I was at a policy dialogue event recently in Abuja, with great panelists discussing the role of gender in Nigeria’s foreign policy. A very well-coordinated guest stood up to explain how women have played bad roles in leadership positions, citing the example of Hillary Clinton and her role in the invasion of Afghanistan.
It was a very detailed argument he made, almost convincing the audience that women do not do enough in the roles they get. After patiently waiting for him to finish speaking, I took up the mic to offer a response. And, I started by explaining that for every woman he mentions who has made bad leadership decisions, 100 men can be mentioned with the same or worse level of bad decisions. And, if I remember well, Hillary Clinton’s spouse, Bill Clinton spent some part of his presidency tenure involved in an extra-marital affair scandal. But still, men get opportunities to be given leadership roles, every day. I also countered his argument that women in power do not fight for women’s causes by reiterating that when a woman is voted into a position, she is put there for the population she serves, not strictly for her gender. However, by being in that position, it heightens the role of representation which means that other women and girls can look at her and aspire for big things, knowing that it is possible.
I did not end without making emphasis on the gap in access to funding for women in political spaces, to match their counterparts in the lavish campaigning system Nigeria is popular for when he mentioned that women do not participate in politics. The playing ground is not equal for both men and women and so the level of participation cannot reflect the same energies.
This event, like many other, constantly expose the privilege that our patriarchal society has created for men making even the most educated of them oblivious to the struggles of women and their low representation in leadership. And when women have a million and one avoidable battles to fight like sexual and gender-based violence, poverty, child marriage, and poor healthcare systems that heighten maternal mortality rate, then yes, their leadership turnout will be affected.
There is also the poor argument that women are emotional beings, therefore incapable of being in leadership positions. And I tell them if emotions were such a weakness, why don’t you avoid that feeling of joy that sips into your heart when you receive that credit alert. Let’s see how far patriarchy takes you, as an unemotional being. And as a Psychologist, I can confidently say that no single individual is devoid of emotions. Emotions are part of who we are, as well as many other traits that define our individuality. I however agree that women tend to be more expressive of their emotions, and this is a weakness in patriarchy that has deprived men of the ability to experience openly and freely the full range of emotions attainable to them as human beings.
The limitations in leadership involvement of women cuts across different societies, irrespective of developmental strides. For example, in 2020, the USA is celebrating its first female vice president, which is the highest political office a woman has attained there. In Nigeria, a few days ago, we were celebrating the first female governorship aspirant who has clinched the primary election ticket of a major political party. Women have been applauded for being great multi-taskers; because they combine childbirth/child-raising, house chores, having a job, and still managing to stand on their feet with all that burden. Yet, these same individuals experience greatly discredited when it comes to leadership positions in society.
When you start by examining schools, right from early years and nursery schools, you will see that it comprises both male and female students. You will find this until the highest levels of education in the world. I make this case to show that the same educational curriculum is used for males and females, yet, there is still mistrust in the abilities of females to deliver in the same roles that males have access to. And then, there are the sexist remarks that females have to deal with as they climb ladders of success or leadership within their respective careers. But hold on a minute, both males and females are a product of the same educational and professional grooming. And, to be sure that these sexist remarks and actions stay grounded, women get exposed to consistent sexual harassment in their places of work. This then becomes a choice between painfully going through this or retreating home and choosing early retirement. These are not choices that males usually have to contend with. Their choices lie more in choosing career options that pay them well or provide them with the opportunities to do a better job and build a healthy career.
“I have a woman like you at home and she doesn’t talk to me anyhow” were around the lines uttered by a male assistant to a top lawyer in a legal firm from the Netflix drama Smart Money Woman. This was his ego getting bruised that he has to work with a female boss, even though they both serve different roles on the team and she has much higher qualifications than him. In the same scene, he reacted differently, more amiably to another male boss who assigned him the same task as the female boss. This is a scenario I have seen play out in real life multiple times, where women struggle to work with male subordinates and often have to take up more responsibilities to avoid the friction that comes from the ego-play or the risk of being tagged as problematic, rude, and unprofessional. Women are expected to be somehow the carer for everyone in a group meeting at work; offering water, and tea, and ensuring everyone is comfortable. In a meeting of all adults. And if a woman is a leader, then she is somehow expected to be more lenient in accepting inefficiencies, after all, she is a mother. Being professional and strict with work commitment can only mean she is a bad mother to her kids. This, is a notion that applies, whether as a woman you have kids or not, or if you even intend to have them or not.
In a collectivistic culture like Nigeria’s, where a sense of community drives every thought and action, female leaders still carry their responsibilities of being one that holds the community together, starting with the family. Family responsibilities like chores, childcare, and household planning are still largely saddled on women. Now, this can sometimes become a tool to make a strong argument on whether you are tagged as a bad home keeper or as a good leader. It seems hard for our society to comprehend a woman making choices of the roles she wants to play. There is the sense of entitlement that whatever you do, always know that the house chores are on you. Now, don’t be lazy or you can just choose to do the noblest thing and forfeit leadership or having career ambitions. Of course, the choice to remain a stay-at-home mum/woman is a wonderful one, if at least it is still a choice that you can independently make, instead of being considered a biological default state of womanhood.
Many expectations and opinions about what makes or unmakes female leadership are present in every angle of society. And mostly, women have the least say or right over these expectations and opinions. Conversations and decisions about female leadership will need to involve more female voices with actual female experiences, not perceived ones. There is no conversation about us, without us. And yes, we will make mistakes and we will rise above them, just like men have the opportunities to do so. Female leadership is not the guaranteed recipe for a successful nation. However, inclusive leadership ensures that the strength of a society is maximized without gender barriers. And this will surely form a strong recipe for success.