Panel at JWEF Bahrain

Firstly Happy International Women’s Day 2016 to all the fabulous ladies out there and the men who appreciate them! Every IWD I write a blog about a story or message relating to my work on the advancement of women and this one is a special one about a moment that happened very recently that really shocked me and to those who ask ‘but why do we even need IWD still?’ – this is why!

Last month, I was invited to deliver a range of programmes with InspirEngage International in Bahrain. I’m no stranger to the region and had even previously delivered our Bootcamp in Bahrain. This time I was at the Junior World Entrepreneurship Forum- a gathering franchised across the world with the aim of supporting young people to launch their own businesses. Let me paint the scene. It’s day 2 of the conference, 200 people in the room, mostly young people (university students) but on the left side of the auditorium were 50 or so young boys aged 15/16. I’m on stage on a judging panel of an enterprise competition alongside a director of Intel and a gentlemen from one of the UN agencies. He’s talking about the general enterprise community of Bahrain and at one point he asks almost as a rhetorical question aimed at the young boys; “Would you guys ever work under a woman”. Before he’s finished his sentence, a few of the boys shout determinedly; “NO!”

The gentleman pauses but continues his talk generally. Once he’s finished, it’s time to announce the winner of the enterprise competition – but I can’t let it go. I take the mic and say “it’s my moral obligation to challenge you on what you said, in fact it’s all of our social responsibility” – my aim wasn’t to attack but to understand, so I asked if we could speak about it and why they said they would never work under a woman. One of the braver boys who had been most adamant answers “because men are more responsible” This interested me – so I said, “ok so what about if the woman had earned her way justifiably to the senior position – she was great at it, responsible and deserved it – would you work under her then?” – he still said “NO!”

By this point, the gentleman at my side was whispering in my ear to let it go and that they’re just young. The gentleman from the UN was back on the mic by this point saying that in Islam, prophet Mohammad worked for a woman and that it’s important to remember that, but then said something which deeply troubles me; “it’s women who raise children” so basically, if boys think like that then the mother is to blame. They were keen to move things on – and I didn’t even have a mic – so without a mic I persevered (not shown in video clip): I appreciate that every culture is different, religion is different and yes, places like the UK aren’t perfect in equality of gender either (in fact, we also have a long way to go) and this wasn’t about those specific boys, but about us questioning long-held beliefs that we automatically hold and thinking about the consequences of what our beliefs mean. I made the point that raising children and shaping society is more than just women’s responsibility – we all have a power to influence outcomes, and what point would there be to support the girls in the room to launch a business if half the population wouldn’t work for them- especially when Bahrain has no end of talent and potential, which was evident in our Bootcamps. More importantly – our societies are shaped by what we think, say and do; it wasn’t immediately about those boys but about the message it would give out to accept those views.

As I spoke passionately – I looked around at the faces of the women, wondering if they would step in or had a view on it. But the room was silent.

After the panel - the reaction of girls and boys

Interestingly, afterwards, a notable number of the women came up to me thanking me for speaking up, saying they were horrified too. We had an interesting conversation but I made it clear- “next time you hear something which you think should change and is wrong; in your own respectful way, speak up or you’re part of the problem”. I look up and 2 of the young boys from that group were there too – one said “we just wanted to come up to you and apologise on our friend’s behalf- hope it didn’t offend you.” I replied; “Thank you so much – that’s very mature of you. This isn’t about me and it’s not personal. This is about us provoking thought to create change. Here’s an idea – why don’t you go back to school and suggest to a teacher to have a discussion with the boys about this issue”. That was my bottom line aim in speaking out- not for people to adopt my thinking but to provoke thought and let people question opinions they’d previously held without considering an alternative. That’s how change starts.

We are all part of the solution.

For all enquiries: melody@inspirEngage.com
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