In 2024 I expect more women to hold positions in the IT sector, women to be at the helm of the ministries of foreign affairs and defence, more female surgeons in operating rooms, many more female coaches in all sports, a women’s football match broadcast on RTS at 8pm and laurel branches on the shoulders of female military uniforms
How far did we advance over the past year when it comes to promoting gender equality in Serbia? “Two steps forward and one step back,” says Brankica Janković, Commissioner for the Protection of Equality. “Establishing gender equality is like constantly walking a tightrope,” she adds.
The patriarchal system of “values” is quite formidable and finds various ways to defy all the changes that are aligned with the times in which we live and which disturb the normal life balance of men and women, preserving what remain deep-rooted stereotypes and prejudices regarding gender roles and the place of women in society as indisputable truths, explains our interlocutor.
“Self-proclaimed authorities, in fear of the time of the full equality of women that is certainly coming, give themselves the right to determine the limits of women’s freedom and to regulate their rights. Some of them have even raised the issue of our bodily autonomy and abortion rights,” says Janković. “In recent times, all the power of that patriarchy has become particularly visible in the digital sphere, where women are often exposed to the harsh, sexist judgement of the public, which has a tendency to marginalise their importance, reducing them to their appearance, looking at/under their skirts, legs, ages, cleavage, wrinkles or grey hair.”
In this very real virtual world, women are insulted, undermined, blackmailed, threatened, i.e., they face all the forms of violence that are also present in the analogue world. Despite the more complex conditions for this struggle, which really do have their advantages, because you can’t silence women in the digital sphere just like that, a lot of progress is being achieved. Women scientists, artists, journalists, entrepreneurs, workers, housewives, doctors, farmers and politicians work with dedication and break down all those barriers and stereotypes, creating better living conditions for all human beings.
How do we rank when it comes to global and European standards of equality?
— I don’t like comparisons, because they are generally incomplete and often lack historical and sociological context, and numbers can show all sorts of things, but can also hide them. And that’s without even mentioning the lack of gender-differentiated data and the fact that the entire world is mostly tailored to suit men. Here are some stats: according to the 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, Serbia last year fell four places on the World Economic Forum’s Index, i.e., it fell from 19th place on the Global Gender Gap Index in 2021 to 23rd place. When it comes to the participation of women in political life, we maintained the same ranking as the previous year at 21st.
In recent times, the power of the patriarchy has become particularly visible in the digital sphere, where women are often exposed to the harsh, sexist judgement of the public
However, in terms of the criterion of women’s involvement in economic life and their economic opportunities, we fell from 54th to 77th place globally. Progress was noted when it comes to the access of women to education, with our country advancing 15 places according to this criterion to achieve a rank of 37th. This fact brings me a particularly sense of joy, and I’m hopeful that we will do everything to continue progressing in terms of education and that we will be even better in all these other parameters, because we have done a lot thanks to our political will and preparedness in previous years. It is nonetheless obligatory for me to mention a number that causes my throat to tighten, and all the names should also be mentioned – at the end of 2023, we have 28 murdered women. That is something that’s devastating for all of us.
It seems to me that, during the current election campaign, we’ve heard much less about the desired percentage of female participation in parliaments or the government. Is this a sign that we are well-positioned on that front or that this topic still doesn’t mean much to voters?
— Significant progress was achieved during the previous election cycle when it comes to quotas on the representation of women on election lists and I understand why this isn’t an important issue in this election cycle. However, many political players don’t show sufficient interest and understanding for the importance and essence of equality, and for the fact that a standard must not be taken for granted once it has been achieved, but rather that we must fight constantly to maintain the level of respect for human rights that has been achieved. Quotas have been respected in this election cycle, but the campaigns are almost devoid of women. But percentages are the only thing that’s important, as the essence lies in management positions that these women (don’t) occupy and the extent to which they have the required conditions and support to make a change, together with men, to introduce our much-needed female perspective into all pores of society. An interesting fact published by UNDP is that 49% of people worldwide consider men as being better political leaders than women, while in Serbia 50% of men and almost 41% of women have prejudices regarding the participation of women in politics. In this context, we often hear public expressions of stereotypical views, from “politics isn’t for women”, “women are too emotional to engage in politics” and “women lack the energy required for politics” to “a politician can’t also be a good mother”.
