What do Emma Watson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and President Obama have in common?
Well, apart from being household names around the world, they are also three of many celebrities in support for the HeforShe campaign, which is a UN initiative dedicated to involving men and women in the quest for gender equality.
Last Friday, HeforShe brought the fight to Hong Kong, and HeForShe head Elizabeth Nyamayaro presented the city’s first ever gender equality ‘Ideathon’ at HKU.
There were over 100 attendees at the Ideathon, according to one HKU spokesperson. They were mostly HKU students, but some of the attendees were students from other universities, or were working at NGOs or corporations.
Over the past year, Nyamayaro and HeForShe have been working with universities around the world to break gender stereotypes and help find solutions for gender equality on college campuses through collective brainstorming sessions called Ideathons.
Nyamayaro was a victim of gender inequality when she was growing up in a small Zimbabwe village – where only boys were allowed to go to school. “HeForShe is a story about my own life. In my community, I saw gender dynamics play out in a very interesting way,” she said. “In African culture, women do most of the work, yet the important decisions are made by men. That made me realise that there were more things that needed to be done.”
Nyamayaro recognised that in order to achieve gender equality, men would also need to be engaged in the issue. “Men make up half of society. Like with any big social movement – whether it be civil rights movement in US, or apartheid in South Africa – you have to get everybody to actually work together.”
Nyamayaro’s desire for men to be actively involved is realised through the large male representation at the Ideathon, including HKU President and Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson. He is also a HeForShe Impact Champion and is committed to be a true champion of gender equality in the region.
“HKU is proud to take a leading role on issues of gender equity,” he said. “We are introducing reforms to policies and practices affecting staff and students which we believe will improve the statistics on gender balance and also the quality of life of all of our members, irrespective of gender.”
The attendees of the Ideathon were split into eight discussion groups. Each group were asked to formulate and propose a solution for breaking gender stereotypes and addressing gender inequality within the HKU community. The participants shared their own experiences with gender inequality and stereotypes – one group debated over installing gender-neutral toilets and another suggested that homosexual married couples at HKU ought to receive the same housing benefits as heterosexual couples. In every group it was clear to see that they were not there to only discuss gender equality, they were actively seeking to implement solutions for positive change.
The enthusiasm of the participants was exactly what Nyamayaro had hoped to achieve. “What I’m hoping this Ideathon can help with is to identify solutions. It’s important to realise that you have so much power to change things.”
Each group presented a two-minute pitch of their solution on how people can treat each other better to the other groups, Nyamayaro and Mathieson. The three best solutions were voted on by the attendees, and then put on the HeForShe Twitter page to be further voted on by a worldwide audience. The solution with the most Twitter “likes” will be implemented “to inspire actions to help create a better and more just environment for all” at HKU.
The three ideas that received the most votes each presented different ideas on how to attain gender equality. Team “HeForShe Dating” suggested, in by far what was the most spirited presentation, an idea for a dating app for people of all gender identities. Team HeForShe From Your Day One recommended having gender-neutral residential halls to create a closer and more open relationship between the two genders. Meanwhile, Team WeSport’s solution was engaging all children in typically gender-specific sports such as ballet in the hope of ending the idea that these activities are specifically targeted at one sex.
Sharon Yuen, 18, an Ideathon participant and current HKU freshmen, said she felt “very well-informed” after the Ideathon because the other participants were “educated on gender equality.” Yuen believes it is extremely important for young people to have an awareness of gender inequality. “If you’re not aware, you’ll never truly understand. Paying attention to these issues is important because they’re so relevant.”
Nyamayaro echoes Yuen’s belief in the importance of student involvement and awareness. She says the future of gender equality lies in young people. “The UN doesn’t have all the solutions, I don’t have all the solutions, but you have all the solutions. You are young, you are passionate, and you are innovative.”