Earlier this week, the world marked International Women's Day, with the theme being #ChooseToChallenge, in the sense of choosing to challenge and to call out gender bias and inequality.
A few days ago, an article by a friend addressed some of the key issues. In it, he carried an extract from another article by an Egyptian-American female journalist. A searing piece, it was both general and personal and included examples of abuse that she and family members had personally experienced. Some reminded me of cases involving close friends of which I have heard over the years.
Her experiences were far from unique. They reflect, instead, an aspect of reality in the world around us, a regular part of everyday life, even if it is not the subject of frequent media attention.
It is often best not to look at the broader aspects of an issue but, instead, to focus initially on aspects a little closer to home. I have devoted some thought, therefore, to my own experiences here in the Emirates and, in particular, to trying to review my own behaviour with female colleagues. Since most of my working life has been within the media sector, how, I wonder, would my friend assess my performance?
I am sure that, in many ways, I have been far from perfect. I have not consciously implemented a gender bias, except perhaps when I have needed to call out a colleague for an unsatisfactory performance. In such cases, my choice of language towards a male colleague has tended to be markedly stronger than towards a female colleague. When I have selected younger colleagues as people to mentor, I have tended to find that the experience of mentoring female colleagues has been more satisfying. Is that indicative of an implicit gender bias? I don’t know.
I have drawn great pleasure from seeing many of those I have mentored, particularly women, move onwards and upwards in their media careers. I am proud of them all, as a teacher may derive pride from the achievements of his or her outstanding students. And, as I have grown older (and wiser?), perhaps the prospect of me possibly venturing to make any unwanted comments to female colleagues young enough to be my children, or even my grandchildren, has simply faded away.
I still call much younger and more junior female colleagues “dear”. I reassure myself that it is said, meant, and – I trust, understood – in the manner of a fatherly or grandfatherly adviser. I hope that they will call me out if I am wrong. Times have changed over the decades of my working life, and try as I may, I may not always have succeeded in keeping up. I think I can justifiably say, however, that, whereas my father, over half a century ago, would have found it strange and perhaps difficult to have a female boss, for me, it is the individual that matters, not whether they are male or female.
As I look back over the decades, however, I can recall many men in positions of authority within our media industry whose behaviour on occasion has verged upon the predatory. I have listened to complaints from the victims and have tried to help, even if that has only been listening and offering a few words of advice. I can understand why some women may decide that these unwanted intrusions into their professional working lives are simply too much to bear.
Here in the UAE, great strides have been made in opening up the workplace to women, implementing the vision devised so many years ago by the late Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, with the wholehearted support of the Mother of the Nation, Sheikha Fatima. The fact that we have women as Cabinet members, as senior civil servants and police officers, as pilots, as oilfield engineers and more, is evidence of how much things have changed.
However much we men try, though, are we really able to comprehend the challenges that such women have faced during the course of their careers? They have not just overcome the organisational and structural difficulties that have impeded their progress – and that is hard enough – but in many cases they have also had to face down implicit or explicit expressions of unwanted attention.
Within our media industry, a decision by men, of whatever age or nationality, to "choose to challenge" should involve first an assessment of their own behaviour and then active steps to encourage others to do likewise. The same is applicable across the length and breadth of public engagement and private life.
There are no easy answers, no rapid solutions. It would be delusional to pretend otherwise. Through such measures, though, perhaps impetus can be gradually built up that, in the long run, will bring about the necessary change.
Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National