Author’s note: I’d like to acknowledge that, whilst this piece is mostly written in relation to the men/women binary, and from my experience as an African man, I recognize that not all individuals identify in these binary terms.
What’s so difficult about gender equity?
If you were to think about it, gender equity is really a no-brainer. We are all very quick to speak out against other forms of injustice, such as racial inequity, but not so fast when it comes to equity of the sexes.
What could be easier than doing the right thing? For example, it would make better business sense to employ a qualified woman for an advertised position than train an inexperienced man.
Yet, sometimes, that is not what happens. A frequent justification for this irrationality is that a woman may, at some point, want to take time off for maternity and childminding obligations.
The glaring irony is that women who opt to delay or put off childbearing—particularly in the African context—face a new type of prejudice of not being “woman enough.” Unfortunately, there is no winning this battle, and a woman who, then, tries to balance the two often faces prejudicial attitudes of either being an “inadequate mum” or not being sufficiently committed to her work.
For example, in 2015, the former Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, faced backlash after she opted to return to work “too soon” after the delivery of her twins.
So, why are we like this?
Stuck in a rut
In my experience, a woman in Africa today can and does apply herself to compete with her male counterpart on an equal footing. And because she knows society is waiting for her to slip up, she often outshines him. Consequently, today’s modern African male finds himself in a strange place. He is living in a world where no one has a monopoly on knowledge, skills, or qualifications. People do not turn to him for wisdom or advice as they can just seek help online.
There are a myriad of tutorials on YouTube to sort out every conceivable problem. And those “knots” that do-it-yourself cannot untie, the money will cut through. The modern woman may not subscribe to “traditional” views of what men and women can or cannot do and is unbridled from gendered societal expectations.
It is in this changing world that the man finds himself: having been groomed since childhood to know he was the provider and protector, amongst a whole range of other qualifications—electrician, plumber, mechanic, and custodian of knowledge.
Human beings are generally known to adapt to cope with situations. One would imagine that a man would quickly adapt to this changing way of life; but, for some reason, he seems stuck in the old ways of doing things. It may have been easier for him to adapt, but then we—society/community—are socializing our girls—and boys—in the same old ways.
For instance, we are still raising girls to know that, “Your money is your money, his money is our money.” This is a problematic narrative and is aptly captured by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi in her book, Why We Should All be Feminists:
“What if both boys and girls were raised not to link masculinity and money? What if their attitude was not ‘the boy has to pay,’ but rather, ‘whoever has more should pay.'”
This is a difficult concept for a lot of people to grasp. In my community, a man is a man because he provides. If he is unable to, he is better off thought of as either dead or non-existent. It is in this confusing world that the modern man finds himself, and he is, therefore, stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Concept of masculinity
At the risk of plenteous citation of Chimamanda, I will quote from the same book:
“We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.”
On social media and other platforms, one is likely to come across the phrase, “Toxic masculinity.” This, in my opinion, is what is described in the above quote. We raise boys to be “emotionless robots,” that figure out everything logically.
This was a useful trait to have when we were hunters and had intertribal or community wars. A man needed to make split-second emotionless decisions. The decision to drive an arrow through an opponent’s heart required this stoicism—and might have made the difference between life and death. In today’s world, this is not a very useful attribute.
However, we still raise boys to be these kind of men. The kind of men who associate sensitivity or showing feelings with weakness…who glorify machoism. Even for men involved in modern-day activities that require some degree of stoicism—for example, being in the frontlines of battle as military personnel—there is still a need to be in touch with one’s emotions, to appropriately process trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and have some degree of emotional intelligence.
However, when nurtured with the idea that showing emotion is weak and “unmanly,” the ability to express emotion becomes difficult. I personally struggle with the idea of men crying. This is against all my better judgment as a healthcare provider and mental health practitioner. However, this is my socialization.
Mansplainer, you can scroll past
Mansplaining: a phenomenon so common that the term was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary. As a result of a need to be a solution provider, men sometimes feel pressure to solve every issue they think is a problem.
If, for example, you come across a post on social media where women are discussing what is exclusively a women’s issue, there will always be someone [read: some male person] giving unsolicited advice. There will be offers of solutions to dysmenorrhea, hormonally related skin breakouts, and calls for emotional support. As men, we really do need to learn that you can read a post on social media and scroll past.
No matter how pressed one feels to offer unsolicited advice on matters that cannot be of concern to you. I like this old adage:
“You will never get to where you are going to, if you have to stop to stone every dog that barks at you.” ~ Winston Churchill
For example, because of my line of work, I am well informed in matters of gender fluidity and transgender matters. However, if a transgender identifying person speaks, I listen—no matter how compelled I may feel to offer my view—as my knowledge can never replace their lived experience.
The same applies to when men speak on matters they are ill-prepared for or have no lived experience of—it is a fine line between being an ally and taking up space where you shouldn’t.
While it makes absolute sense to have gender equity, the issues highlighted above, and many other issues, make it difficult for men to do the right thing. However, all is not lost. Change happens slowly, but it surely does happen.
In the immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through tireless efforts and persistent work.” Small incremental gains, while not perceived by those going through them at the time, will surely pay dividends in the future.
My parting shot is this: in my lifetime—and here I am displaying my age—it was actually legal to discriminate and segregate people based simply on skin colour. We now look back and wonder how apartheid could have happened and gasp in shame at its propagators. Men, let us be on the right side of history when generations look back and wonder how discrimination based on gender was even possible.
Let us not be the propagators that they will gasp at in shame. Not only is that woman someone’s mother, sister, daughter, or wife—she is someone. Let us respect that.