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Why a Museum Curator Will Be the Secret Weapon in Fighting Sexism

Karolina Oloffson on global inequality and why the world needs a Women’s Museum

By TheCovey

When it comes to conflict resolution, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone more knowledgeable than Karolina Olofsson. She’s got a PhD in humanitarianism and conflict response, plus a master’s in conflict management and another in post-war construction. She’s spent over a decade working in international assistance in Asia, Western Europe, Africa, and Latin America and is an organizational development and coordination expert for Global Women 4 Women.

So how would she manage conflict across genders to allow for more equality? Her answer might surprise you. CoveyClub spoke with Oloffson about being a woman in a global workplace, finding the strongest allies in traditionally patriarchal societies, and why old white men just can’t get enough of good data sets.

TheCovey: How did you get started fighting for women’s issues?

Karolina Oloffson: My journey is nonconventional. I’m half-Peruvian, half-Swedish, so two very different cultural backgrounds. I was born and raised in Peru for childhood. It was a very patriarchal environment. The Swedish part of my education was about equality. The impact was mixed: culturally, I would normally adhere to the masculine and then intellectually, and more of my mental process, [I would be about] gender equality and focus.

My career is in post-conflict and transition. In 2012, I decided to come back to Europe to get closer to [my] siblings. I realized all things [that made me] good at my job were problematic in [my] personal life. I was 32. Everything at work was decisive, authoritarian, strong. It made me not a good sister, friend, or girlfriend — all these social qualities didn’t have time to develop because I’d put my career first.

It was a journey of seeing the patriarchy inside me and how much it suffocated my feminine side. I was a woman, but didn’t know what it was to be a woman.

[Now] I do a lot of meditation and yoga. When things don’t work in my life I go on retreat and seek solitude and unpack things. It made me realize I didn’t know how to use my soft side to interact with people. I took down my harsh sides.

TheCovey: How does inequality play out in the global workplace?

Oloffson: I started to see that if there were ten men in a room, there was one patriarchal man suppressing women, one guy who was pro-woman who will stand up, but eight men who were silent. I always wondered: I know them. They’re not bad guys, but they will not yet stand up or say anything. Why do we have all these people in silence? For me it’s not only about women coming to their power and knowing who they are. It’s all about bridging the gap with men and helping them balance it out.

For the longest of times [men] provided a role. When we talk about removing that role, [one they grew] up attached to, [that became] a part of their identity, it becomes difficult for them to take positions. They want to take a stand, but don’t want to go against other men.

It’s interesting: in developing countries, we bombard them with Western, democratic norms of what we think development should look like. Lots of my former colleagues from other countries — Afghans, Nigerians — are more supportive because they have been so exposed to gender programs from other donors. They have some level of consciousness greater than the Western men. 

Men in the financial sector in Europe take for granted that women have made it, so they don’t feel the issue is still accurate. They say women are equal. They are raised thinking women are equal. But in other countries where the programing is going on, they create more energy and awareness. Some men will be culturally traditional but will speak more about it than in the West. 

TheCovey: Are things better or worse than when you started your career?

Oloffson: Sometimes as a woman, you say ‘there is a gender issue here.’ They say,  ‘don’t be so sensitive.’ When I see political changes: Brexit or the latest president in [the] US — or Italy — all these things are coming to the surface. Some people want to suppress it. I think it’s nice to finally have it out in the open. We have been talking about this and people didn’t believe it. It was below their vision level. Now, we can address it

When you are a minority in many different levels like I am, you walk through life talking about experiences the majority doesn’t understand. They think you’re weird or disconnected. Your version of reality doesn’t get acknowledged. So you get this sensation you are living in a world that is invisible to the rest of the world. But now with all the cockroaches running around, now finally it’s visible and not deniable. It’s concrete. 

Women have an important role to play here. The way we mitigate around the table can be very different than a man. We can be more inclusive. We are good communicators. We can absorb multiple sources of information and process it at the same time. We can help bring balance, [where it] is usually very heated and confrontational. It requires women to step up, go to congress, ask the difficult questions. 

Also, we need to create colleagues between males and females and have synergy and work together. We live in an environment where it’s not just men but white men — and white men 60-70 years old, with a vision from years ago. They lived through a society that was different from today. Take those ideas. But we need to work for a more prosperous future. We need to build a bridge between what was and what we want it to be. 

TheCovey: Do you have any out-of-the-box ideas for bringing awareness to women’s issues?

Oloffson: When you work with development issues and human rights you have things always marked for you: genocide in Rwanda, the Holocaust, World War II, the Soviet Union, and Eastern countries and the persecution strategies and the death from war. There are lots of records to look at. Why isn’t it that we have one collective museum where we look at the history of women? Why is it we don’t have how many women have been persecuted and burned during the witch trials? How many women are beaten into submission through domestic abuse? How many women are being raped because we don’t voluntarily give our bodies for use to someone else? What about the cost of emotional rape — the abuse of someone’s personality? All of that has not been reported. 

We get little bits and pieces of the puzzle. The UN says x amount of women are raped every month. Or are harassed. It makes it sound temporary. What is the aggregate amount? How has that gone over the years? What methods have been used to make sure women have been preserved at this lower state of citizenship? 

In terms of the research, we could have a curator. When I was talking about the ten men and the eight who did nothing, men don’t know where to go. They respond to very concrete facts. They are analytical beings reliant on data sets. Let’s put up the files, the pictures. What does domestic brutality look like, and confront it and see whether you’re part of it. 

We have museums to honor the past and the sacrifices [of so many different groups], and rightfully so. But so should women. What we have collectively taken, the collective damage, [our] wounds, the collective price to us should be recorded. It’s not about one woman, it’s about a collective wound we have. If more than half the population has these remnants from the past, there’s no way we can work in balance. 

The vast majority of people, if you give them the chance to gain the awareness, including men, would choose to change. That level of awareness has not been mainstreamed, and a museum could help start that.

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