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UNRISD - United Nations Research Institute for Social Development

12/16/2020 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 12/17/2020 14:01

“Feminism Frees Women But Also Frees Men”. Interview with Francisco Cos-Montiel, New Lead of UNRISD’s Gender Programme

Francisco Cos-Montiel joined UNRISD at the beginning of November 2020 as research coordinator for our reconceptualized and renamed Gender Justice and Development Programme (more details on that coming up in 2021). Francisco brings with him a wealth of experience, having worked at the National Institute for Women and the Ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs in Mexico, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada, and two UN agencies: UN Women in Bangkok and United Nations University in Barcelona. In this interview we wanted to learn a little more about him and what his plans are for the programme.

You can also view the video interview with Francisco below and take a look at his blog that outlines more about what's new in our relaunched Gender Justice and Development Programme. Further exciting launch activities for the programme will be coming up in 2021 along with the UNRISD Institutional Strategy 2021-2025.

UNRISD: Can we start with a little personal background: where are you from, and what got you interested in gender studies?

I was born in Mexico in 1971, a few years after the student movements that began in 1968. I grew up in a family that strongly believed in the ideals of equality and justice. It was also a family where women had very strong personalities and enjoyed an unusual degree of autonomy for the time.

I was always struck by the prevalence of inequality in Mexico where racism and classism are rampant. For me it was evident that one inequality that crosscut the others was gender inequality. I came to learn that it is an incredibly rich discipline as you can engage with it from different disciplines. In my case, I have engaged with gender studies through the lenses of economics, sociology and psychoanalysis.

UNRISD: Ironically perhaps, gender studies is one of the most unequal fields, being largely occupied by women. How do you experience working in this field as a man? And how can men be part of the feminist movement?

That is true. While women have made huge inroads in the public sphere and disciplines considered masculine, the opposite is not true. Let's take domestic work as an example. We think that men should move into the private sphere, looking after children and doing household chores for example, but we haven't talked much about that in policy circles. We have to think how to change the codes of masculinity that make men think that they need to be heroes or leaders in the workplace and that being at home and cooking is only for the weak or the unemployed. Probably one of the major reasons why men do not engage in gender studies is because they have not experienced first-hand the seminal question of feminism: the transformation of the sexual division of labour. We need women to participate more in the public sphere and men in the private sphere. Parity should be the bottom line. If the human condition is mixed, why are decision-making spaces not mixed? Why are private spaces not mixed? This change will take time but it needs to start now.

As one of the first men devoting his career to the gender equality struggle, I have often had the same sensation that a female nuclear engineer at NASA might have: having to prove that you are 'fit' to perform certain work that is not seen as pertaining to your sex. A woman's body does not guarantee feminist thinking. We need both men and women to understand that gender justice is central to shaping what the new human condition of the future might be. Feminism frees women but also frees men.

UNRISD: What do you see as the most pressing issues in gender studies and policy making at the moment ?

When the world held, and celebrated, the Fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 we were full of optimism. Somehow we saw it as a linear process and could hardly foresee any setbacks. But unfortunately, things have turned out differently. Not only do we face the huge challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, there are also more subtle ones such as our growing interdependency and interconnectedness where powerful leaders feel entitled to denigrate women in ways we can hardly believe. There are also the tensions between different strands within the feminist movement, some of which are very conservative or essentialist.

But we also have challenges like climate change where women do not have a voice that expresses their concerns in the same way as in other sectors, such as health, education or even economics. Another critical issue is the way that technology and automation are destroying the livelihoods of millions of women in the global south, such as in the garment industry.

But perhaps the main challenge is to make sure that the global project of gender equality leaves no one behind. While there are women closing gaps as world leaders, CEOs, and so on, this is far from reality for the majority of women in the world. It is wonderful to see women in those positions, but we cannot measure the success of gender equality by those standards. We want equality for all.

UNRISD: How do you see the priority issues in the UNRISD Gender Justice and Development Programme playing out in a post-pandemic recovery?

Probably the most important thing is to do what no other UN agency is doing. Most of them are concentrating on the crucial recovery efforts but we should be focusing on the challenges that will remain once the Covid-19 pandemic has been curbed.

For example, work will be transformed enormously and many positions will be redundant: we want women to move to safe positions. Climate change will continue to be a challenge that will need more articulated knowledge and a more coordinated political response from women's movements, and I think UNRISD can provide critical support to those efforts. And finally, the complexity of gender justice as a field has created many tensions where UNRISD can help build a constructive dialogue in line with the goal of leaving no one behind.

UNRISD: What are the most exciting things you are looking forward to during the next five years as the lead of the programme?

I am looking forward to reconnecting with colleagues around the world. My work over the years has given me the opportunity to meet incredible thinkers and activists and I would like to use this opportunity to reconvene them and think collectively about these difficult times. Also, I am privileged to belong to UNRISD where I am surrounded by colleagues who are smart and creative.

In a way, 2020 has clarified the times we live in and the challenges we face: it has shown us where problems are more interconnected than we thought and demand a coordinated response.

UNRISD: And what are some of the challenges you anticipate?

This is a critical moment and the financing for research on gender equality is not increasing. We need to ensure that gender justice is not underfunded. The positive thing is that the pandemic has made clear that research is indispensable for development. Research saves lives.

Finally, the gender programme at UNRISD has had fantastic leaders, most notably Shahra Razavi who is an authority in the field. Obviously, maintaining the high standards she left in place is a personal challenge for me.

UNRISD: Thank you Francisco, for the fascinating interview, it has been a pleasure talking to you. We look forward to seeing how the Programme develops as you take it forward.