Reconciling Diverse Cultures: The Gender Factor

This topic includes three concepts which are wide open to interpretation, value judgements, stereotypes and hopes—reconciliation, diverse cultures and the gender factor. I could address it from many different perspectives. We could talk about cultural diversity in attitudes and practices in relation to girls' and women's education and training, rights and health, to women's economic empowerment rights and participation as citizens, to tolerance and affliction of violence against girls and women, and about the role of women in working across cultural divides.

As a German born woman whose professional career was spent in Australia and who has worked across cultures, I could spontaneously say that I am reconciling cultural diversity in myself, and my professional life has been enriched by being not only bi-cultural but having worked across cultures. As a woman, the other cultural dimension has been more difficult, and it has opened opportunities for reconciliation. However, it is not about instinctive or intuitive action that I want to write about, but on purposive action by women to reconcile diverse cultures.

Non-native English speakers in Australia, such as immigrants and indigenous people, still face barriers in their civic and professional lives. They might finish school in larger proportions and even have an undergraduate education, but when it comes to leadership roles in the professions or membership on boards, committees or in parliament, they are under-represented. As a non-native English speaking woman in an English speaking country, I am aware of the potential marginalization.

Political and church leadership is still largely male, even though in Australia we have a female Prime Minister and a female Governor General, and there are women priests and ministers and a few women bishops. The dominant male gendered perspective is challenged by the women clergy, but less so by women politicians, for although reconciling country-internal cultural diversity may be on their agenda, cross cultural diversity rarely is.

There are regional, national and international women's organizations which focus on shared values, shared circumstances, shared issues, and shared hopes1, such as the fate of children in conflicts; peace and disarmament; implementation of UN resolutions; education for girls; neighbourly respect and understanding across national borders.

One of the oldest organizations, of which I am a member, the Women's International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF) was established in 1915 "by some 1300 women from Europe and North America, from countries at war against each other and neutral ones, who came together in a Congress of Women to protest the killing and destruction of the war then raging in Europe". WILPF's aims and principles are: "To bring together women of different political beliefs and philosophies who are united in their determination to study, make known and help abolish the causes and legitimizations of war; to work towards world peace; total and universal disarmament; the abolition of violence and coercion in the settlement of conflicts and their transformation by negotiation and reconciliation processes; the strengthening of the United Nations system; the continuous development and implementation of international law; political, social, and economic equality; cooperation among all people; and environmentally sustainable development."2

Most important for my purposive action towards reconciling diverse cultures has been my role in the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP), which has non-governmental organization status with the United Nations. As the first woman President of IAUP, I transformed the virtually all-male Executive Board by including women as Treasurer, Vice-President, Regional Chairs, and Committee members—the women in these roles are from Australia, Botswana, Japan, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

As President, my 10 point programme under the general theme "Access for all, Quality in all" included the promotion of equity in education. We focused on women's participation in higher education as students and on women's career opportunities in higher education. In 2003, in Monterrey, Mexico, we organized a conference together with the International Association of Universities' female secretary-general on Women and Leadership in Higher Education: How Thick is the Glass Ceiling? The objectives of the conference included, among others:

• "the acknowledgement and recognition of the important role of women in the world of higher education in various positions of leadership in academic administration;

• the examination of the extent to which full and equitable participation of women in higher education is a reality today in various regions of the world;

• the facilitation of an open dialogue and the exchange of ideas between and among leaders in higher education in order to promote and make possible greater participation of women in this field;

• calling upon governments to support legislation in every nation in order to facilitate equality on gender with regards to access to positions of leadership in higher education around the world."3

We did all this and more with a very diverse group of participants including a representative from the Russian Ministry of Education, official representatives from Mexico and Africa, and many women presidents from around the world. We established networks among the participants and strove to increase women presidents' participation and visibility in the organization.

In 2001, Professor Liu Jinan, the then President of Beijing Broadcasting University, which is now known as Communication University of China (CUC), organized the first World Women University Presidents Forum in Beijing. The first four forums attracted over 500 university presidents from 52 countries and regions. They came together for intensive discussions, collaborations and friendship across cultures and borders. Liu Jinan is now Honorary President of CUC and Chairwoman of the Forum. She invited us to the fifth Forum in November 2011 at Xiamen City in China. The Forum was co-hosted by Xiamen University, Shih Hsih University in Taiwan and the Communications University of China. Issues discussed were those affecting higher education students, staff and systems, teaching, learning, research, leadership and management. All of these issues occur in particular cultural settings. No dialogue is possible without understanding their differences and reconciling them, so the conferences were infused with creating understanding of different cultures and systems.

