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Lessons from a Sultan’s decision to change tradition – by making daughter heir apparent

Ignoring past traditions, the Sultan of Yogyakarta has become an unlikely champion for equality by making his eldest daughter heir apparent.
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In recent years we’ve seen employers make groundbreaking strides in tackling gender inequality. There have also been a raft of measures to support women in their careers from the classroom to the boardroom, leaving nowhere for gender inequality to hide.

But the job won’t be complete until we see the talents of women and men recognised equally and fairly in every workplace – and the pace is shockingly slow. Not one nation across the globe has yet managed to bring about equality between the sexes, with June 2016 research from Ellevate Network claiming women are now “tired of hearing about diversity in powerpoint presentations over a potluck lunch,” and want “to start seeing real change”. Moreover, it made clear that women wanted to see an increased cultural shift instead of being part of the business checkbox list.

But no matter how much legislation we put in place, and whether we want to believe it or not, our own perception is the silent doorstop that prevents us from closing that gap. For example, a sample study of 8,000 UK adults, by Fawcett Society to gain a better picture of British attitudes towards the subject, found that some men thought equality had already been achieved, while others believed the female agenda had, in fact, now been pushed too far.

Similarly, a report from Unesco highlighted that gender bias was rife in textbooks – mostly unintended – and was undermining girls’ motivation and achievement in schools. There are more mind-altering culprits, ranging from the stereotypical roles we automatically play at home, to our ability to still assign a person we’ve never met certain characteristics based on their appearance.

It’s an unconscious problem even Sheryl Sandberg, a huge advocate for gender equality, has faced before. In her 2010 TED talk, she told a story of when she gave a talk at Facebook. A few hours after her presentation, a young woman was waiting outside her office to talk to her about how she had learned to keep her hand up.

When Sandberg questioned her about it, the woman allegedly explained that after her talk, Sandberg said she would take two questions. When two questions were asked, the women lowered their hands, but Sandberg took more questions – from the few men that had kept their hands raised.

“I feel quite passionate about the subject so it hit me that I hadn’t noticed,” Sandberg claimed.

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Sadly, we all use stereotypes, all the time, without knowing it. We all essentially use categories – of people, places and things – to make sense of the world around us as the ability to categorise and evaluate, which is arguably a significant part of human intelligence. However, stereotypes take those categories too far, and often bring to light qualities that don’t necessarily reflect reality.

The problem may just be that people can’t seem to help it, but we can’t rely on that way of thinking anymore – it needs to change. And this ability to embrace change and adapt is reflected fully in the most recent story pertaining the Sultan of Yogyakarta. Hamengku Buwono X is possibly Indonesia’s last sultan that serves as both royal leader and governor of his city, Jakarta. However, a decision he took has caused quite the feud.

He’s decided that his eldest daughter will become the sultanate’s first female monarch after he leaves the throne – while he has no sons, many believe his brothers should be replacements instead. As such, he has become a rather unlikely champion for gender equality, and isn’t afraid to enforce change to make it happen.

He gave his daughter the title of “Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Mangkubumi” which translates into “the one who holds the Earth”. It was also suggested that she was entrusted with the task of “attempting to bring safety, happiness and prosperity to the world”. He further amended his title to make it gender-neutral, opening the door for a woman to take over. Coupled with the announcement that she has been made crown princess, the chances are high that he will proceed as planned. 

Of course, there has been resistance. Some 90 per cent of the family don’t respect him anymore.

A female sultan is an impossibility,” the sultan’s cousin, Kanjeng Raden Tumenggung Jatiningrat, allegedly told AFP. “One symbol in this palace is a rooster – so if we have a queen should we change it to a hen?”

The UK, which is known for being notoriously low in the world rankings when it comes to gender equality – below that of South Africa, Namibia and Nicaragua – could learn a thing or two about charging headfirst into embracing change and altering perceptions, even when it comes to shaking the very foundations of tradition.

Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don’t miss the Real Business First Women programme:

Drawing on years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit  designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is a senior reporter at Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

Real Business