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Spotlight: Claire Barnett, Executive Director at United Nations Women!!

Updated: Jun 7, 2020

We had the pleasure of speaking to Claire Barnett, Executive Director at United Nations Women. Below, she speaks to reporter Lea Jakobiak about the many different UN initiatives and projects working to support women in all levels of our society!

You can keep up with UN Women Projects on social media: @UNWomenUK & find out more information about how you can get involved here!

Lea Jakobiak: You are the Executive Director of UN Women UK, tell us about what your role entails?

C: I lead the UK office, voice and champion for UN Women, but we are part of a global family led out of UN headquarters in New York, and represented all over the world by regional and national offices.

Our mission is for every woman and girl to have equal right to, but also the opportunities and the access to safety, choice and a voice. So, this includes freedom from violence and harassment of all kinds, an opportunity to represent herself across leadership and politics, and equal representation across life. Finally, a choice over her career, body, and lifestyle choices.

We are the only global organisation truly working for gender equality across every level - from grassroots to government. We are running programmes on the ground, challenging behaviours across societies and taking our learnings and asking governments to design policy that benefits women equally.

My job is to take our vision and mission, and build a strategy to implement that each day, with our Board, team and volunteers. I also represent us externally: panels, discussions, and fundraising. People aren’t always aware that we are a registered charity that runs on donations - so connecting people who want to support the achievement of gender equality with our programmes is important.

L: What does an average day look like for you (pre-lockdown & during lockdown)?

C: As with so many people, there is no average day. Usually, we are based in Farringdon, in a creative space alongside Grey London and WOW Festival. Most days, I try to set myself up with some kind of physical activity (at the moment those are live streamed classes at EVOKE, my studio), and a morning coffee from our local shop (I’m missing those!)

When our team needs to, we travel, although we try to avoid this as an organisation, as one of our key values is focused on sustainability so we are digital-first. This means we are lucky that not so much has changed in terms of how we work during lockdown.

Other than this, my day is usually focused on meetings with external partners and working with my different teams. From time to time I’ll check in with the amazing agencies, university champions and celebrity Changemakers who support us.

I also try to put aside time for creative thought, which has been much easier in lockdown. When you’re running an organisation, being able to take the time away and have the space to be creative has been very powerful. I’ll definitely keep this in my routine.

I think in this social media world, there’s this tendency to think about what you do with your lockdown time through the lens of how you’re going to present it to other people, and I really think that needs to stop. We’ve got to be doing things with our time that make us feel content and fulfilled, while acknowledging that this is a really tough emotional time for a lot of people so we just don’t need to be super productive. Lots of people have caring responsibilities that are really tough to balance right now. Ultimately, no one is going to go down in history for baking reams of sourdough during spring-summer 2020, so I think if people are feeling the pressure, it’s just about finding their own happy place.

L: Can you tell us about UN Women UK’s core mission and the key projects you’re working on right now?

C: Our mission is actually to make ourselves redundant – by achieving a world in which women and girls are truly equal throughout their lives. The three pillars of our mission are about expanding access for women and non-binary people to safety, voice, and choice. We focus a lot on the safety realm here in the UK - our campaign “#DrawALine to end violence against women and girls” which began in 2017, during the rise of the #MeToo movement, means we had a growing number of allies talking really openly for the first time about how to end gender based violence.

The biggest project within our safety work is called “Safe Spaces Now”, which is about collecting the data on women’s lived experiences, and together creating real solutions to end violence and harassment in public spaces. We have a global safety programme in this area that creates amazing results, but we can’t forget that in the UK still we still have work to do. This is an area that tends to be neglected because people see violence as a reality that can’t be change - but we know that change is possible.

This is very important as we all start to return to public spaces after Covid. Women have a right to be safe, included, and free in a public space. And to be able to move freely through it as people, regardless of their characteristics. We have a unique opportunity to redefine the way we use public space.

We can’t do this unless we know how women are being uniquely affected – so we’re gathering evidence on this through our survey, which you can take part in too. Sadly when Covid started to spread, we already knew from Ebola and Zika data that rising domestic abuse would be one of the key issues, and we need to now be better prepared for the next crisis. We can only do this is we can show how women are being affected.

L: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting women’s rights, and what is UN Women UK doing to protect equality and to keep girls and women safe during these challenging times?

C: At UN Women we’re working alongside the WHO globally to include women, hear their voices and address their needs. That looks like providing technical support to governments in their response design – the first thing is making sure women are actually being included in the process, from working out what the issues are, to creating solutions. And we don’t think they are.

As part of our work on safe spaces, we have been creating a platform called Everyday Allyship, which is about the small things people can do to help others at this time, including a directory that will direct people in need to the information that can help them – but it’s also about collecting women’s stories of how they’re being affected differently so that we know what they need. This might include struggling with childcare, feeling unsafe at home, financial pressures, or mental health challenges. People stepping up as allies is absolutely critical in ending violence against women.

