On speed-dating and sexism

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For those of you who missed it, last week the World Bank held its biennial Financial and Private Sector Development Forum. One of the sessions was structured around the format of speed-dating. Instead of meeting prospective partners, however, participants learned about innovative projects and products. One of the presented products was something called the Doing Business Gender Law Library. In the interests of full disclosure, let me tell you that the Gender Law Library is very near and dear to my heart. And by that I mean my job consists of developing, adding to, and generally maintaining it. You can call me the Gender Law Librarian if you like – trust me, you wouldn’t be the first.

The Gender Law Library is an online database of laws impacting women’s ability to engage in business activities. We’re a little like Westlaw for women, for lack of a better analogy. The Library covers laws that regulate the employment of women, as well as those that affect female entrepreneurship. You’d be surprised how many areas this encompasses, I know I was. Things like maternity and child-care are covered, but so are legal capacity and all manner of family and property law.

At speed-dating, I was the dateor presenting the Library. This involved making a short presentation to a small group of datees, and answering their questions about the project. After 20 minutes, the moderator would bang a gong and the whole process would repeat itself with a new group of datees. To be honest, this wasn’t my first experience speed-dating. But the only other time I tried it the goal of the exercise was slightly different. The World Bank’s version was more interesting, a little less fun perhaps, but definitely more interesting.

The main thing I learned was this: many men do not understand the point of having an entire library devoted to laws that affect women. Or, at least several of the men who visited my table that day did not understand. In three of the four sessions I was asked what about men? And let me tell you, it was never a woman asking the question. One gentleman even told me that the entire concept was sexist and discriminatory towards men.
As I explained to him, I don’t believe it is discriminatory – it’s simply realistic. There are many, many laws that differentiate between the sexes. Some are protective towards women and some, perhaps, not so much. But the reality is that they exist, and they have a very real impact on the ability of women to work and to create work. Failing to acknowledge this fact serves neither men nor women.


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