Ambassadors without diplomatic passport
A conversation with Miriam Margala on various things: global and local; economy, society, feminism and writing
How do you perceive today’s Czech and Slovak Republics?
Well – the situation is quite fluid, of course, due to current political upheavals in both countries but especially, right now, in Slovakia. Both markets are quite sophisticated – even if not big – the workforce is highly educated and skilled. Both markets are very nimble and agile, especially in terms of entrepreneurship, innovation and start up environment – as quite a long list of international companies setting up their operations in the Czech Republic or Slovakia proves.
I must be honest and say that the rise of intolerance and various extreme views in the two countries I see as very troublesome. Policies based on these views impede entrepreneurship tremendously, which stunts economy, growth and innovation. The region does not need more conflict – it should continue to grow its prosperity. The recent civic involvement and movements in both countries – but specifically in Slovakia – give me a reason to be optimistic. Of course, it is up to the citizens of each country to make sure that their prosperity continues. From my personal experience, which I can offer as an academic, I can say that it’s been great to establish, coordinate and collaborate on various international projects. Of course, the structure needed for a very efficient, smooth process is not always there – it can be at times a wild ride, but people we work with in both countries are very much interested in collaborating and try to do their best to make the process smooth. I would still claim that most people, both in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, are very much outward looking and progressive in their thinking. Of course, it remains to be seen where the current situation leads.
We both share passion in interviews and you also have become a contributor to the Czech and Slovak Leaders Magazine. How has the genre evolved and do you think that people still have time for meaningful conversations?
Goodness – to be meeting great, interesting people; to be able to talk to them, to discover what they believe, think, what makes them tick – is there anything more engaging? I am not sure whether the genre as such has changed. It allows you to be quite free. For example, I am not interested in dry, boring “question-answer” interviews. I enjoy a conversation – in fact, I am a contributor to different European journals/periodicals where my main contributions are interviews – but I prefer to call them conversations. I believe that to put together a good interview, it needs to show there’s a connection between the author/interviewer and the interviewee. It needs to draw in the reader – I want my readers to expect from the interview that they will really learn something new about the person being interviewed. Something should stay with them for a little while – to make them think, ponder, or maybe they discover something new, something that makes them question their own views, perhaps even helps them discover something new. My prep for every interview is detailed; I put many hours into research and then into questions. Then I put many more hours into editing – it’s not only the topics I want to cover; it’s also (as I have mentioned) very important that there’s a clear connection, a certain fluidity to the interview that makes the reader want to continue reading. If I can bring that to my readers, then I am satisfied.
You are publishing a book and preparing a book tour. Tell us more about it…
Yes – I am so happy about that. Actually, I have two books out now – one is part of a very popular and critically acclaimed series published by a US publisher. The book is a collection of noir stories from Prague that I translated into English. The entire series consists of noir stories from capital and large cities from all over the world. I believe the series has 40 or more books already. In Prague Noir, each story is from a different period and place in Prague. When, not that long ago, my family lived for a time both in Prague and Massachusetts, I actually translated some stories while staying in Prague, working in various beautiful Prague coffee shops – it was quite wonderful. The other book is on art and communication and I authored a chapter on art and entrepreneurship. It is a gorgeous book graphically – and I hope interesting topically! Thanks to the other co-authors (Drs. Jitka Cerna, Jana Bouckova, Olga Trckova) who became my good friends. The book is beautiful aesthetically thanks to Olga, a very well known gallerist in Prague, who chose all the art represented in the book. It was a whole lot of work, but it was great to work on both books. There will be a reading of Prague Noir in New York in May. The book on art, The Power of Communication and the Gallery, came out in the Czech Republic (in English).
What went wrong with feminism and diversity? According to the World Economic Forum statistics, it would take until 2186 to reach full equality. Moreover, the statistics in 2016 show a year to year decline. What can we do to make gender equality a relevant issue for the whole society again?
I would go further – relevant is not enough. It is urgent! This is such a dificult question – the complexity and detail it requires to answer it comprehensively and fully are impossible to fit into our interview. So I will give you thoughts as they roam through my mind.
