Josie Christodoulou: Gender equality is not about competition between women and men

Josie Christodoulou, Commissioner for Gender Equality, discusses the state of gender equality in Cyprus, the various actions her office is taking to accelerate the process toward a gender-equal environment, and why the concept of equality needs to be introduced in schools.

What is your mandate as Commissioner for gender equality in Cyprus?

Gender equality is one of the Government’s horizontal priorities. It aims to accelerate the process towards a more gender-equal environment and, to succeed in this, the Office of the Commissioner for Gender Equality is, among others, responsible for the promotion of gender equality and the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Within this framework, the Council of Ministers mandated the Office of the Commissioner to draft, coordinate and monitor the implementation of the New Strategy on Gender Equality 2024-2026 in collaboration with all ministries and deputy ministries. It also mandated all ministries to appoint a gender focal point with whom the Office of the Commissioner is working closely. Our joint task is to take into account the different needs of men and women and to design policies that have a positive and equal impact on all citizens.

Cyprus was among the worst performers on the EU 2022 Gender Equality Index. How would you assess the state of gender equality in Cyprus in 2023? Are there notable achievements or persistent challenges that you would highlight?

Cyprus is, indeed, among the worst performers. The low score is mainly due to the absence of women in power, including in parliament, on the boards of directors of semi-government organisations, media institutions, etc. Concerning women in the Government, President Christodoulides’ appointments are more balanced with women reaching 46.1% while, for the first time, women occupy 41.17% of the positions of Ministers and Deputy Ministers). According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), another area where we lag concerns women’s personal time. Women do not enjoy sufficient personal time and this is due to persistent stereotypes and prejudices that impose multiple roles on women who “must” be active in the labour market and care for children, the elderly and people with disabilities. In other words, our society demands that women act as the gatekeepers of the care economy and do the unpaid work. This also results in a lack of personal time, which EIGE identifies as one of the many barriers to women’s participation in decision-making processes. We must continue working towards removing stereotypes and exploring ways of distributing responsibilities equally in the unpaid care economy. At the same time, we need to promote the equal participation of women and men in employment.

Gender-specific challenges in the workplace can affect both men and women. Could you elaborate on some of these challenges and share examples of how your Office is addressing them effectively?

What we need to ask ourselves is whether the challenges faced by men are gender-related or due to personal behavioural differences. Women are affected largely by gender-based inequality. In the workplace, it can take different forms such as unequal pay (currently 9.9% less than their male counterparts), disparity in promotions, and sexual harassment, usually by someone in a position of power. The Ministry of Labour, in its effort to create a more human-centred business model, is currently conducting an in-depth analysis of salaries, including gender-based pay discrepancies. At the same time, we are launching a strategic collaboration with the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce & Industry (CCCI) on three specific actions: first, the creation of a Working Group on Gender Equality comprising representatives of the Office of the Commissioner and CCCI’s business members to promote gender equality in the workplace; second, the codification of the challenges and obstacles faced by women regarding their participation on the boards of organisations and their access to leadership positions. Based on the findings, we will proceed to design specific actions to remove those obstacles; and third, the strengthening of cooperation with companies towards eliminating the gender-based pay gap. To this end, we will cooperate with 10 CCCI member companies with 50-150 employees. The aim is to assist them in the creation of annual gender equality working plans. We should also bear in mind that Cyprus must soon transpose the pay transparency directive, a tool that will further assist in securing equal pay.

Discrimination and behavioural differences can sometimes be difficult to distinguish in workplace dynamics. How does your Office navigate this complexity to ensure that genuine cases of discrimination are addressed while respecting individual differences?

