How to win the battle for women’s rights

The battle for women’s rights is one of the most visible causes of our time. Nothing has inspired me more in the last few years than the women’s marches. Nothing inspires me more than when I see women speak up for their rights, when I see women go to the streets when their rights are threatened. But I also have to insist on men being part of that. We can only get things done if there is an alliance between men and women on this.

In what we sometimes call populist parties, family values are very often used by men as an argument to ‘defend women’. Promoting family values sounds great. I’m all for family values. But not if they are instrumentalised as a tool to take rights away from one part of our society, and defend the privileges of another. Because what these people mean when they say ‘defend women’ is actually more like ‘tell women their place’.

The battle for women’s rights is of fundamental importance in itself. But it is also symbolic of a broader battle for the future of our society.

People are feeling insecure for many reasons. They are asking themselves questions about identity and economics, and wondering what the future holds. This creates a lot of uncertainty and instability. And then you see politicians saying ‘we are the ones who speak for the people’, when in fact they speak only for a very small part of the population, and try to impose their narrow and discriminatory views on others and make it the accepted discourse of the day.

There is an ideological confrontation going on, between people who believe in a closed society – ‘we’re only going to be well off if we keep all the others out’ – and people who believe in an open society – ‘we’re going to be better if we are open to other people and other ideas.’ You’ve seen it in quite a number of European countries. And when these advocates of closed societies get into power they are often very quick to undermine minority rights, including women’s rights. And they are slowly chipping away at our democracies with this approach of ‘winner takes all’, where minorities are to be dictated to, not listened to and protected.

The idea of so-called ‘enemies of the people’ is back. Which is an idea I just cannot stomach. If we want to do something about this, there are four things we need to do.

First of all, we need to make sure that our positive, progressive, liberal views are both seen and heard. We need to stand up for what we believe in, and challenge intellectually and emotionally the populist narrative. We need to show that our societies are diverse, not homogenous, and that this diversity brings us strength and richness.

Because if we are not present, not vocal, not visible, not out in the streets, not commenting online, then they can still maintain this fallacy that they speak on behalf of all the people, because nobody else is heard.

The second thing we need to do is organise. This is where I see a difference in my kids’ generation and my own generation. My friends and I were organised. We were party members, we were protesters, we supported ideological causes. Our political awakening was very much linked with this. My kids see it differently. They have issues that they want society to tackle, but they don’t have this taste for organisation. They tend to speak up individually, but not always seek out others who share their cause, or speak together and amplify their voices.

So now this brings me to the third point. The first point is be vocal, the second is get organised, and the third point is make real change happen – through concrete knowledge and policy. We have to show that there is a pay gap, we have to show that there is a pension gap, we have to show that more than half of women have experienced sexual violence or harassment. You have to show people the data. You have to show that men have more free time than women – time to go to the theatre or read a book, to play sports, to meet with friends – just because it is ‘normal’ for women to do all the work at home, in addition to having a career.

The problem with equality is that if you don’t see inequality for what it is, if you don’t see privilege for what it is, if you believe that privilege is the normal state of affairs, then you won’t fight it. If you don’t see a problem then you will not fix it. But if you see the problem – if you see that the problem with equality is that it’s not there yet – then I’m sure we’ll be able to fix it.

Stubborn, ingrained problems like this need a push to bring about change. That is where policy comes in. Once you identify and quantify a problem, you need to propose solutions, for example on work-life balance. The Commission launched a proposal for new parental leave rights; with more equality for men and women, including non-transferable rights to ensure that men take up their share of the responsibility and don’t pass the buck to women. I have four kids. When each one was born, living in the Netherlands, I had the right to two days of parental leave. One day to be present at the birth, and one day to go to the municipality to register our child. This is not good! This is killing women’s careers and it is making it hard for men to be good fathers.

The world is changing rapidly, including our attitudes to equality, because of better knowledge and better policy responses. And I’m very much excited about this. But we have not reached the point of no return. It is still in the balance.

Which brings me to the fourth point. To embed a change of attitude, we need to start early, with a change of culture. My wife and I have made a conscious and deliberate choice in how we deal with our household, breaking the models that we ourselves saw growing up. And I know we are not alone in this. Our kids are watching us, all of us, and we need to make sure that our sons and our daughters are equal, that we don’t have ‘girls’ jobs and ‘boys’ jobs. This needs to be a conscious change we all make.

If we do these four things, then change will come.

We will be judged by our children, by our daughters and by our sons. In years to come, they will ask us ‘What did you do when they started to push back? What did you do to mobilise people, to defend equality?’ This is the question every single one of us should be asking ourselves. If we have a good answer to that, we’ll get there. Equality is our future.

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