Wondering why women get the short end of the stick.
I decided to write something women-focused, in the spirit of International Women’s Day, especially as this year’s theme “Choose to Challenge” stood out for me. I noticed several social media posts from women stating what they had chosen to challenge and it made me think about gender biases; how they have come to be, how they are sustained, and what can be done about them.
Throughout my early years, I never really knew or understood that gender biases existed, largely because I grew up in an environment where gender roles were not particularly emphasised. Living life with my immediate family members (parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins), I never had any reason to believe that boys were superior to girls or girls were the weaker sex. In my family, boys and girls did what they wanted to do and not necessarily what people felt they had to do. I cannot remember anyone saying “girls don’t do that” or “boys have to do this”. If anyone mentioned any differences, it was not from a detrimental or discouraging point of view.
I do not recollect noticing gender biases whilst schooling and if I did, I probably did not understand its gravity. In primary school, girls played football, and boys took sewing and needlework classes. In secondary school, and this is probably because I attended a military school, everyone largely got the same treatment: girls joined the cadets and cut grass, boys joined the food committee, cooked, and cleaned. It probably wasn’t until I attended university in Ibadan that I began to take notice of differences in gender roles. Even though I didn’t think male students necessarily had it easier than female students, I remembered occasionally hearing some people make comments that indicated their gender bias, reflecting what they had been socialised to believe. I also recall seeing more female drivers in town and on campus than I had seen in Lagos leading me to think that women in Ibadan were more “liberated” than in Lagos (this observation itself lending credence to the fact that subliminally, I knew there was an issue).
Getting into the corporate world probably made it more real for me as I saw first-hand how women had to struggle and fight for many things that men took for granted and how often it seemed that brick walls were built ahead of them. I also noted that many organisations and governments around the world had more men than women in positions of power. Yes, I noticed these things but I probably did not take them seriously, most likely because I am male and I was not directly exposed to gender biases in my immediate environment. Fortunately, all through my career, I have worked with organisations that strived to promote fairness and equity, and encourage women to aspire to whatever heights they desire but this is not commonplace in our environment.
Irrespective of whatever I thought or however I rationalised it, I know women have been crying out for a long time. Thinking through all of these things, I have often wondered how women got here? How did they get to the point where they have been subjugated and now need to choose to challenge issues that affect them directly? Why must women have to fight to make decisions about themselves? Why do many women have to beg to do work that they can ordinarily do? Why must society apply different rules to women and men? From the way I see things, two clear factors have, knowingly or unknowingly, enabled gender biases against women: the influence of religion and culture.
Various religious demands and practices on women have placed men in superior positions relative to women. From those that demand that women can only be seen and not heard to those that limit the kind of roles they play during religious ceremonies. Not forgetting those that require women to dress a certain way and those that limit their freedom of movement and association. What is it about women that have made many societies place guardrails around their self-determination?
Across the world and especially in Africa, many cultural dictates limit the role and impact of women. From as little as insisting all the family “wives” cook at family occasions to extremes such as female gender mutilation and burial practices that debase widows. What about the demand for bride price that many tribes receive from the family of prospective grooms? Denial of inheritance and property rights? Economic empowerment? Access to education? Child marriage? The list goes on and on. One doesn’t hear about men having to contend with these challenges so why should women? Ironically, some people have noted that women are typically the protectors and executors of culture, if so, why do they continue to insist on cultural practices that demean their fellow women? How did we all become slaves to culture?
I often wonder why women allowed this to happen. I have always believed that women are as smart, wise, and sharp as men, in some cases, more so but I wonder whether many women realise this. Following this thought, I often wondered who raised the men that exercise bias against women? If we can all agree that the nuclear family is unarguably the most influential base for childhood development and mothers are more likely to have a greater influence over their children than fathers do (particularly because they tend to spend more time with them), then why haven’t the mothers trained their sons to see these biases and change the status quo? I, however, now realise, with greater insight, that the notion that women can influence their situation by themselves is an unfair assertion as it completely absolves men of their responsibility: the responsibility to change the status quo lies with all of us.
Gender biases exist because people perpetuate them, whether they are male or female, whether they do it consciously or unconsciously. Men need to do better; women also need to do better. We all need to think in terms of fairness and equity as men and women are supposed to complement and not dominate one another. We need to make deliberate attempts to right the wrongs against women, in families, communities, organisations, and nations.
I am currently reading Melinda Gates’ book “The Moment of Lift” and she says: “If you want to lift up humanity, empower women. It is the most comprehensive, pervasive, high-leverage investment you can make in human beings.”
I agree with her and this is the way I see things today.