Let me start with a few questions: who invented a mechanical dishwasher; an anti-derailment device for trains; windshield wipers; the first 100% solar-powered house, Kevlar; who discovered DNA double helix, developed stem cell isolation; or spread-spectrum technology that’s at the basis of all the portable devices we use today? All women – and this is a tiny portion of a very long list. Very few – if anybody – would be able to put names to these inventions!
This year at Davos, they put on a panel on equality and there was so much brouhaha about that. It’s a great idea, do not take me wrong – but do you know what the percentage of women taking part at the conference in Davos was? 21%. I’d say it’s shockingly low.
Do you know which country has the most women in parliament? Rwanda. Not that long ago, I asked a few of my good friends – senior men who either are, or recently have been in a position to affect somewhat public policy. They did NOT know – and were surprised. They, pondering the question, went through the “typical” examples – all the northern European countries. Then I asked a follow up question – do you know in which countries various policies aimed toward equality have not been as successful as expected? The northern European countries. And the situation there is, of course, much much better than in other developed countries. Our global awareness is not all that great and that is detrimental to any progress.
I wonder how many people know that February 11th is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science – has anybody noticed anything going on on that day this year? Maybe a token posting here and there, a token article on a not-so-busy website. But – everybody was bombarded with ads to celebrate and spend money on the de rigueur day of love (Valentine’s) – the cheesiest of them all. Instead of a whole lot of noise to support young girls and women in science – so very much needed because the stats are dismal – only the numbing and dumbing blanket Valentine’s ads. What we should do is to show a whole lot more love for and support to girls and women in STEM – and of course, generally and unceasingly but especially on a designated day.
Let me use more shocking stats – or, let me be more specific – shocking for women who live or were brought up in Europe. The percentage of women working in the US is 47%. Less than half! Compare that with the EU – almost 70% and my other home country, Canada, where it stands at 80%! I will admit that my shock was partly caused by the fact that we tend to enclose ourselves in our own silos – in my case, that’s academia which is not your usual working environment. It is a very international place and (mostly – although not exclusively) – open minded, where curiosity (again, mostly) is tantamount to breathing; oxygen needed to live. A few years ago, I became involved with a non-profit organization based in Cambridge, Women Accelerators, where we promote advancement of women and address inequalities such as the gender gap, underrepresentation of women in various fields and leading positions, etc. I put together a panel of young women – all engineering undergrads. I asked them about their background and family support – not ONE of them said their mother was their example! I diplomatically furthered this conversation to figure this out – and discovered that all of their mothers were housewives. The moment they married their fathers, they became homemakers. Some of their mothers were college educated – one had a PhD degree. I asked why their mothers decided to become stay-at-home moms/wives. These young women answered in unison something along the lines of “it was, I guess, easier – they took care of us and Dad was the one making money”. I was stunned – but I also realized how isolated I was in my silo with other highly educated women; working while having children. These young women have as their examples their father and other women, not their mothers. I prefer to be the example to my son and daughter, along with their father. We talked about this, Linda – the two of us are women who support their husbands and are supported by their husbands (as is the case in other marriages, of course). We work every single day – while making sure our families are taken care of, both of us make sure of it – us and our husbands, fathers of our children. I want my children to see this respect, mutuality, both their parents working – realizing their potential, having satisfying jobs, careers through which they can affect change.
