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The importance of forming and joining women communities: Sofiia Shevchuk, Researcher, Analyst

Sofiia Shevchuk is a Ukrainian researcher in Brussels with a particular focus on gender, climate and security. She is working for various organizations, the European Parliament, think tanks and NGOs. She is the lead author of a report on Women’s voices in Central and Eastern European media. She talked to Moonshot.News about women and the war in Ukraine, discrimination against women journalists and a teacher who thought mathematics is too hard for women. 

Sofiia is confident that in the “prosperous, democratic, independent and free Ukraine” which will be rebuilt after the war, the contribution of women superheroes she admires, will be acknowledged.

Thank you for your time, Sofiia. Let’s start with a short introduction. Where do you come from and what do you do? 

My name is Sofiia and I’m Ukrainian. I left Ukraine when I was 17, after the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014. I went to study International Relations and European Studies in Poland, the UK and Belgium. And that’s the field I currently work in, too. It is a very broad one, so now I try to focus on the issues of climate, gender, security, and intersection between them.

I work as an independent consultant for different organizations, mostly the ones based in Brussels, for the European Parliament, different think tanks and NGOs. I have also worked with a think tank in Slovakia – Globsec, which released our report on women’s voices in Central and Eastern European media.

How did you decide to start researching and analyzing gender equality, diversity and inclusion issues? 

I think it started still in childhood, as I believe with most of us. In my case, the story I remember from my childhood was at school. I very much liked mathematics, and my mathematics teacher was constantly telling me that this is a hard subject for women and women are usually not good at it. And this despite the fact that she was a woman herself. 

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Back then, I didn’t really know about gender equality and the fact that women are discriminated against, but I felt that something is not okay and it’s not how it’s supposed to be. 

Then, my personal family story. I have a very powerful mother who managed a lot in her life. From having nothing, she managed to become a very successful woman on her own, without a man, which is not a very common thing in Ukraine, I would say. So, my mom has been serving me as a role model throughout my whole life so far.

Have you ever felt discriminated against due to gender personally? 

I wouldn’t say it was a very open discrimination, no. But yet, for me it was also a learning curve to see when it’s an open discrimination or not. Because we as women are taught to close our eyes on a lot of things. So, I think a lot of times I didn’t really notice that I was discriminated.

And surprisingly, I was also sometimes discriminated by other women, because of my age, because of the expertise or because of competition. But I feel like we are overcoming that as women and we are trying to understand how it is important to form and join women communities, uplift each other and work together. It does make more sense and it brings many more results than competing.

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I also tried to educate myself on how to say no, how to set my boundaries. Especially when I arrived in Brussels. I had heard a lot of examples and I was lucky enough to be in the communities where women were speaking up about these things. I heard more senior women who shared their stories which were horrible. So, it’s not like discrimination is not happening. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones. And after that I understood that I want to educate myself and do something on that and potentially also help other women.

You are the lead author of a recent report on Women’s voices in the media in four countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Please share with us a few things about this and your main findings. Why to focus on media? 

The report started at the end of 2021. I was invited to join the research group. We mainly focused on the Visegrad countries, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. We had four main researchers from each country and I was the lead author who combined everything together in one report. So, for me it was a lot of learning as well, because it was interesting to see the regional perspectives. The media sector is not very much researched, especially in that region.

On women’s representation and overall women’s participation, we thought that the media sector has a chance to contribute in forming the opinion of citizens. So, it does really matter who writes, what stories do we talk about, is there an open or hidden discrimination, and who reads the stories.

We tried to focus on five main magazines from every country and then we did our own desk research going through articles and seeing how many women authors were there and on which topics did they write. 

What is the current representation of women as authors in the media and how are women portrayed? What kind of barriers did you register regarding women representation in media outlets in these countries? 

There are fewer women among the authors and they still write on sort of soft topics, such as culture, healthcare, travel. When it comes to men, they tend to write more on security, economics and politics. I think though that this is changing.

We also did some desk research with specific journalists who were open with us to share their observations. What are their struggles at the workplace? There is a lot of harassment and bullying especially online, there is also insufficient social security guarantee. A lot of women work as freelancers in the media sector which is unstable and working hours are overwhelming.

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And of course, there are a lot of cultural norms and expectations towards women on who they need to be, what they need to write and how they need to look. If you become a journalist there is a lot more discrimination you tend to face if you’re a woman.

Have you recorded any progress towards gender equality and their reflection in the media in the region?

