Being female in Nigeria usually means being constantly overlooked, undervalued, and underestimated. It means being harassed and judged for doing the same things men do. Strangely, it also means being held accountable for the things men do, for being assaulted or raped; it means not being afforded the basic human rights of education and freedom of expression. As some Nigerian women discovered after being inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "We Should All Be Feminists" talk, being a woman is hard, being female in Nigeria is much harder.  

Now, we know that women are not the only losers; sexism takes a toll on development.

For a country with her natural and human resources, Nigeria remains stuck in pre-school terms of economic development. The socio-economic divide is enormous, and institutions ranging from healthcare, education, and property rights, are practically non-existent. Unsurprisingly, innovation is stifled, and the poor state of education leads to declining human capital.

All of these play a role in Nigeria’s underdevelopment, but so does gender inequality.   


Gender in Development

Evidence suggests that gender gaps in favour of males are more significant in poorer countries; according to the United Nations Development Project (UNDP), there is a strong negative correlation between underdevelopment and sexism. UNDP provides a measure called the Gender Inequality Index (GII) and shows that countries that score poorly on this also tend to be lower on the Human Development Indicator (HDI) rankings. Interestingly, the GII attempts to measure how much productive capacity a country loses due to gender inequality by taking reproductive health, empowerment and labour market participation into account.

Both the GII and HDI assign countries scores between 0 and 1, with scores closer 1 being higher. For example, Australia has an HDI score of 0.939 and a GII of 0.12, meaning it’s a pretty well-developed country with low gender inequality. Compare this to Côte d’Ivoire or Sierra Leone with respective HDI scores of 0.474 and 0.420 and GII scores as high as 0.672 and 0.650. Looking at a sample of over 150 countries, the coefficient between the two measures is -0.88, significant by most metrics.

So, the higher a country’s development, the lower its gender disparity.

Can we then say that either causes the other? Possibly. Looking at Nigeria, data from the National Bureau of Statistics suggests that just under half the population is female. Consider how sexism may affect development: by excluding half of the population from participating fully in economic activities, a country is unlikely to reach its economic ceiling. Indeed, the concept is as strange as destroying half of the land or capital existing in a country.

The reverse could also be true. Low educational quality, a key aspect of underdevelopment, causes people to uphold regressive cultural beliefs likely to unfairly target women. In Nigeria, there are many things traditional cultures encourage, but as education has improved in quality and reach, we’ve stopped practising most of these things. For example, many cultures in Nigeria encouraged female genital mutilation until recently. Sexism is a part of the Nigerian culture. But because of the lack of education which is a product of underdevelopment, sexism has prevailed.


Gender in the Labour Market

Understanding the role sexism plays in the labour market will go far in helping us grasp its effect on development. According to the Mckinsey Global Institute report on gender equality, in sub-Saharan Africa, gender inequality in professional jobs is high, and the ratio of females to males in leadership roles is extremely low. Incredibly, if women participated in the economy just as much as men, the GDP of sub-Saharan Africa would see a 27% rise.

Nigeria’s female participation ratio is embarrassingly low; 75 women to 100 men. While we are way ahead of the likes of Saudi Arabia (26 women to 100 men), we lag behind Chad (81 women to 100 men), China (82 women to 100 men), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (93 women to 100 men).

Mckinsey developed a Gender Parity Score to measure how much progress countries have made towards achieving gender equality. For context, values between 0.95 to 1 indicate low inequality; values between 0.75 and 0.95 indicate medium; between 0.5 and 0.75 are high and values less than 0.5 are extremely high. Nigeria has a GPS of 0.56; Rwanda, the highest in Africa, scores 0.66. Nigeria is also one of the few countries with high gender inequality in education levels, with a ratio of 73 females to 100 males (0.73). The gender disparity in education is an effect of gender discrimination in Nigeria and education is a key component of development. On the other hand, gender inequality has an adverse effect on labour market productivity which is also a key component of development.


The Naysayers

Some would protest that sexism has little to do with the imbalance in leadership and professional jobs as men and women make their own choices. This is a fantasy. Studies such as this one by Seema Jayachandran show that married women in poorer countries have less influence in household decisions and less freedom of choice. Meanwhile, women above middle class have substantially more power to make decisions for themselves and their household. This means that others who wish to be educated, work and take leadership roles would be unable to because of their lack of control over their lives. Unsurprisingly, women’s life satisfaction is also higher in more developed countries.

The role of human capital in development is one of the least controversial in the field. But by forsaking nearly half of its potential labour force – whether in education or directly in the labour market – countries shoot themselves in the foot. And this does not even account for the potential benefits of having more educated and engaged women in governance, usually a bane in underdeveloped countries.

In terms of gender equality and development, Nigeria has quite a long way to go. However, the journey must begin in schools and homes. We need to have thought-provoking conversations on gender to ensure that future generations of Nigerians have a different attitude towards gender roles. More directly, we must address educational imbalances between genders, including softer ones such as encouraging girls to study STEM subjects. From here, true equality of opportunity in the workplace is the least that women deserve. Nigerians may be becoming more aware of gender discrimination thanks to Social Media. Whether this leads to national introspection or doubling down on beliefs remains to be seen. It is an enduring mystery how society has continually held back half of its constituents, yet it would be incredibly foolish for that to continue, at the expense of all of us.   


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