Mental barriers to realizing potential

A series of 8,000 telephone interviews in eight EU countries revealed discomforting numbers on EU attitudes in terms of prejudice, racism and discrimination.

  • A majority of respondents, 60.2%, demand that “women should take their role as wives and mothers more seriously” and therefore stick to traditional gender roles.
  • 50.4% somewhat or strongly agree that “there are too many immigrants” in their country. This statement indicates a generalized and blind rejection of immigrants.
  • 54.4% believe that “the Islam is a religion of intolerance”. This makes obvious that many Europeans share a generalized negative image of the Islam.

The survey shows remarkable differences between the countries. On average, prejudices are the lowest in the Netherlands and the highest in Poland and Hungary with many exceptions and country-specific patterns.

International Gender Gaps

At the same time, many countries have improved towards closing their gender gaps on economic, political, education and health-based criteria, the 2009 Global Gender Gap Index reports. 6 European countries rank in the top 10 in overall gender equality, and 13 among the top 20. But 7 EU countries within the bottom 50% of the rankings seem to maintain traditional attitudes towards women. Africa is making progress towards gender equality through holding 2 spots in the top 10. South Africa (#6) has made significant improvements in female labor force participation in addition to gains for women in parliament and in ministerial positions in the new government. It is followed by Lesotho (#10) which has no gap in education and health between men and women. Also, Lesotho’s female labor force participation increased from 49% to 69% according to latest data from the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Gender Attitudes

A study commissioned by the German Ministry of Families, Seniors, Women and Youth, analyzed one key reason preventing women from rising to leadership levels, male perceptions of women in management, and found 3 types:

  • Conservative-minded men, who do not want women in leadership positions because they disturb well-established circles, rules and networks that are aligned on many issues.
  • Men who think that both genders should have equal op-por¬tunities but argue that women don’t bring the “strength in character” necessary for the many facets of the job.
  • Men who think that the best candidate should be given a job regardless of gender, but that many women aren’t committed enough to demanding management jobs.

Inter-Religious Attitudes

The perception of different religious groups also continues to be an issue across Europe. In May 2006, a Motivac¬tion/GPD Poll found that 63% of Dutch citizens viewed Is¬lam as incompatible with modern European life. A Trans¬atlantic Trends Report that same year, posing the question of Islam’s compatibility with democracy, found comparable negative results in Germany (67%), Italy (62%) and Spain (62%). The most recent Swiss referendum for a country-wide minaret ban is another sign for anti-Muslim attitudes. Actually, clear majorities in most European countries see greater interaction between the West and Muslim worlds as a threat. This is true of Denmark (79%), Italy (67%), the Netherlands (67%), and Spain (68%). Conversely, the vast majority of European Muslims reject violence against civilians and are concerned with economic opportunities and social services. A Gallup report on the state of dialogue between Islam and the West analyzed this tension.

Shifting Perspectives

When researchers asked residents of several Muslim ma-jority countries to explain in their own words what the West could do to improve relations with the Muslim world, the most frequent response was summed up in this statement: “Show greater respect for Islam and stop regarding Muslims as inferior.” At the same time, many Westerners feel they are disrespected, mainly in Italy (70%), Denmark (69%), Canada (67%) and Spain (63%). The size of the Muslim communities in and of itself does not explain these Islam-related issues. For example, in the UK Muslims comprise about 3% of the population and in France the figure is about 9%. On the contrary, experts point to popular anxieties about Islam and the perceived threat it poses to national identity and security.

Changing Mind-Sets to Achieve Inclusion

When individuals are limited in rights and opportunities to what others are given, whether education and healthcare or respect and understanding, they are given an artificial handicap compared to the respective cultural norm. In the end, this waste of potential harms the country or region. The same is true for work organizations: Whenever policies, processes or work cultures force people to comply with specific norms, some (or many) of their strengths can’t be leveraged for their personal success nor for the advantage of the organization. Women at work, and more specifically in management, ethnic minorities, old or young, gay or lesbian – they all experience different forms of disadvantage, often as a consequence of prejudice or stereotype. Overcoming these remains a task for all of us in 2010.

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