“We don’t have equality!”, she said, turning to her friend and laughing. “You cannot be taken seriously if you are not a man”, was the qualifier, shared by one of the mentees, almost doubled up with laughter, as we stood in the thirty fifth floor office, looking out over the Manhattan skyline. “We have gangs, and corruption”. When i said that this world was so beyond my own experience, she laughed again, and said, “well you have a lot of rain in England, and we don’t have that”, as if, with the very British conversation about the weather, all ills were cured.
I’ve been a proud mentor with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women from it’s inception: the foundation is set up to support women in emerging economies achieve financial independence and, hence, political power and change. But that route to change faces challenges that i do not face in my own day to day.
My rather naive question had been about the challenges of starting a web marketing business in South America. I had asked about access to funding and ability to network. That’s what had triggered the laughter.
I asked, “are the gangs part of your everyday life”, and she replied with a story from last year, of having a gun held to her head to take her mobile phone, action triggered less from intrinsic evil than simple extreme poverty in a South American country where, for some, especially young men, gangs provide the only sense of pride and structure that they will ever encounter.
We do not have full equality in the UK, with unequal access to abortion, and a shameful gender pay gap, but we do, at least on the surface, subscribe to notions of equality. Imperfect as it may be, we have strong legal frameworks and a stable government and economy to operate within. The things we take for granted, we can only take for granted because we exist within them: they are normalised within our conscience. To me, ‘equality’ is a conversation that takes place within a frame: for her, there was no frame. Culture dictated that the frame did not exist.
In my world, inequality is more buried, covered by at least a veneer of respectable ‘sameness’, but that is not the case everywhere. I know this, intellectually, but there was a certain power in the laughter of the two women who faced me: one from El Salvador, one from Uganda, two women whose cultures and circumstance differ so greatly from my own.
One lesson i have learnt from being a mentor with CBFW is that both my experience, and ability to help, are desperately limited. But that’s almost the point. If one person could address global questions of inequality, we could all relax, and wait for that person to step up. We could all be ready to follow.
But unfortunately, there are no surface solutions to intractable, systemic, embedded inequality. It turns out that we need not one leader, but rather, we all need to lead. With small steps, but with unified intent. We will always exist within a globally differentiated culture, and that’s a great thing. Different ways of being, different ways of seeing. But we can still strive for equality: to empower women to have those rights that i can simply take for granted, not through any innate skill, but simply through gender.
The normality of inequality is no reason not to address it, in a million conversations, and a million tiny footsteps, sometimes accompanied by laughter as we share stories of the absurdities of our everyday world.
The Foundation brings on more than a thousand new mentors every year: if you’d like to take one of those small steps, you can commit your time and energy here.