Updated: Jan 21
It's not uncommon to hear development practitioners preaching gender equality in the context of the missed development opportunities that result from the traditional neglect of women in development. To rights-oriented practitioners, such rhetoric is dangerous. And it usually misses a key point in the realization of women’s progress as a right in itself, where the focus of development must be gender equality and not the development benefits it brings.
Women are and have always been capable as men. Both biology and psychology prove that women possess the same mental strength as men, in general, and that it should not be uncommon to have groups where women can be more intelligent than men. History documents real-life tales that show how, for example, Joan Clarke, a female cryptanalyst recruited into the Enigma Project, was instrumental to the British Army’s power to break Germany’s military codes, opening the doors to Winston Churchill’s leadership of the allied forces defeating their biggest adversary in World War II. Less than two decades later, the story of three black female mathematicians would be behind NASA’s successful Project Mercury that launched John Glenn into space would take center stage for the instrumental roles they played. Around the same time, back home, women such as Rose Chibambo and Vera Chirwa would be changing Malawi’s history as a critical part of our fight for freedom.
It’s easy to delude ourselves into imagining gender equality as an instrument for development because of the gains society is able to make when women are empowered and the social gap between the two biological sexes is perceivably closed. However, the troubling feeling that embodies such an approach is that usually the end justifies the means. The means, in this case, is one where these inspirational women have been used as instruments of an intended higher objective, creating the notion of instrumentalization of gender equality. Gender instrumentalization has consequently emerged as an integral part of gender equality philosophy that makes the debate between what this website chooses to call idealists and pragmatists. You will see as this article develops, this website sides with the idealists but only with a pinch of reality.
So, hardly will pragmatists really focus on the attainment of gender equality and/or women’s empowerment as an end in itself that is to be pursued for the sake of women’s welfare. And many development practitioners, including political leaders – male and female alike –usually find themselves trapped by this limited understanding of a rights-based approach to women’s advancement, and will usually be ineffective at instituting what are known as affirmative actions, deliberate measures that bring women to par with men.
This is a problem. First off, the assumption that affirmative action is going to improve gender equality all by itself is outright wrong. The labor market is a useful example on this point. Affirmative action designed to hire more women into an organization is usually preoccupied with the numbers of women that will fill the organization’s payroll. Little matters as to the type of work these women will be assigned. What this has done is to bring half-baked women who are usually unimpressive and fail to act as role models for other upcoming women. Even more, it fails to convince society that women are just as capable as men. In light of this, this website laments Bingu wa Mutharika’s gift of Joyce Banda to Malawians. If only he had foreseen her limitations on the ‘presidential material’ front, he would have done us some good in picking a more capable woman as his running mate.
The preceding argument hints on an important problem that a development-oriented approach to gender equality brings about. It relies on the statistical calculation of headcounts. Labor statistics will thus limit themselves to the number of women that are able to join the labor force and will hardly look into the quality of jobs that these women will be taking up, or how much they will be paid for performing the same tasks that are of equal value as men’s, or how high in the institutional hierarchy they would climb. Yet there seems to be much satisfaction vested in the growing numbers of females in labor force participation. So, a reliance on the correlation between labor force participation and development will be weak in capturing the specific issues affecting women as they look for work as well as when they are at the workplace.
Even in the instances above that have marked significant turning points in human history, women have done it at a great price. Many have contributed at times when they have not been treated as equals across several dimensions. The three NASA women (Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan) made their contributions under excessive intersecting discriminations, them being not only black but also women treading on a man’s turf. Even when they were innovators of ideas, concepts and complex mathematical systems, they were expected to teach their male counterparts who were deemed worthy of presenting in a boardroom. Today, many female executives fight for equal pay rights, an equal representation on the boards of corporations and public bodies, or even a workplace where sexual abuse and other discriminatory manifestations of gender inequality are dealt with without repercussions on the victims.
Once we consider these ends that women seek in the workplace, one realizes that it’s not because they are good for development but good for humanity and that development must result only as a by-product of a happy, healthy and secure workforce. Women’s rights and empowerment, then, becomes a critical element of societal goals that must be upheld in their own right because it is human to do so. And although it challenges the current configuration of power between men and women, its appeal emanates from innate human nature that is driven by happy societies, which is the foundation of innovation and prosperity itself.
So, it is important to educate people about gender equality and the abilities of women and men. Such education should highlight the collective ideals that African countries like Malawi have valued for centuries. Gender education must expose the skewedness of patriarchal systems of power in building stronger and happier societies whose priority is in the welfare of its individuals and where it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that individual happiness is not enjoyed at the expense of another.
Building on the workplace example, it is critical for corporates to learn to get the best CVs from the pool of individuals expected to perform certain tasks. It is at this stage where it is most likely that CVs of the strongest male and female candidates face more sex-based discrimination than in the interview room as, in the latter, a woman who impresses will have better prospects of clinching a hire (unless the panel is composed of idiots.)
Finally, when an individual is recruited into a role, it’s necessary that organizations understood that their staff’s abilities are intertwined with whatever gender they posses or identify with. Institutions must, then, provide workers the enabling environment where they can excel (we made for such a debate in our 31 July 2017 article).