In politics, women come under much closer scrutiny than men. Their decisions, moves and achievements are always questioned; there are always high expectations and we always hear the question “what has she achieved?”. And I always wonder what some male politicians have done specifically, some of whom have been present on the scene for decades, and why their results are never evaluated in that way. The responsibility for providing a better life for all citizens isn’t the exclusive responsibility of the women who are in government and hold other positions, but rather is a shared responsibility. As for emotions, it’s tough for us if some people think that we mustn’t have emotions when dealing with politics – how else could we understand people and their real needs and problems? Not having emotions is a state that requires professional help, and not the avoidance of dealing with politics. Politics (including externally) is really a “woman’s thing” and I hope that we’ll soon deal much more with some other issues that are more important to the lives of citizens (education, health, culture, sport, social support) than those issues that have been the main topics of our political and security paradigms over previous decades.
You consider schools as having great potential to change outdated gender models. However, we still haven’t seen significant changes to textbooks when it comes to the depicting of women.
— Education and personal development – above all! It is vital for our society to change the harmful practices of social tolerance of every kind of discrimination against women, and that requires – much more than textbooks – teachers who are aware of the situation and the need for changes in society. It’s useless to have a thousand pages of the perfect textbook if those pages are being interpreted by a teacher who says that a woman’s place is in the kitchen where she welcomes her husband, because that is what is “dictated by our Serbian tradition”, of course with a capital S and a capital T.
We have 28 murdered women by year’s end 2023. That is something that’s devastating for all of us
To a great extent, the power structure relies on silence, or on the silence of women regarding topics that are simmering beneath the surface of a male paradise, and those include various forms of sexual and other harassment and the exploitation of the female body. We have to foster a culture of dialogue in schools, and the launching of thematic meetings and informing everyone about important social issues, in order for us to work together to change the cultural norms that shape society. We must confront patterns that foster misogyny and sexism in the school system, as well as any other form of discrimination against different members of our society. It is essential for school curricula to integrate content on gender equality, and to do so through textbooks and other teaching materials, lectures, workshops that will promote, in addition to gender-sensitive language, equal opportunities for women and men, the contribution of women to science, culture and art, as well as encouraging girls to further their education in the socalled STEM subjects.
We are today increasingly seeing women in atypically female occupations that are in short supply, such as forklift drivers or crane operators, and well-paid ICT occupations. Is this an indicator of equality or have women only become desirable due to their male counterparts being in short supply?
— There is a saying in the Serbian language that “necessity changes the law”, and so it is that, in this case, workforce requirements are increasingly reducing the division between men’s and women’s jobs. I would like to be able to say that the level of gender equality achieved in this and similar cases had a greater influence than the rules of the market, but I will say that it is nonetheless a sign that business opportunities and chances appear unexpectedly, especially in the current economic and political juncture. Numerous changes have occurred on the labour market that have had an impact on women increasingly appearing in occupations that are typically male. Education has also had an impact, particularly in fields like IT, where a significantly larger number of educated women have appeared and received training to handle jobs that were reserved mainly for men until recently, despite the fact that there are still gender stereotypes among students when it comes to choosing a profession.
Those stereotypes are also nurtured through the image portrayed in the media, in which women are usually depicted as having to be crazy, or crazily courageous, to choose a “male” profession. But even that’s still good and I’m grateful that it is thanks to them that we found out about many examples of women who quite ordinarily do jobs that were once the exclusive work of men. Many positive media articles encourage girls during tipping points in life. We also shouldn’t overlook data on gender equality from various research works in which two-thirds of our citizens state that women almost always, or mostly, do the housework in their households; almost 80% of them believe that a woman cannot be fulfilled in life if she hasn’t become a mother, while every second citizen is of the opinion that a preschool- age child is likely to suffer if the mother is employed.
What do you wish to happen in 2024 as a symbolic sign of our continued progression on the gender equality path?
— I wish for, or actually expect to see, conferences covering the topics of digital technologies, the internet, artificial intelligence, ICT, conditions for doing business and geopolitics to have four women on their panels, or at least two if they can’t yet represent the majority. Furthermore, I expect women to head the ministries of foreign affairs and defence, female surgeons in operating rooms, many more female coaches in all sports, a women’s football match broadcast on RTS at 8pm… And finally, as a big fan of symbolism, laurel branches on the shoulders of women’s military uniforms. As a very pragmatic woman who isn’t prone to daydreaming often, I have the right to New Year’s wishes. If this doesn’t all happen next year, it will happen in the years to come, because the future isn’t coming, but rather has already arrived.
Deeply patriarchal societies perfect the methods of marginalising and even humiliating women – sometimes with subtle methods and sometimes with brutal ones
Female leaders are all around us – although not enough of them are seen yet, as there isn’t sufficient readiness to recognise female leaders
Gender equality is promoted in Serbia and I am particularly committed to that work, both personally and institutionally, and I have many allies. Nobody has succeeded in halting that progress