When it comes to gender equality, there’s no one more experienced than Saniye Gülser Corat. Since 2004 she has been a leading force in making gender equality a global priority. We caught up with her during the recent Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal to discuss UNESCO and their global priority for gender equality.

Tell me about UNESCO and Priority Gender Equality

UNESCO is a specialized agency of the United Nations system and is the only agency that has more than one area of expertise. We have 5 areas of expertise including education, natural science, social sciences, communication and information, and culture across 193 member states. In 2007, gender equality was designated a global priority for UNESCO. That meant gender equality became a very important aspect in every initiative, program, advocacy and research we did from that time on. 

We do attempt to do all of this through a mainstream approach (integrating gender equality into everything we do) as well as through targeted programs in areas we’ve identified as having significant gender equality disparities. We have very specific programs for women’s literacy, education for young girls in areas like technology, engineering and mathematics, women in science, freedom of expression and women journalists (especially safety for women journalists), gender sensitive media reporting, and have begun to development programs for women in the cultural sector, masculinities to improve the contribution of men in gender equality, and more youth or age based programs. 

What is your role at UNESCO?

My role is to make sure that our colleagues have the capacity, the knowledge and accountability to implement Priority Gender Equality. I am in charge of the Division of Gender Equality, located in the Cabinet of the Director General at UNESCO. Because we are in the Cabinet of the Director General we advise the Director and senior management on UNESCO’s actions on gender equality. We oversee UNESCO’s work in all 5 areas of expertise in terms of how the contribute to the promotion of gender equality around the world. We also provide technical assistance to our colleagues, capacity development through trainings on gender equality, review and update all UNESCO documents from gender equality perspective, research on emerging gender equality issues, and represent UNESCO globally on any matter related to female empowerment and gender equality.

What are the biggest issues or inequalities when it comes to gender equality right now?

Some of the key issues UNESCO is paying more attention to include:

  • Digital skills because females of all ages are lagging behind. Yet at the same time in Europe, 90% of the jobs require digital skills. We know this percentage will only increase as technology and artificial intelligence are developed and applied to the labor market. Without digital skills it’s very difficult for anybody, including girls and women, to have a quality life because everything happens online. 
  • Illiteracy because there are currently 750 million adults who cannot read or write — imagine the gap and how this affects digital skills. Not to mention women make up ⅔ of the 750 million adults who are faced with illiteracy.
  • Science because females are lagging behind in representation and overall involvement not only in scientific research, but also as decision makers for the science agenda.
  • Communication and Information because with the continuous trend of new and emerging technologies there is an increased danger for women and girls online such as harassment, bullying, stalking and trolling.
  • Education because there’s been a dramatic increase of new HIV and AIDs infections in women ages 16-24 (especially sub-Saharan Africa).

However, in general when you look around the world in terms of what is happening, I think there is a very big risk of losing some of the gains we have made.

What do you think female founders, especially in the media, can do to help empower women and spread the message?

I think the media has a very important role in gender equality because when you do a gender analysis of the media it doesn’t look good. We have reports at UNESCO that show the frequency of reporting on womens’ issues, the number of women interviewed and the number of women asked for opinions — it’s very low. But talking about these issues, keeping them alive and keeping them on the agenda is very important.  The media is incredibly powerful in shaping public opinion, but if they don’t get on the bandwagon so to speak, it is going to be more difficult. So, I think the media has to take responsibility and hold itself accountable to ensure they are doing their part because at the moment it is very biased. 

UNESCO offers journalism support. What is that exactly? 

We offer journalism support by denouncing all the injustices done to them. We make a statement following an event where a journalist is hurt or killed. It’s important to put a spotlight on what is happening to these journalists who are just trying to do their job and risking their lives (and sometimes losing them) in the process. So almost every time a journalist is killed we have a statement on our website from the Director General of UNESCO. 

If gender equality wasn’t an issue. How would you see this world as perfect?

For me gender equality is about accepting and celebrating the similarities and differences of all genders. I don’t think gender equality will be achieved until we realize we have to value the role and contribution of each gender in it’s own right. So to me it’s a question of the value we give because that’s why we are falling short — we still value the traits of one gender over another. We can put in all the laws, policy and framework for equality, but until we really believe every human being has the same value no matter their gender, we won’t have a gender equality.

Why do you think women are so looked down on? Is it cultural?

It is a social and cultural thing. We decide what is valuable and what isn’t and assign those values to gender identities so we can say this gender is better than the other. Since we assume that men are stronger than women, the male identity is more valuable because we believe being strong is better than being weak. Additionally, when we say women are more sentimental, it means we don’t value sentimentality and don’t want men to be sentimental because it’s a sign of weakness. In reality sentimentality is a value human reaction. 

Saniye Gülser Corat is the Director of the Division for Gender Equality in the Office of the Director-General at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France. Learn more about UNESCO’s priority for gender equality here