“Women who aspire to be equal to men lack ambition” reads a meme from an unknown source, that draws laughter or fist punches in the air depending on your leaning. In contrast to the above tongue-in-cheek cajole, South Africa is aligned with the global campaign to achieve gender equality by 2030. Now much as I identify as an optimist, a glass half full kind of a person, and endorse the president’s patriotic rally call of “Thuma mina” (send-me), I am sceptical about the gender equality campaign. I also do not celebrate women’s day, publicly.
So as not to appear like the “grinch who stole Christmas” let me explain. Firstly, I celebrate and salute all those courageous women (and men) who fought for our liberation. As a trained psychologist, I understand that context matters. I am also deeply grateful to the community of maternal figures and ancestors that laid the foundation for the late Ms Charlotte Maxeke and others who showed up for us and changed the course of history. My scepticism is the result of bold initiatives that overlook the campaign’s complexity.
Scepticism with gender equality by 2030
To be clear, the possibility of gender equality being realised in my lifetime is a thrilling concept. My immediate concern stems from my business school training; and that is the lack of specificity of such an audacious initiative. Defining strategic goals requires us to address the “why” “what” “when” and “by whom”. This is an aim that is likely to have multiple strategic objectives and for its success conversations need to be had about who will be accountable for which tasks, the timeframes that will keep us on-course and a clear definition of what the term ‘gender’ entails. The “why” in this case is a given, it’s simply the right thing to do, but before embarking on the rest, and this is worth repeating, we need to be very clear about where we are headed. The Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland said it best when “Alice asked the cat, “What road do I take?” The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it? (Lewis Carroll).
Contemporary discourse on gender equality largely centres the experiences of white, educated middle class, heterosexual women with the foci on income disparity and the proverbial glass ceiling. What therefore does gender equality mean for the many clients I see in my therapy practice, women like my client Colleen* who will never know what it is to drive as she lost an eye when her husband’s ring made contact with her cornea? Thembi* whose pastor husband believes helping her with housework, cooking and raising their five children is emasculating and threatens on the rare occasions she complains. And what about many like Imaan* who are told by religious leaders that she needs to pray for guidance from her creator and “work it out”, with her husband as he is, after all, a good provider. LGBTQ women know too well the personal risks to being different. These are important considerations as they require different strategic objectives for gender equality by 2030.
So, I don’t celebrate Woman’s Day, I celebrate the amazing tenacity of women every day, who continue to get up and show up despite the odds stacked against them.
*Not their real names
Dr Sorayah Nair
Diversity, equity and inclusion consultant
M.Psych (UWC) D. Phil (US) MBA (USB)