L: Will there be a significant negative economic impact on many women because of the pandemic?

C: I think in terms of individual women’s finances, yes. In our surveys, we are seeing that about a 1/10 of women are extremely worried about their finances as a result of Covid. And, just under 40% are saying it has had a somewhat negative impact.

But one thing I would point out is that here in the UK, the Covid response must be about ensuring no one gets left behind, and that means not just solutions that make life marginally easier for the healthy majority, but also considering those whose lives and livelihoods are most under threat.

More than 60% of women around the world work in the informal economy, this is many more than men – earning less, saving less, and at greater risk of losing their jobs during the crisis and falling into poverty. This has a knock-on effect on rising rates of domestic abuse – these trends are intrinsically linked. And in terms of the wider economic impact and how it relates to women, also yes. As women reinvest the vast majority of their income into their families and communities, this will have a knock-on effect.

An interesting factor here is that countries tend to measure their economic success based on GDP - which doesn’t make the contribution of unpaid care work and domestic work visible. So we need to think about how we can recognise and redistribute this crucial work.

We can all play a role in sharing our voices and in supporting vulnerable people as allies.

L: With more men now working from home because of lockdown, do you think we’ll see a positive shift in gender norms once lockdown eases, i.e. men and women will share the household work and childcare more equally?

C: This is an interesting question - we are actually asking women about this as part of the Everyday Allyship survey, and we’d really love to hear from your network too.

The short answer is: there is a great possibility for gender norms to be impacted in a positive way, but it’s not happening enough at the moment. While a lot of people are sharing their housework with family, and housemates, ¼ of our respondents are doing all of their childcare and housework. And almost another ¼ say they cover most of it.

There is a great opportunity here, for the promotion of flexible work and more accessible opportunities in the workplace, for people who are differently abled, or experience social anxiety. But, this needs dedicated work. If we don’t deliberately meet the new normal head on, and all consciously say “how are we going to change this”, the existing inequalities will be magnified. I think there's a risk that we could take steps backwards unless we act now.

L: Do you think businesses in the UK are doing enough to promote equality at work?

We have come a long way, and that’s very important to recognise, because the people working to make their businesses better deserve recognition so they can inspire others. But, the answer is partly in the question - promoting gender equality in itself is not enough. In a previous role I was built Diversity and Inclusion roadmaps for organisations. At that time, there was a lot of discussion of proving the business case for gender equality, and now we often hear that the case for change is well understood. However, it still feels like equality is being treated an ethical imperative rather than a great opportunity.

If we look at digitisation as an example of another major social trend that is happening within organisations. We don’t see leaders framing this conversation as a chore, rather, they are using it as an opportunity that will benefit them. Which is how women’s equality at work should be seen. From the perspective of the talent gap, to serving clients better, there’s such an opportunity here.

There are lots of organisations doing some of these elements really well. Through our HeForShe campaign we engage male leaders who really commit to making major changes. So part of this is about convening organisations from different sectors, with different perspectives, and learning from each other so that we can share knowledge on what works and how to make it stick.

L: Do you feel the UK is getting better at not stereotyping girls and boys at a young age, i.e. are schools getting better at teaching & promoting equality?

C: I think we are seeing great progress. Now, fewer toy stores have “boys’” above the toys that encourage engineering, building and scientific skills, and “girls” above those that emulate domestic work. Given that most gendered characteristics are formed by the age of 3, I think we need to be very aware of those effects. These changes are a really positive thing.

At UN Women we have created something called the #Unstereotype Alliance, which is a group of organisations coming together to end gendered stereotypes in advertising, by challenging uninclusive thinking and design processes. We are seeing members of the group speak up and say “we have an issue here, and this is what we’re going to do about it together”.

With the growth of new trends in industry, cracks in existing processes will be exposed that could actually amplify inequalities and create new issues, if we don’t work on inclusive design. For example, with the growth of accessible social media and camera phones, the phenomenon of “revenge porn” has emerged. There is a really clear opportunity for us to make sure that innovation is equal.

L: Since you started working in this field (equality/ women’s rights), do you feel encouraged and hopeful about the initiatives you’re seeing, or do you feel there’s still a really long way to go?

C: I have to say, that I think it’s a bit of both.

The amazing thing that’s happening recently is that activism feels like it’s becoming increasingly mainstream. Public conversations about how to change the world in our own small way are happening everywhere; books about how to be an activist are flying off the shelves. That’s inspiring.

However we still have limiting structures and beliefs that mean no country in the world has achieved gender equality. We won’t achieve equality across any metric for many years, so there’s a really strong case there for people to get actively involved. Working on human rights is a compelling place to be, but we do need to hold ourselves to the highest standards within the charity sector too, to make sure we are role modelling ethical behaviour internally.

If we can get the gender equality mission right, and design not only a Covid response but also ongoing national systems that include the most vulnerable, we will have a really powerful blueprint to achieve equality across the board. It’s a brilliant time for people to get involved in the mission.

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