The Human Rights Field Is Still a Man's World. Here's How We Can Change That.

People in my field are often characterized as “social justice warriors” those who see the global fight for human rights, equality and justice as their life goal and who make this fight the centerpiece of their careers.

photo credit:  Melany Rochester,  via  Unsplash  (cropped)

photo credit: Melany Rochester, via Unsplash (cropped)

In many ways I would describe us “human rights people” as the lucky ones. We choose these unbendable principles to stand up for and, as pretentious as it sounds, the lifestyle of wonderwomen and supermen. This do-good-feel-good lifestyle comes with a lot of personal and professional satisfaction as we advocate for fundamental freedoms and design and implement programs that lead to change and help improve lives. What we do is beyond meaningful — it’s vital to the world we live in.

Today our world is as fragile as ever. We often get caught up in the global human rights crises whirlwind, which is perhaps why most of us in this field have ignored the obvious, awkward, hefty elephant in the room: the perpetual gender gap in human rights leadership.

It wasn’t until recently, as a colleague and I were brainstorming potential speakers for a human rights discussion, that we stumbled upon this challenge: how do we ensure that it doesn’t become yet another manel (male-dominated panel)? Human rights events often carry an advocacy component in them, and therefore it is in the interest of the hosts to attract as large an audience as possible. To do so, one needs popular experts/panelists, and this is where the gender gap kicks in. It’s hard to find many women who are widely recognized as experts and leaders even in this field, which is dominated by women.

According to Nonprofit HR, 70% of the workforce in this sector is represented by women. Yet, when it comes to being recognized as experts and leaders, women are in the minority. And the picture is more grim when it comes to women of color (see tokenism).

Why is that the case?

What helps define somebody as a widely-recognizable expert on any issue:

  1. They have published a book on the issue and/or hold a PhD in a relevant area. (Having enough time, money and connections are necessary to achieve this, which leaves more women than men at a disadvantage.)

  2. They are in a leadership position in the human rights/non-profit world. (Most of those, as mentioned above, are men.)

  3. They are often interviewed on the subject matter at hand. (This is another situation in which men dominate, as while women do outnumber men in journalism schools, men are still in majority in the newsrooms. And it’s no secret that women’s voices are underrepresented as sources in journalism.)

  4. They are often invited to panels on this issue.

  5. They speak confidently and loudly on the matter.

These are tricky ones sometimes. Human rights advocacy anticipates loud voices and bold statements, and, partially for that reason, we often see confidence mistaken for competence and boldness equated with expertise in the human rights field.

Some of these reasons probably make good sense to you, but you might wonder why you should care enough to act. Before you roll your eyes, let me explain.

Why male-dominated expertise is harmful:

  1. As representatives of a field that is supposed to champion justice and equality, we aren’t making much progress towards the values of human rights, equality and justice until we address them within our own organizations. Instead, by ignoring them we help cement a vicious cycle of gender inequality.

  2. By mistaking confidence for competence and by choosing the ‘usual suspects’, we often overlook the true experts. What we end up doing is tapping into surface expertise and missing opportunities to drill down for deeper knowledge.

  3. Human rights are everyone’s rights, so we can’t go down the usual path of relying heavily on straight, white men. They simply can’t be experts on all types of people. What we see right now, though, is exactly that. White men speak about the Rohingya crisis, the rates of crime in El Salvador, the spy scandals in Russia, ISIS in the Middle East and whatnot. But the truth is, while they might have all the right credentials and speak confidently, they often lack substantial knowledge (many of them have somebody else prepare their talking points), and, again, they simply have no capacity to represent all groups of people.

It is time we look beyond surface expertise. It’s time we become more conscious and work harder to ensure that women’s expertise and diversity are adequately represented. So what can we all do to be better at this? Many of the issues addressed above have to change fundamentally, but we can also start taking small steps to address these challenges.

Small steps to address these challenges to surfacing women speakers:

  1. Panel hosts: Look for speakers beyond the obvious. Invite women student speakers, invite voices from the ground, approach non-profits, and ask more questions about their expertise and staff.

  2. Civil society organization leaders: First; first and foremost — promote more women to leadership. Empower the women on your staff to publish more often, and change your internal policies so women in your establishments have more opportunities to speak publicly.

  3. Editors and publishers: Make sure your outreach includes more women writers.

  4. Journalists: Ask yourself if you have done absolutely everything to diversify your sources and add women’s voices.

Tamara Grigoryeva

Tamara Grigoryeva is a journalist and human rights defender based in Washington, DC. Originally from Azerbaijan, she focuses on youth engagement, LGBT rights and anti-corruption efforts. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.