Disrupting the seating plan at the United Nations and beyond

Published on 16 April 2019

Image of Kelly Shephard
Kelly Shephard

Head of Knowledge, Impact and Policy

Every year thousands of delegates gather at the Commission on the Status of Women in New York to discuss the experiences of women globally. For the first time I was privileged to run a scheduled side event for The Impact Initiative. Joined by colleagues from the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Brunel University, the Women’s Equality Party and Nelson Mandela University, we strode into the UN building with the intention of sharing, gathering and building knowledge. But we met some unexpected challenges – in the form of the furniture – which caused me to reflect on how to get the most out of a side event in a busy and formally-structured space.

A woman raises her hand to speak at a community meeting in Aurangabad‘, World Bank Photo Collection, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sharing our experiences of women’s untapped economic potential

Through our event we wanted to share our understanding of the global challenges of how women can be supported not just to get work but to stay in work. Together we suggested that to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals it is critical to unlock women’s untapped economic potential and account for their wider contributions to society. In short we had a clear and strong message and a mission to bring about change.

To enable us to do this we proposed a discussion that avoided the traditional panel and Q&A and used the participatory World Café technique. We wanted to create a space where delegates could discuss their experiences and grow understanding together. To do this properly we needed to gather in small groups and talk both comprehensively and concisely.  A skill in itself.

In the few minutes before our 50 delegates arrived, we quickly set up our allotted, windowless room. We lifted heavy wood tables, stacked unwanted chairs and stuck sticky note paper to the walls. This was all carried out under the disapproving eyes of the UN security guard who told us in no uncertain terms that we “were not allowed to move the furniture”. Still we sweated and pressed on.

Social protection – from surviving to thriving

After 90 minutes of buzzing conversation our participants realised that despite geographical distances, our studies resonated with their experiences – we talked about the need for social protection to move families and communities beyond just surviving to thriving. Furthermore we recognised the need for schemes to uphold dignity and promote self-reliance.

In such a short time we had all had the opportunity to speak. We had connected and shared. Afterwards several participants commented on the format. Some said that it was the first session that they had ever been to where they had been asked to actively be involved in the conversation. Others commended us on our facilitation skills and the ability to cover a lot of ground in a little time.

You might conclude that the event was a success. It was certainly enjoyable and lots of new connections were made, however something in that windowless room pricked my conscious. I left the building that night with the obligatory selfie taken under the flags of the UN building and I tried to tell myself that I was doing good things.

Sustainable change means sometimes disrupting the seating plan

Later that evening I checked emails and saw the following message had been sent to all side event’s organisers: “It has been brought to our attention that chairs/furniture has been displaced/taken out of rooms during some of the side events. We want to remind you that is really important that the setup of conference rooms remains unchanged. Rooms must be left in a meeting ready condition, and vacated on time so that the next event can take place properly.”

Now let me make it clear here that I understand the need to leave rooms as they are found and that time is of the essence at big events. I also recognise that having a group of academics flinging furniture around is probably a huge health and safety problem, BUT here we were in one of the most dynamic cities in the world, being hosted by an organisation where humanity should be central and yet we were being chastised for disrupting the seating plan and challenging the power in the room. Something wasn’t right.

Most people who work in the development sector recognise that change is rarely linear. Discussions and decisions are often more sustainable when they are informed by lived realities and people’s lives are complicated and messy. To unpack complex subjects we need to talk, but we also need to listen. It is hard to do this when there are big desks in-between us and timed running orders determine who can speak and when.

For a brief session at the UN we challenged the prescribed order of things and we achieved a great deal. But imagine what we could do if we committed to coming out of our comfort zones and embrace new ways to work together; to break down barriers and collectively problem solve?

A pledge to include, listen, challenge and shift

Now I do not want to criticise my hosts or the event – please invite us again, it really was an amazing gathering with a huge amount of positive energy – but I do have to wonder if we are using our collective power to its full strength. So for future gatherings I have developed my own conference pledge – you might want to swear allegiance to it too:

  1. When we gather we will find ways to include all voices.
  2. We will not broadcast but discuss and build on what we learn.
  3. We will be held accountable, clearly demonstrating what effect this gathering and our new knowledge has had.
  4. We will attempt to get quickly to the heart of issues even if this means challenging systems and assumptions.
  5. We will ask awkward questions, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable.
  6. And just sometimes we may need to shift the furniture.

Women, Work and Social Protection presents a collection of ESRC-DFID-funded research that explores the need for holistic social protection measures that move beyond a framing of poverty alleviation as primarily being about access to the traditional labour market and cash transfers to include measures that empower women and support them in juggling household and caring responsibilities for children and other family members.  It draws on research from Bangladesh, Malawi, Lesotho, South Africa and Rwanda.



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