We analyzed that this is changing with generations. That was a bit of a positive outcome. We also did research on the programs that are trying to contribute to somehow eliminate these problems. There are a lot of campaigns in those countries, mostly from civil society, against stereotypes, efforts to educate society and fight social norms.

Which are your recommendations to create a more inclusive media landscape? 

In terms of recommendations, I think we had quite a lot, recommendations that are addressed to the government, the media sector, and media entities as well. The first recommendation we had of course, was to have more women authors, journalists and experts in the media. There are databases that help to recruit more women journalists, authors and experts in particular areas of expertise. For example, the CEEHer Initiative by Globsec that covers all Central Eastern European Countries. 

Other recommendations are related to creating a welcoming working environment for women, ensure social security, flexible hours for women who want to have families. We also talk about the necessity of gender quotas as one of the solutions to increase women’s representation in the media sector. So far from all the research I have been doing, gender quotas proved to be a first crucial step towards gender parity. In the future it can be eliminated if you see that the situation improves.

The second recommendation was to diversify content and inclusive language for a more diverse audience, writing in a way that it’s not only for men to read and for men’s clubs, but make it more inclusive, not only for women, but also LGBTIQ+ and marginalized groups.

What is more, we talk about legal protection against harassment, gender-based violence and bullying. Companies should create some sort of Code of Conduct, so that people who work in the media sector feel protected and, in case something happens, there will be consequences.

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Lastly, we mention inclusive working conditions for all, improving the transparency within the team, because what we face today is that there are some women among journalists, but as you move higher in positions to the board for example – women there are even a smaller minority, if not totally absent.

You have also worked on women’s representation in policy making debates and various projects on gender, diversity, inclusion. Do you see change coming?

It’s hard to generalize, to be fair. But if I am asked to, I would say that we are moving forward and we are becoming better and especially with younger generations. I’m in my mid 20s now and I see a lot of women who do stand up for themselves, are becoming more aware and also becoming more educated.

For me it all starts from education and I think some topics that used to be taboo (you are feminist, so that means you hate men) are becoming more addressed and “normalized”. This also refers to men – who are becoming more educated and informed. So, hopefully we don’t need to write such reports in the future. I do think that the situation does improve.

I work in policy making in Brussels, so I have access to a lot of areas. I have also been co-authoring a #SHEcurity Index report, that tracks women’s representation in foreign policy and security sector, across diverse institutions in more than 100 countries around the world. There we also observed that the situation is improving, slowly, in some cases, slower than in others, but where there is a political will – it moves faster. 

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When you have a prominent figure who joins politics. For example, in Finland, when they elected a new prime minister, her whole cabinet were mostly young women in their 30s doing amazing jobs, if I may say. So, sometimes if you see that there is one person who has political will, the situation really moves forward fast.

But even if we do not have those figures everywhere, the situation can still improve. There are small initiatives and organizations who are doing the work in the area, we write about a few of them in the report, too. Grassroots movements, community movements – all of them do contribute to the overall results and more equal and inclusive future.

Since we do have this opportunity to talk, please share your thoughts on the future of Ukraine and the role of women.

As Ukrainians, we do believe in our victory and we do know that we are going to win and we will rebuild our prosperous, democratic, independent and free Ukraine.

Regarding women, when we were presenting the report, we also invited Ukrainian journalists. We were already one month in the war and we felt like it just doesn’t feel right not to speak about Ukraine.

We have a lot of women journalists right now in Ukraine who go to the front line and they do the same work as men and most of them were saying they don’t really feel like there is any gender difference. They don’t feel like there is any different treatment. You just go and you do your work.

Overall, I think that the Ukraine case shows to many how women could fight along with the men at the front line among military officers, hospital medics, journalists or at home working, while having to take care of families, volunteering, and dealing with news and keeping spirits high about the future of Ukraine. 

Those women are my superheroes. So, after the victory, I don’t think we would be able to say like ‘oh, thank you all the men who contributed to the victory’, it will really be the whole society, because everyone contributed and it will be a common victory, not gender divided.

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Sofiia Shevchuk

 An independent researcher, analyst and project manager in diplomacy, foreign policy, and security. 

Worked as a researcher and project manager for MEP Dr Hannah Neumann at the European Parliament; as a researcher at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly; as an analyst and event manager at the German Marshall Fund of the United States; as a member of the Steering Committee, organising a mentorship programme with the Women in International Security Brussels and managing strategic (web-)development for The Brussels Binder.

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