I must admit from the onset that growing up as a young girl in a male dominated environment and following it up with a career as a mechanical engineer in a similar environment was not a walk in the park. This said, I still believe in destiny and the power of hard work, commitment, and dedication. I recall my high school principal stating emphatically at a Monday morning assembly that, “As a woman, you have to work twice as hard as a man to be considered half as good!” Did I mention that she was about to release the results of a mathematics contest among five high schools, my school being the only girls’ school? As a girl raised in a family of five brothers, these words weighed heavily on my mind. When I joined campus, my mechanical engineering class had thirty two students, of which only two were female. One lecturer went to the extent of indicating to the ladies that engineering was not a course meant for us and we had to earn his respect by proving him otherwise. It is at this moment that I fully grasped the meaning of the statement from my principal. We, as ladies, already had to put in more effort and work extra hard just to prove to our male lecturer that we had what it took to pursue engineering. Similar experiences by women can be retold worldwide. This story tends to bring out the underlying issues that relate to gender equity and equality. What is the thread that indicates that a subject is more male or more female and how do we as women play into this rhetoric?
Gender equality propagates the notion of equal allocation of resources, services, and chances to both males and females. This implies equal rights, chances, and opportunities in all areas of the economy for both male and female genders. On the other hand, gender equity refers to the fair allocation of resources and opportunities, taking note of the imbalances of gender without discrimination. Consider an athletics competition. In the 400m race, equality would mean that athletes are positioned on the same starting and finishing line, without consideration of the longer distance covered by the athlete on the outer lane. In contrast, equity would see the athletes positioned on different starting points to ensure the variation in lane distances is taken into account.
What does gender equity and equality mean for the involvement of women in STEM and the take up of leadership? The current gender equality era has provided vast opportunities and offers for women. The United Nations report on sustainable development noted the increase in numbers of women in paid employment from 35% in 1990 to 41% in 2015. In 46 African countries, women hold more than 30% of the national parliamentary seats. This increase should, ideally, mean that affirmative action is slowly but tenuously achieving its goal. However, from my teacher’s statement, there are issues that should be addressed. I seek to challenge our thinking as women. What role are we playing in reducing the uptake of STEM and general leadership opportunities in our fields?
1. Nurture: How upbringing affects our vision
As human beings, we are products of our environment, of our culture. These greatly shape our values, beliefs, and attitudes. Even if we go to a new environment, the one we grew up in has a distinct mark in our lives till we go to our grave. Women have been pegged traditionally as the nurturer. We are, therefore, majorly involved in creating the right environment for opportunity or denial of the same. In African society, the girl child is nurtured for marriage and family. Her place is to raise a family with her husband as the decision maker of the family. Priority for education was proffered to the male children in the family. An example is that of my grandmother who didn’t go to school in order to herd cattle so that her brothers could go to school. The girl child is also cultured to shy away from leadership positions. Those who step away from the norm are simply labelled as bossy. They feel less entitled to be leaders and, therefore, do not believe they will be successful if they were to take up leadership.
I believe that opportunity creation begins at the basic family unit. Remodeling of nurturing styles would provide a level playing ground for all children, translating to fair competition between them. Roles in the home should not be defined by gender. As much as a girl should learn homecare, I strongly believe that these skills are equally handy for their male siblings. Growing up, I abhorred kitchen chores, preferring to herd cattle with my brothers. While my mother was against it, my dad allowed me to go. It was quite an experience for me and I believe, this somehow influenced my career choice. Women should be allowed to go out and have experiences like mine or even better as this helps them gain exposure and face the world with confidence. It helps them acknowledge that they are equal in capabilities to their male counterparts, encouraging them to take up more challenges and risks with their careers.
Women should increasingly take part of the decision making process in the home. This will have a ripple effect at national level. Women should leverage the partnership of marriage in the home as well for career progression. While traditional roles of men and women involve the men as the provider and the woman as the nurturer, these roles have been redefined in the 21st century. More women are providing while more men are assisting in the home. Men assisting with homecare would lessen the burden on the women and help them be more competitive at the workplace. I look forward to a day when our daughters will be liked for their accomplishments, with the full support of our sons, both in the home and the workplace.
Civic education at family level on the importance of women involvement in society development will go a long way in creating a conducive environment for women to realize their full potential.
2. The Workplace Environment
Promotion in the workplace has been a hot button issue for women. For women, promotion has been based on their past accomplishments contrary to their male counterparts who get promoted based on their future potential. The need for negotiation for promotion is also a stumbling block for women who tend to undervalue their potential or shy away from it entirely. Further, where women are natural nurturers and hence require certain facilities in the workplace such as childcare facilities, which are not considered as “necessary” in the workplace. Male dominated careers which may involve field work such as engineering, medicine and other technical careers become less attractive to women.
What solution do I propose? That women negotiate for women. If more women make concerted effort to sit at the decision making table, they would be able to negotiate and influence policy and regulations affecting them. How do we get to sit at the table? We should believe in our abilities and take credit for our successes as much as we do for our shortcomings. We should reach out for opportunities just as men do, since we are just as capable. Women in leadership should also create a befitting image of themselves to encourage more women to emulate them. Women in leadership should lead without fear or favor so that their impact can be positively felt in the society. If more women in leadership positions can be seen to be working and competing effectively with their male counterparts, there will be no fuss in appointing or electing women in decision making positions. This will also challenge more women to aspire for leadership. The role of mentorship by women cannot be stated enough. Leaders should always seek to pull up those working under them. To this end, the onus is on women to mentor their counterparts so that they can gain the necessary experience to attain leadership positions as well. Women should also accept both acknowledgement and correction as steps to making us better.
My mother’s favorite word of advice when I feel like quitting is “In life, you don’t die, you continue living.” Why is this important here? You can’t end a football match before the referee says the 90 minutes are over. Why should women decide to leave before we actually leave the scene? Every time thoughts of personal family goals come up, women start relaxing their career goals. They no longer apply for promotions or go for greener pastures. We have to keep our foot on the gas pedal until the very last day when we need to take a maternity leave, need to get married, and other personal goals that hinder our career growth.
I believe remarkable strides have been made concerning gender equity and quality, but there is still, more needs to be done. One step to fast-tracking the gender equity dream is for women to take the mantle. Those in leadership should ‘hold the hands’ of their fellow women. The society where they would like to go, how they would prefer to be treated and how they would like to be involved at the negotiating table. In the Holy Book, in Isaiah 1:18, God calls mankind to approach His throne so that they could reason together, how beneficial could this be if we also extended this olive branch to fellow women? Then we will be able to raise next generation’s, Margaret Thatcher, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Mimi Alemayehou just but to mention a few.
About the Author:
Faridah Odhiambo is a Mechanical Engineer working at Plenser Ltd., Kenya as a projects engineer.