But because this is the United States, it gets more complicated. There are women who choose to stay home because they can afford it – and then those who have no other choice especially when they have children. Child care is prohibitively expensive in the US – and many women simply don’t have the choice to work and develop their careers. There are also those whose child(ren) may have a condition or illness and in order to take care of the child, the mother has to stay home (again, health care is extremely expensive). This is very complex and complicated – do note how it is almost always the wife/mother who stays home because they’re the ones making less money. It all comes back to the issue of equality. We must be honest and make sure that we talk about women who stay home because they have NO OTHER choice, not because they can afford to stay home because their husbands make a lot of money. Of course, I am sure there is a percentage of women who decide to stay home because they find it fulfilling – some of them volunteer in their communities so much that it pretty much becomes their full time job. I do not believe that this discussion is as honest as it could be. The stats would be more helpful if we had separate numbers for these different groups of women so that we can better understand what possible cultural, traditional or societal reasons there are for such a low employment of women in the US. I also believe that there’s far too much complacency. I’ve termed it “institutionalized complacency”. It can be pretty bad – an institution comes up with a policy, looking great on paper, making waves – becoming mesmerized by watching these waves…but eventually, they spread further and further, disappear completely and all we have left is an unchanging surface. We cannot see any change – but there’s always talk about all the implemented policies. Oftentimes, it takes on the form of self-congratulations – I dislike that extremely. The work we do for women through Women Accelerators does not allow us to become complacent or to self-congratulate ourselves because we pretty much walk in the trenches (all the self-congratulating policy makers should try that!) all the time, interacting with women who face hard challenges every day. We cannot afford complacency. On the contrary, only sincere concern can lead to meaningful and lasting changes. The cost of complacency and passivity is enormous – as the current dismal stats show.
I strongly believe that unless all of us change our attitudes, unless we all realize the urgency of this systemic and systematic injustice, we cannot expect much change. I believe we need men on our side – I am so lucky to have a husband and a son who are the best examples of feminists (equality and justice have become my son’s main concerns in his choice of education and future global work/career, I am proud to say). It is fundamental that we teach our children, sons and daughters, that we are all equal. That is a complex issue in itself – research shows that the support in elementary and middle schools for girls in terms of STEM education is essential and critical – this is where we are losing most girls. Those who persevere do not find the educational or working environment always supportive at other different levels, which leads to more losses. There has been some research conducted – but unfortunately, we have not seen any earth shattering results yet. In fact, as you Linda mention in your question, the numbers have gone down.
Another problem is that many become cynical upon hearing the word feminism. Its definition is so very simple: the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities. Women constitute, roughly speaking, half of the global population. Let’s ignore the most blatant fact – that it is a human right for every woman to be equal legally, socially and in every other way to men. But – since economy moves this world – it is a fantastic resource of great economic power, all of us, women! How ignorant and unintelligent are those who have not realized this simple fact. But that’s because – let’s be honest – even the most developed countries do not pay much attention to educating their young people about all that women have achieved throughout history, despite their terribly difficult position. If anybody knows anything about perseverance and incredibly hard work, it is us, women.
Last, but not least, we must be honest and realize that internally, we can become rather disjointed. I fully realize that because of innumerable issues – in every aspect of life – in terms of progress for women an addressing the gender gap – it is not easy to have one streamlined, tidy movement. There are different movements, different organizations based on different matters, professions, interests, health issues etc. But we must make sure we are inclusive – and while we all can choose what specific issues we want to be engaged with, we should always be ready to support each other. And we need to make sure we get all the men who are on our side to work with us!
I absolutely believe that without all of us realizing the urgency of the situation, without understanding the history – at least some understanding of social and political causes of our terrible current status quo – and without being globally aware of women’s issues we cannot expect much change. It takes plain doggedness, resilience, hard work. I also believe that there cannot be effective, lasting and meaningful change if it comes only from institutional and /or governmental policies and regulations. We must change attitudes. Fairness, justice, inclusiveness and respect should be invited and supported by ALL members of our society.
So – how to get back on track, to see progress in terms of women being equal and having equal access to opportunities? I think it’s naïve to hope for a sustained, smooth progress. We have our differences – cultural, social, political and individual. We can institute policies – and we should, of course. But if that becomes just an exercise in checking o boxes on forms and reports – that is not enough. Our attitudes must change. And our expectations – we must expect all to respect women and treat them equally to men. That takes a lot of work, education and staying power. And you, Linda, and I both know that women are exceptional at demonstrating staying power. And unceasing will to go on, to communicate, to network, to listen, to state our goals clearly, to explain, to fight, to argue, to ask questions, to educate, to learn, to admit mistakes, to identify injustices, to look for the most effective ways to affect change, to be aware of global issues, to connect with others, to look out for each other. Let us never become complacent or too satisfied with our own work.
As one of my favorite writers, Zadie Smith, says: “Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”
By Linda Štucbartová