What needs to be made clear is that our Office is not acting as an interlocutor, nor is it responsible for the handling of complaints of any kind. The competent mechanisms for this are the Ombudsman’s Office and the Gender Equality in the Workplace and Vocational Training Committee. Our Office’s role is to advise ministries and deputy ministries on how to prevent discriminatory actions through their policies. Sometimes it may, indeed, be difficult to distinguish discrimination from behavioural differences. At the same time, the two are often interlinked, in that individual differences are approached based on gender-based stereotypes. If there are behavioural or other differences, unconscious biases intervene and gender stereotypes and prejudices surface. Individual differences that are not gender-based must be dealt with outside the context of gender-based discriminatory language and behaviour. Our Office will keep raising awareness, generally and within companies, of the role that stereotypes, prejudices and unconscious biases play in the work environment.

Could you shed light on which sectors in Cyprus face the greatest gender imbalance, and what measures are being taken to rectify this situation?

It is important to underline that gender equality is not about competition between women and men. The different perspectives and experiences that both men and women bring to the table are useful and necessary in any field. Women and men can bring to the table different perspectives and experiences that we must consider, whether we are selling a product or implementing business or public policies. Numbers and images are important and have a role to play; however, this is not a numbers game either. Indeed, we cannot be what we cannot see. Therefore, the need to promote women role models in business is urgent. Unfortunately, there is no sector with gender balance. In education, for example, the majority of teachers and cleaners are women, whereas we see more men in high-ranking positions. In blue-collar and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) professions, we see mostly men. The same is true in diplomacy. In business, men dominate boards of directors, and, yes, some businesses are still considered “boys’ clubs”. This is the result of gender stereotypes and prejudices rather than a lack of skills. Women and men are equally competent and skilled. Research shows that far more women than men complete tertiary education but then they somehow ‘magically’ disappear!

As you say, in the STEAM field, despite the concentrated efforts of the Youth Board of Cyprus to attract more women, the talent pool is still dominated by men and this applies to other fields, like shipping. At the same time, these industries are suffering from a scarcity of talent. With that in mind, how should companies orient themselves, especially when considering their responsibilities to their shareholders?

It is true that, we need to attract more women and men to the STEAM field and blue-collar professions, as we rank lowest among the EU countries. We must start with the educational system by breaking stereotypes and guiding girls and boys alike to choose professions based on their skills rather than on stereotypes. We must therefore connect our educational system with the economy but we must do so in a way that removes stereotypes. To this end, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sport and the Deputy Ministry of Digital Policy, Research & Innovation, our Office is launching a campaign entitled “Herstory: The STEAM Edition”, which aims to promote women as role models in the field. Furthermore, in collaboration with the Deputy Ministry of Shipping, we will soon launch a mapping survey to gain a better understanding of the lack of women in shipping and other blue-collar professions. Once we identify the obstacles, we will proceed to design specific measures to promote such professions to both women and men. At the same time, we must create a friendly environment for both women and men and promote role models in the field. It is time for the public and private sectors to work not in parallel but together. For their part, companies must start reporting on their environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. Gender equality is one of the main indicators that they need to report on. I’m positive that most companies have such policies in place and that they are in line with the law. At the same time, our Office is ready to assist companies in implementing specific gendered practices that will accelerate the process of gender equality.

Looking ahead, what are your long-term goals and aspirations as the Commissioner for Gender Equality in Cyprus, and what would you consider a significant milestone in achieving gender equality within the Cypriot workforce?

To succeed, collective work is needed. The biggest challenge is to make a continuous joint effort until a culture of equality between women and men is finally embedded at all levels of society, including the workplace. To achieve this, our guide will be the new strategy to which I referred earlier. We will be monitoring its implementation systematically until gender equality becomes the rule and not the exception. I am fully aware that this is not an easy task. Keeping the issue at the forefront of public dialogue is crucial but equally important is to strengthen existing collaborations and create new ones. At the same time, our current effort to institutionalise the Office of the Gender Equality Commissioner by law reflects the importance of achieving gender equality. It is 2023 and we are already late.

(PHOTO by TASPHO)

This interview first appeared in the November issue of GOLD magazine. Click here to view it.

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