Girl power: why the numbers are distracting

Mar 04, 2018|Fadekemi Abiru

The world for women today is very different from what it was 50 years ago. Not only can women vote and drive, but we now occupy important leadership positions. Last year, the number of female CEOs in the world's largest companies was a world record 32. And in African countries like Rwanda, there are more women in parliament than men. The numbers look good, but are they enough to show the progress made with gender equality?


Cracks in the Glass Ceiling?

There is mounting evidence to show that more women in the labour market (both business and political) improves economic growth. Countries with serious development aspirations are attempting to increase female participation in the workplace - Nigeria included. During his tenure as the central bank governor, the Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, established a policy that required 40% of the bank's top management and 30% of board directors to be women. Developments like this should signal improved conditions for Nigerian women, particularly those looking to access more opportunities.

However, numbers do not equal influence. In countries that appear to have women at the top, trends still exist that artificially limit the economic power of the female gender population. Consider how two top positions in the Nigerian finance industry - Ministry of Finance and Deputy Governor of the central bank - are occupied by women. Yet, the financial inclusion gender gap has increased by 13.4% over the course of three years. Essentially, it has become increasingly easier for men to get loans relative to women.

This goes to show that gender progress for the masses goes beyond having a few boss women in power. Representation might be important, but we should not fall into the assumption that more women at the top are a clear indication of better conditions for those at the bottom. This is the type of top equals bottom misthinking that some Nigerians apply to our presidential rotation system - does the economic prosperity of the incumbent's region really improve?


Inequality Begins at Home

Having more women at the top does not mean that gender inequalities magically disappear. Social norms exist to entrench them, and economics has played a part in supporting these inequalities. Look at the traditional theories governing the labour market and decisions to work as an example. Here, we see a world where individuals only have two choices to make with their time - work for economic gain or have fun, implying that people should be able to work as much as they want.

But with women carrying out the majority of household work, this is not always true - housework takes a significant percentage of a woman's time, leaving less for “work” and leisure. As feminist economists point out, work done by women is not valued as highly. This means that even before women venture into the labour market to earn a living, they are already at a disadvantage.

By failing to acknowledge women's productive roles, society turns the average woman into an unwilling dependent on her male partner. Your typical Nigerian mother has to worry about devoting enough time to childcare, cooking, cleaning and getting food into the household because that is what is expected of her. Since society does not pay for these tasks, she would also have to find work, and for her sanity, time to relax. This is in sharp contrast to the ‘man of the house,’ whose work is done as long as he puts money on the table.

So even if Nigeria had a female president, society's underlying structure is still one that involves an uneven distribution of roles, resources, and responsibilities in a way that doesn't enable women to work or earn as much as men. 


Mind the Gap

And so, the remarkable progress made over history is still overshadowed by the systems and structures that privilege men at the expense of women. Like America's race problem shows, even a black president does not automatically correct the power imbalances that have been built into society. The same argument applies to gender inequalities.

So what can be done?

For starters, the interdependencies between paid and unpaid work; and working for a living and caring for the family should be noted. So either pay women for the work they do at home or men need to share household responsibilities equally. These are not exhaustive measures, but they are a step toward tackling the stereotypes that dictate how women are valued. In this way, we are forced to look beyond numbers and instead, address how our unspoken attitudes, beliefs and expectations hold women back.

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