Is Women-Only the Only Solution for Women’s Rights?

By Youfeng (Gloria) Pan, Staff Writer

In June 2017, Guangzhou China started the trail of women-only metro cars during rush hours on weekdays.

In September 2016, Guanghzou Baiyun Airport introduced women-only checkpoints for domestic and international female travelers.

A German parking lot designated just for women. Courtesy of Commons Wikimedia

In 2015, Frankfurt designated a parking area painted pink closer to the airport entrance for the use of women drivers.

In 2013, my undergraduate school Sias International University, converted men’s restrooms into women’s restroom on every other floor in the building of the Foreign Language School due to there being more female students than male students in that school.

Reports like these always spark heated debates. Some think women-only facilities is an act of discrimination and segregation against women, as bigger parking space indicated that women are not capable drivers; women-only metro cars are a sort of punishment for women being victim of sexual harassment. Some argue this is discrimination against men, as women get treated favorably. Some even complained a women-only facility is a waste of public resources that could have been fully utilized by both genders.

Some argue this is to protect and respect women as women are different. Sexual harassment is not unusual, but a common phenomena for centuries. In China, 31,833 rapes were reported in 2017. In India, 848 women are harassed, raped and killed every day.

Adding more ladies’ restrooms are out of necessity, especially in crowded office buildings, tourism attractions and heavy traffic times. I can’t help wondering what is the utilization rate for men’s restroom and if it is a waste of capacity.

I was exposed to women’s empowerment and became a mild feminist since I joined the World Academy for the Future of Women in 2011. I’ve talked to many women in China and the States; I went to women’s marches and activities; I have been mentored by fabulous women leaders and have mentored emerging women leaders. So based on my experience, I don’t think women-only is the solution to address gender inequality though I sincerely appreciate their sensitivity and intention.

So what are solutions? Before giving out my suggestions, let’s discuss the reasons.

Women are fighting against thousands of years of traditions in this male dominant world. In the west, women were traditionally homemakers of the wealthy. Their profession of medicine and healing were robbed. Though Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Thatcher, and Marie Curie left marks in the history, women were still more of a decorative supplement. Is that fair to say?

In the east, women were submissive to male dominance. Though women in China took leadership roles in families—kids’ education, family spendings, relationship management—women were limited by themselves and the social structures.

Since the economic advancement of modern society, women actually lost more ground, as men set up rules of the game. The economists that changed the world are mostly male. Their perspectives of looking at economic factors, their ways to evaluate and measure assumptions and their solutions to economic issues are from the male standpoint. When men are at top, they hire their buddies because they speak the same language and understand the same things. They have a chain of interests groups to maintain the same rules in playing the same game. Why bother to hire women if other choices are available, why bother to understand how women work to foster cooperation?

Sheryl Sandberg shared a story when she pitched an idea in a firm. The firm’s senior male executives didn’t know where the ladies’ restroom was. More disappointedly, it didn’t exist at all.  That was in 2011.

Courtesy of World Economic Forum

I didn’t believe this at first. After women have been fighting for so many decades, since the first documented women’s rights movement in 1848, until today… A recent report from Forbes shows there are 32 female CEOs in Fortune 500 companies, meaning that 6.4% of the U.S.’s biggest companies (by revenue) are run by women. Still 93.6% are male executives.

Sandberg focused on what women can do and gave three suggestions: sit at the table, make your partner a real partner, and don’t leave before you leave.

I appreciate her approach as I believe we can only create changes from within and then influence others and reshape social expectations.

But I think the first and foremost change would be to feel comfortable and confident as a woman. Be wonderful women leaders as we already are. We don’t have to listen to men telling us to be emotionless at workplace. On the contrary, emotions are powerful strengths:

  • Women are relation-based: The caring, patient and considerate characteristics empower women to be great business development professionals. A T-bird alum Michelle Toto cared enough to know about her client’s kidney transplant, which in return helped the project her company was working on.
  • Women are holistic, long-term thinkers: Women tend to take into consideration the influence on the community and the future when making decisions. This makes women more conservative and risk reverse—perfect leaders to carry out plans that take care of triple bottom line and sustain the company and community.
  • Women are less-ego driven: Women leaders are more willing to admit mistakes, change directions when it benefits the company, and are less likely to have ego get in the way.

Some leadership books suggest women to be strong and tough. In other words, be a difficult B-word. But I saw powerful and feminine women leaders in China and the States too. I was fortunate to interact with Zhang Huaying, the Coco Cola VP of Sustainability in Asia Pacific. Huaying obtained her doctor in the States and demonstrated a great combination of Chinese doctrine of the mean and American leadership concept of performing excellence. My mentor Cyd West is my leadership aspiration. Cyd exemplifies how to be a soft influencer while standing firmly on her own ground.

My second piece of advice is to take on more mentorship opportunities. This is nothing new, but it can be more emphasized. Having male or female mentors, as well as mentoring male or female mentees, will help foster understanding and cooperation. Like many other social issues, a calm and genuine conversation can reduce most of misunderstanding.

I think it’s wrong to turn women and men to compete against each other, instead of complementing each other. A Chinese saying goes: If a man and a woman work together, the work is less exhausting.

However, there is not such a mentorship culture in eastern countries. Seniors or bosses will take the young under their wing if they have the appropriate power distance. However, sometimes younger people don’t feel empowered to ask for guidance, and the seniors don’t always feel comfortable or have the time to mentor others regularly.

I believe there will be no need for a “women-only” space in the future because women and men will be functioning differently and equally. In that near future, a woman will feel comfortable being a different and capable leader, and a mutual understanding and respect will exist.

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