Why women-only initiatives work counterproductive

You cannot open a newspaper or turn on the TV or it is about women empowerment. A record number of women captured a seat in the US midterm elections at the House of Representatives this year. Ursula von der Leyen is the first female president of the European Commission. Greta Thunberg tells world leaders how to solve the climate problem. The future is female.

Because there is so much focus on women in the media, it seems that we have come a long way and the risk arises that we start to lean backward. If we look at reality, we see that the situation has not improved, quite the contrary. Take one look at our current world leaders. A man who has publicly admitted to touching women unwantedly is the most powerful person in the world, post #metoo. That says enough about the current state of affairs. It was recently announced that economic and political opportunities for Dutch women have deteriorated. We have less and less of a managerial position or place in the Dutch government.


The motivational speeches about gender equality have become a permanent part of award ceremonies. Following the trending hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy promised to diversify, but during the last presentation reality became clearly visible.  Exactly zero women were nominated in the best director category, while the jury had nothing to complain about in terms of offerings with Greta Gerwig (Little Women) and Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers).

To create more space for women in a masculine society, it may seem obvious to develop special initiatives for women. Organisations know they can score with a popular theme, diversity is hot! But even worse,  these initiatives become an excuse for those in power within the current structures to not really change anything, after all there is already a women’s edition.

TedxWomen, Women in Business, Women Inc, the women’s initiatives are popping up everywhere. But everyone who ever attends a Women-Only event knows that the men there can be counted on one hand. We can continue to claim that feminism should be a man’s affair, but if we exclude men in advance it will never happen.

Best intentions

The need to create a separate world for women or other marginalized groups may come from the best intentions, it does not cause constructive change. Only the complete replacement of an edition by a Women-Only variant would shift attention. The moment a women’s edition is placed next to a regular edition, the internalized belief of male-as-norm becomes even stronger. 

More equality is required within existing structures, whether that means literally more women at the table or in the programming or a more feminine approach to an initiative. Women-Only initiatives may contribute to a specific goal individually, but you have to be aware of the collective influence of your work and that of others. It doesn’t mean the work should end, it means it needs to be redesigned. 

Safe spaces 

Another often heard argument for Women-Only initiatives is that these events are important as we need safe spaces for women. Where we don’t interrupt each other in panel discussions and are not bothered at the bar. But just like safe spaces in the metro in India or tips for women who cycle home alone in the evenings, this is the world upside down.

All events should be safe for everyone, and anyone guilty of mansplaining, constantly interrupting others or being caught for sexual harassment would deserve a separate initiative. Special Abusers-Only events for example.

And then there are the awards. Woman of the Year, Woman in the Media. Is it good for the visibility of women? Yes. Are role models important? Certainly. But as far as I’m concerned it’s time to join the Person of the Year. Earlier this year Tim Hofman showed in a Dutch talkshow how it can be done. He mentioned five people from whom we will hear a lot this year, they happen to be five women. He didn’t mention it, just like he wouldn’t have mentioned it if they would have been men. It is not that difficult to make women part of the norm in a natural way, but unfortunately it is still very unusual.

Words by Nadine Ridder / Photo by Giacomo Ferroni

This article was published in Dutch in NRC Handelsblad

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Nadine, las je meest recente artikel in Parool en kwam zo op je website. De naam ‘We are all activists’ raakte mij, dat voel ik ook en werd ik mij afgelopen Oktober dieper van bewust tijdens een ontmoeting en gesprek met Mac Macartney op AD Green. Mac is een Europese Elder en verspreid de calling of Mother Earth in lezingen en gesprekken met boards van internationale bedrijven. Mijn missie is al jarenlang bewustzijn verspreiden via fotografie en verhalen waarbij duurzaamheid en spiritualiteit voor mij heel belangrijk zijn. Ik ben een activist en sta op voor onrecht en werk al jaren voor goede doelen waarbij ik opkom voor gelijke rechten en inclusiviteit maar tot nu toe nooit echt aan ga op specifiek Vrouwen thema’s. En ik snapte nooit waarom. Na het lezen van dit artikel begrijp ik het, jij verwoord precies wat en waarom ik mij altijd inzet voor het grotere geheel en volledige equaliteit voor mens en dier. Vanuit Boeddhisme probeer ik niets te doen ten koste van welk levend wezen dan ook. De focus zo op vrouwen te richten heeft mij altijd een ongemakkelijk gevoel gegeven en precies daarom omdat het juist het tegenovergestelde bereikt en juist de ongelijke machtsstructuren benadrukt! Dank voor jouw wijze woorden. Ben momenteel bezig om samen met Marieke Slinkert, regisseur en documentaire maakster, House of Impact: creating Meaningfull Stories op te richten. Waarbij we graag samen werkingsverbanden aan gaan. Lijkt mij interessant om elkaar te ontmoeten en te kijken hoe wij elkaars missie kunnen versterken. Eind Mei komen wij met onze gezamenlijke website online.

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