absolute are sending out the signal that they do not understand the 21st century

To change these attitudes is not easy
It is about rules and quota’s, no doubt
Like European Commissioner Neelie Kroes I can even say I am a product of quota and proud to be one
But the problem is bigger and less tangible than that
Men are willing to stop discrimination
But beyond rationality there are still brakes in place in the subconscious, which we do not reach with our female rational arguments

I sometimes try to explain this with an extreme form of discrimination
That still exists but draws rather few attention
I have become aware of how deep-rooted prejudice is, through the issue of gendercide
Millions of girls in China, in India, in many parts of the world, were and are not allowed to live, simply because they are girls, and because boys are preferred in families that are submitted to policies of birth restriction
This is not a phenomenon of the lowest classes, but of the growing middle class where people can pay for sophisticated medical tests during pregnancy
It is a major scandal of course, with far-reaching consequences when these societies one day will be confronted with a gigantic surplus of males,
We speak about tens of millions of Chinese men for instance, in search of a woman
Authorities seem powerless to act
And attention worldwide is rather limited
For me it is the definite proof that prejudices against women are so deep-rooted in all kind of very old traditions, even in the well-educated middle class, that we will need many decades, if not centuries to overcome all of these

I give another example, less dramatic this one, but also a phenomenon of deep-rooted bias
In the west we tend to attack some Islamic countries because of their discrimination of women
Very rightfully so, when they still forbid women to drive a car or have just appointed their first female judge ever
We also rightfully condemn the phenomenon of genital mutilation
Of which only in Europe half a million seem to have suffered
And according to the last research in my country more than 13.000 women
That is why yesterday in the commission of our parliament we unanimously adopted a proposal to make genital mutilation a crime

As we rightfully condemn these practices, at the same time we turn a blind eye to the fact that almost all the religions, those of the west included, are still biased against women
None of the greatest world religions has up to now accepted a women as a spiritual leader
On the contrary, in most of these this is still unthinkable
What is worse, is that most of the many courts and committees in the world that protect human rights all over the world, are usually very quiet on this kind of obvious discrimination
Almost, so it seems, out of respect of this most deep-rooted of al discrimination, that might have existed since the Creation itself
That is what I meant to say when I spoke about the subconscious and strong traditions
It is against these deep-rooted attitudes that we will have to fight the last battles of feminism

Ladies and gentleman

How should I try to beat these prejudices, as a minister of Justice for instance?
I see – as far as developed societies are concerned – three roads to take
The first is to go on with quota’s
Sure, quotas are a rather brutal way to promote gender balance,
And they should only remain in place until some balance is reached
But still I promote quotas, especially for company-boards, because they are so controversial, draw attention to the problem, and so oblige men to think about their behaviour

The second tool is changing inheritance laws, the system of marriage contracts, or the family laws
These are in my country still largely based on the rules that were laid down by Bonaparte shortly after the French Revolution
Society has evolved of course, with a multitude of different kinds of partnerships these days, including newly composed households after divorces, or gay marriage
And it is in these old legal structures of the patriarchal society that you are confronted with still very strong prejudices against women

That is why I promote that young people should take all attention to the business and legal aspects of a relation as soon as it seems to become a long term partnership
It is not a joyful message – why bother about contract law if you are in love? – but it is a necessary one
All too many times you see that when nothing has been arranged at the beginning of the relationship, it is tradition and old-fashioned laws that determine the outcome when that relationship breaks down
As long as the marriage lasts, it still seems obvious that it is the woman that stays home when the care for the children becomes too big a burden
But when a few years later the divorce is on the agenda, it is she who has no income, no job, nor any savings and is fully dependant on the goodwill of the partner from which she is just separating
That is why I want to change these laws, and that I campaign to make all young couples aware that good contracts are the best guarantee for a stable future for both partners

The third tool I want to promote to push the gender balance in the right direction is sheer discussion
We should openly say when we are still confronted with discrimination
I spoke about the taboo of the religions and about genital mutilation
I indicated my surprise about the absence of indignation on gendercide
I mentioned the ignorance of CEO’s in the discussion about women representation in the board of their companies

Should we not sometimes, become as provocative, as the prejudices we’re confronted with?
90 % of traffic accidents are caused by men
90 % of our prison-inmates are men
So where is the logic to entrust men with 90 % of the seats in the Board of a company?

Should we not develop our own version of anthropology?
Men have been programmed during many thousands of years to behave in conflict, to master violence if needed, to fight for their place and their territory, to operate in terms of power and struggle
The question is: are these still the master-skills of the twenty-first century?
Or are women better-programmed, more practical, more ready for compromise and dialogue?
It is a tempting thought

Ladies and gentleman

Let me end with a plea for optimism
I see more and more women reaching top positions
I see more and more professions getting equally balanced between man and woman
I see more and more girls doing better than man in schools and universities

Let us continue our struggle to change mentalities
To make men conscious that it is simply not efficient to take major decision without a woman’s voice
Let us take our chances
When in the next ten years new shortages in the labour market will create new opportunities for women
Let us put up our demands
Everybody is free to make a choice for children or not
But children are the choice of two people and they should share the burden
Let us also demand that everybody who chooses for children is fully supported by society to combine this with his or her job
To take away the choice between ‘children or career’

Let us be more self-confident
Feminism is a fight for equality, for progress in society, for a more efficient use of all talents available, for more humanity in our still fragile and sometimes brutal societies

The road is still long
But it is definitely going upwards
Time is on our side
And we will prove that the 21st century will be the century of women

Thank you

Share on:

Leave a comment