In order to promote understanding of different cultures and women's roles in higher education systems, President Liu Jinan also commissioned some faculty and students from her university to produce a dozen documentary videos of outstanding female university presidents from around the world. One such team came to my university, the University of New England, shadowed and interviewed me, my husband and some of my staff, and filmed and photographed us and the university. The videos were broadcast on China Central Television. This was followed a few years later with another team of faculty tasked with writing biographies of the same women, visiting and interviewing each of us, our writings, our reminiscences and analyses of past, present and future higher education scenarios. One of my own pivotal experiences was my participation in a United States programme called Youth for Understanding—I spent one year in the United States in grade 12 as an exchange student, and this opened my heart and mind to other cultures and also made me realize the depth of understanding and misunderstanding.

In 2002, at the closing address of the Triennial Conference in Sydney, Australia, that we organized for IAUP and where I assumed the presidency, I reflected on the theme of the conference—Academic Values, National Dreams, Global Realities—by stating: "First of all, I believe we need to respect national dreams and acknowledge the power they may hold over a population, including university faculty, students and presidents. Speaking from an IAUP perspective, we need to affirm that we do hold certain values true, and they are reflected in our charter. As an organization and as individuals within this association, we need to dialogue with governments and government agencies as well as with the media and we can strengthen those who work for peace and social justice. IAUP's very small but consistent effort through the IAUP/UN Commission on Disarmament Education, Conflict Resolution and Peace, which has been chaired until now by Eudora Pettigrew, will continue. At present, countries where academic freedom is endangered or nonexistent are nevertheless open to alliances and partnerships with universities around the world. We can be part of this, not from a position of cynicism or opportunism, but because we believe that cooperation and mutual understanding will lead to greater openness in the university system and in society, and eventually to more civil rights."

Earlier that year, I had received a book from the United Nations entitled Crossing the Divide: Dialogue among Civilizations, which reproduced the report of a panel of eminent persons appointed by the then Secretary-General Kofi Annan to focus and lead on dialogue among civilizations. I quoted from it: "We believe that positive forces in globalization and authentic quests for identity can create a virtuous circle uplifting the human spirit in the coming decades. Wholesome globalization, which celebrates diversity and enhances community, is a matter of confluence, of mutual learning and recognition of the rich and varied human heritage. This allows for lateral and reciprocal relationships among civilizations and makes genuine dialogue possible."4

IAUP was part of this dialogue. As individual presidents of our universities, we promoted staff and student exchanges. These can only work if faculty and students acquire cultural competencies which, in turn, can allow them to live in other cultures respectfully and authentically, and many universities provided this. Girls and women face particular challenges. A recent study on how United States students reconcile cross-cultural differences related to gender noted that female students who study abroad may have difficulties where different gender roles and expectations permeate the culture and thus they need to make sense of it.5 Women presidents, in contrast, as mature and experienced women will not have such difficulties and can be, and are, active in cross cultural dialogue.

Another initiative to bring women presidents together has been spearheaded by IAUP and by European University Association Executive Member Professor Gulsun Saglamer, former President of Istanbul Technical University, Turkey. She has twice organized conferences for predominantly European women university rectors on the theme "Beyond the Glass Ceiling" (2010 and 2012). Included as speakers and participants were also a few women from outside of Europe, such as myself and Professor Liu Jinan. Research projects, shared strategies, and networks were the outcomes of these conferences. Looking back, I wonder whether it was our gender that helped to shape an agenda of cross cultural dialogue and of reconciling diverse cultures.

We do need an organization such as WILPF, whose women work on peace and disarmament issues. How much impact have they/we had? Little, but all those involved know that across the world there are other women sharing in the same values, lobbying for the same agenda. We do need UN Women for its work in girls' education and health, for its work against violence and for the civic and economic empowerment of girls and women. Is there progress? Yes, though the task seems never ending. Women in higher education who believe in cultural dialogue and cross-cultural respect, understanding and collaboration are contributing as authentic persons and as women of authority and influence to slowly change perception, practices and policies by valuing people.


1 For an excellent article see Shelley Anderson's "Women's Many Roles in Reconciliation"., accessed 31/05/2012.

2 accessed 2/06/2012.

3 Alvaro Romo, "Conference report". IAUP newsletter Lux Mundi, August 2003, p. 5.

4 Giandomenico Picco et al, Crossing the Divide: Dialogue Among Civilizations, (School of Diplomacy & International Relations, Seton Hall University, 2001, p.73).

5 Judy Jessup-Anger, 'Gender Observations and Study Abroad: How Students Reconcile Cross-Cultural Differences Related to Gender', Journal of College Student Development, Vol 49, no 4, 2008, p.362.