On Tuesday 29 September, I arrived outside the University of Leicester and was met by a London bus decorated in the HeForShe logo. The place was buzzing with energy and curiosity; the crowd were keen to find out more about the HeForShe campaign that was being launched.

The HeForShe campaign is a solidarity movement developed by UN Women aimed at tackling gender inequality and discrimination. Emma Watson, an ambassador for HeForShe, welcomed boys and men to join in the conversation and fight on gender equality in a powerful speech in November 2014. Indeed the campaign is aimed at encouraging more boys and men to stand up for women’s rights and discrimination experienced by girls and women. The key messages of the campaign are outlined in their Action kits and are as follows:

· Gender inequality is one of the most persistent human rights violations of our time. Despite many years of promoting gender equality, inequalities among women/girls and men/boys continue to manifest in egregious ways around the world.

· HeForShe is a solidarity movement for gender equality that engages men and boys as advocates and stakeholders, to break the silence, raise their voices and take action for the achievement of gender equality

· Gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it is a human rights issue that affects all of us – women and girls, men and boys. We all benefit socially, politically and economically from gender equality in our everyday lives. When women are empowered, the whole of humanity benefits. Gender equality liberates not only women but also men, from prescribed social roles and gender stereotypes.

The main goal of the campaign and those championing HeForShe is to raise awareness of the potential boys and men have in taking action against discrimination against women and violence against women and girls.

In January 2015, the 10x10x10 initiative was launched by United Nations Women (UN Women) to engage with 10 world leaders, 10 corporations and 10 universities to address gender inequality. The University of Leicester was just one of ten universities selected to act as a HeForShe Champion and a catalyst for change with just one other being located in the UK - Oxford University. On Tuesday 29 October 2015, the University of Leicester was the first university to stage the HeForShe University Tour.

The launch event started with the audience settling down to tune into the Opening Video (UN) that you can view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH6xqxmw3O8

The University of Leicester Vice Chancellor, Prof Paul Boyle, spoke about taking a lead to ensure gender equality and a culture that respects and celebrates difference which will unlock talent; we cannot continue to waste talent by excluding women from leadership positions. Their aims include closing the gap of male and female student distribution in particular subjects (e.g. 19% psychology students are male; 27% of physics students are female and just 11% of engineering students are female). Additionally, Prof Boyle noted the significant lack of professors that exist in universities and will address this by accelerating the number of women into professors. ‘Lad culture’ will also be tackled by providing training and consent workshops. To show how much progress is being made, progress will be monitored, data will be publically available and as an incentive, there will be an annual prize for exceptional work done.

Two further commitments of the University of Leicester were announced during Prof Boyle’s speech which included:

·         Creating a new role for a university wide Ambassador

·         Dedicating a building to Olive Banks, the University of Leicester's first female professor

The President of UN Women, Elizabeth Nayamayaro, spoke eloquently and humbly about the way the campaign has been so positively received. For example, at least one man in every country in the world has signed up. UN Women created a movement and it has become one of the largest movements in the world. She spoke evocatively about the way we are all individuals with power to make a difference as a collective force; we can be strong, ambitious and vulnerable at the same time. She highlighted the way that we are all victims of gender stereotypes that are harmful; where “real men don’t cry” and “don’t throw like a girl”. Her dream is to create a world where we are not defined by our gender and none is equal until we are all equal. In essence, gender discrimination and inequality is a human rights issue.

Rt Hon Nicky Morgan, the MP for Loughborough, Education Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities spoke about her strong agenda for gender equality which was her main motivation for being involved in politics. She raised the concerns that many of the audience were probably thinking about whether this campaign will bring about actual change by quoting Emma Watson who said, “We want to see meaningful change”. She highlighted a new space where we can call out sexist behaviour – online.

Whilst there is a strong movement towards encouraging more women into leadership positions perhaps there needs to be a renewed value placed on domestic work; all work in all forms should be valued as well. Remember that feminism is also about choice; not all women will want to be leaders and perhaps we need to reconsider how we value different leadership styles.

These talks were followed by research from Dr Kaitlynn Mendes on Feminism and the media: Why it matters, and Dr Lisa Smith on Sexual Violence in Conflict: Empowering Victims and Supporting Prosecutions. Dr Mendes’ talk focused on the negative portrayal of feminists by the media; feminists as deviants who are either dismissed or turn people against it. She asked “what is so threatening about the bra burner?” which she argued appeared to be a direct threat to patriarchal power. Dr Smith’s talk focused on the horrendous sexual violence experienced by women in conflict where it is extremely difficult to intervene and protect rights, particularly where the evidence is not sufficient which is often the case. She identified the barriers where it is difficult to collect DNA which could be used to develop perpetrator profiles on a database. Then she suggested some ways of overcoming barriers by thinking differently about the way forensic science is collected and is working to develop new and innovative DNA recovery techniques to empower victims of sexual violence in conflict by achieving justice for the crime.

The event closed with a conversation from Prof Mark Peel and the Students’ Union President Rachel Holland to discuss ways the Students Union was going to tackle ‘lad culture’. Rachel made some suggestions that included students taking a 3rd year module that focused on equality and diversity that teach students that “it’s not OK to harass women” and consent workshops that aim to install positive values and appropriate behaviour. Perhaps all sports team Captains should have to undertake equality and diversity training in order to take on the responsibility of captaining a team as well as a greater value being placed on women’s sports more generally. Both women and men need to support each other in sport; not only do men not watch women’s sports, but too often I see women watching the men’s games but not the women’s. This needs to change as well.

In general, women are frequently subjected to harsher criticism particularly when working in male-dominated roles. This needs to stop. My call to action for others is to value and respect the work women are doing in sport, politics, and education.

The talks and the posters stimulated and energised everyone, but as Dr Stevie-Jade Hardy said, “Let’s hope the momentum continues”.


Article written by Helen Owton