Latest WERKIN with podcast episode: Elizabeth Nyamayaro on leading as an impatient optimist

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Thanks to years of tireless activism, advocacy, and modern data collection and analytics, never before have we been able to get a clearer picture of the degree to which gender inequality permeates every part of society. Each day, new reports emerge of how far we are from gender parity across industries, education, and access to healthcare. Given its reach, Elizabeth Nyamayaro, founder of the UN’s HeForShe movement wondered why, for so long, it had been labelled as a “women’s issue,” an inequality left primarily to women to discuss and solve. Having worked at the World Bank before becoming Merck’s head of policy and affairs for the African region, Nyamayaro accepted a position with the UN to consider a new approach.

“Naturally the question was if we are going to do this, what is the best way that we could reapproach this issue of gender equality which has often been seen as a woman's issue? And so we created the HeForShe movement, recognizing that men are part of society. In fact they are one half of society. And yet, at the same time, they also hold the majority of the world's power.”

For Nyamayaro, her career has been defined by asking the questions others were unwilling or unable to ask. Asking how men, who hold most of the world’s power, can become more involved led to the global HeForShe movement. Since 2014, the movement has grown, counting heads of state, the world’s most powerful CEOs, and of course, Emma Watson among its leaders and advocates. So what is HeForShe?

“It was really a call to action for men to say gender equality is your issue too. Please come to the table. Let's work on this in the true sense of solidarity.”

Beyond a call to action, the movement is defined by Nyamayaro’s personal brand of leadership, “my grandmother always used to say that being a leader doesn't mean being in the front, it means removing obstacles so others can lead.”

As governments and global companies commit to achieving gender parity and equal rights, Nyamayaro emphasizes HeForShe’s role as a facilitator, connecting decision-makers with proven policy solutions.

“We are looking at the emerging proven practices and documenting what's working and what isn't working. The ultimate goal for us as a movement is to be a solutions driven movement. There's a huge appetite. People want to change the world. People are looking for solutions on how to change the world and how to end gender inequality.”

Four years in, what proven practices have emerged? In South Africa, a commitment to HeForShe translates into HeForShe Taverns. Local taverns demonstrate their commitment to gender equality by hosting anti-gender violence dialogues, providing regular public health screenings, and prohibiting any form of gender-based harassment in their space. So far, nearly 144 taverns have signed up, engaging more than 4,000 men in anti-gender violence training. In Iceland, all companies with more than 25 employees must receive an annual equal pay certification to operate in the country.

According to Nyamayaro, the key to sustainable change is supporting communities to formulate their own solutions,

“We recognize that cultural transformation happens when the top and the bottom half move at the same time. So it isn't just good enough to say that we have the head of state engaged or the president engaged. We also have to engage the communities. It's empowering the community, letting them create the movement and solve the things in the way that they see fit.”

A commitment to gender equality also means transparency for gender parity data, encouraging accountability and competition among those who participate in HeForShe, “We have a non-negotiable commitment [for organisations] to release their gender parity data. When the data is all out there, they look at each other's data and they say, ‘well I can do better that.’”

Nyamayaro also emphasizes the need for diverse role models and mentors for young people,

“We obviously need to have more female role models for young girls to look up to because you can't be it if you can't see it, but at the same time if you are hoping to create bigger change in the world, if you're hoping to fully realize the leader you want to be, then you are going to need a lot of different skill sets. I've learned different things from different genders.”

For Nyamayaro, she counts empathy as the most important tool for tackling inequality,

“It's having empathy for humanity and recognising how intertwined we are and in trying to approach relationships in a less simplistic way. It isn't a women versus men issue. It's very complex and we have to have compassion and humanity to understand that. It's not them versus us, we're in this together.”

For more from Hayley’s discussion with Elizabeth Nyamayaro, including her first experiences with inequality while returning to her home village in Zimbabwe, listen to the full interview here.