MY BOLD ACT FOR CHANGE: CONFRONTING GENDER STEREOTYPES

Reading Time: 9 minutes

By: Edem Dorothy Ossai 

[Analyses]–Sometime in 2015, while completing a post graduate programme at the University of Ibadan, I witnessed a heated exchange between a young man and a lady in the Faculty over an issue to do with a student body election process. The loud argument was about to turn fierce as the young man began to threaten to beat the lady. The lady in turn furious dared him to go ahead whilst reeling other insults. As the quarrel raged, a few passersby attempted to mediate and what followed did not surprise me. One of the young girls, in attempting to calm the young man said “na woman now, u know say woman get mouth, you no suppose dey follow woman argue” (translated: women are loud mouthed, you as a man should know better than to engage in arguing with a woman). Quickly the others began to chorus “yes now, na woman, leave am, no vex, na woman” (Translated: Yes don’t be angry, leave her, she is simply being a woman).

This is typical in Nigerian society, the reason for the argument, who held blame and deserved correction, these were not as important as the preconceived ideas about men and women. The fact that the young man, in the course of the argument, had clearly violated university regulations by threatening to assault a female student did not arise at all. Rather the officious bystanders simply pointed out, without any fairness or justice to the actual situation, that women usually talk too much, talk offensively, talk loudly, talk unendingly etc, but he as a man is more logical and so he should rise above the young lady’s provocation. This was not my first encounter with a gender stereotype; I grew up surrounded by them without even knowing what they were called.

Last week on March 8, 2017, the world witnessed the celebration of the International women’s day and the social media, television and radio air waves were agog with activities to mark the importance of this day. A host of activities and programs held marking the importance of woman around the world, ranging from advocacy for improved women’s rights and access to education, workshops for women in politics, to conferences addressing the needs of women in business. On social media there was an outpouring of tributaries from all corners and trenches of the world directed at wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and even girl friends by sundry males and females too, leaving one wondering how come, going by the level of appreciation for the importance of women, the world and Nigeria specifically, witnesses such high incidence of gender discrimination, abuse, inequality and gaps? For instance out of 10.5 million children who are currently out of school in Nigeria at least 6.3 million are girls. In addition 43% of girls in Nigeria are married off before their 18th birthday. A publication by the CBN governor in 2012 reported that women are significantly under-represented in secure wage employment within both the public and private sectors of Nigeria and that only about 1% of women in Nigeria obtain capital from the formal financial sector. Also the representation of women in politics and governance in the Country remains very low across the different arms and tiers of government. Few women are appointed as ministers and there are only 21 out of 469 federal lawmakers (both senators and representatives) in Nigeria.

It is hard to reconcile these loud salutations of women and girls, which has gradually become a customary practice on the 8th of March each year, with these gaping inequalities cited above.

After much introspection I concluded that that many of the prevailing incidents of gender discrimination and unfair treatment in the society are sometimes carried out unconsciously by individuals (both male and female) who have been socialised into these traits leading them to create unjust realities for girls and women in contrast to boys and men. The irony is sad considering the “appreciation” which many boys and men so bold facedly profess each year in celebration of the women in their lives. I hope to therefore re-orientate young men and women who have been unconsciously socialised into wrongfully treating boys/men and girls/women with unequal standards.

Simply put, Gender stereotypes are sweeping statements or generalizations about the characteristics of men and women. In other words they are general statements, perceptions or even preconceptions about the attributes or qualities of men and women, holding them as true without being proven1. Typically stereotypes work hand in hand with society’s appropriation of gender roles and are therefore a manifest reflection of same.2 The thing about stereotypes is that some encounters will witness them to be true but this is not so in all cases and yet they are held to be true in all instances i.e. becoming universal truths in the mind of the believer.

For instance popular gender stereotypes such as “women are emotional”, or “women make poor bosses” have become part of influencing factors behind societal patterns which see women denied appointments or promotions to key leadership or managerial positions by those in whom such trust is reposed. Common gender stereotypes such as “women are not good with numbers and calculations” have resulted in setting the bar lower for girls and women in numerical based subjects over time thus resulting in a reeling gap between men and women in Numerical driven occupations in Nigeria. A friend of mine shared a recent experience of hers during a group session where we were discussing this topic. Her young niece gained admission into the University and over a phone call conversation to congratulate her, she asked for the specific course her niece had been enrolled to study. When her niece proudly announced the course, her reaction was surprising. She screamed “wetin you dey do for man course?” (Translated: what are you doing studying a man’s course?). It was later she realised that she too held so many gender stereotypes and had unconsciously accepted the strictures they placed on gender roles, thereby unfairly discriminating against herself and every other young woman who fell within her sphere of influence.

The thing about gender stereotypes is that they create justification for gender discrimination in the owner’s mind, taking root so firmly as to make him/her unlikely to perceive the discrimination in the context. Fill the mind of a man or a woman with gender stereotypes long enough (from the early days of childhood) and you will gradually witness a system driven on autopilot that denies girls and women the same kind of treatment and access to the same opportunities or chances that boys and men are given. When stereotypes become deeply woven in a society, the members accord them the status of a universal truth and it governs the instincts and behaviours of members of that society creating far reaching realities for a potentially vast number of people. This is why we must identify gender stereotypes, in their various forms and interrogate them all over again. Whether in a conversation with family and friends, at formal discussions in work place, community or political settings, in classroom lectures and even in sermons coming from our religious pulpits, we must be sensitive and train ourselves to recognise gender stereotypes once stated. There are many examples of gender stereotypes which focus on women such as “women love to gossip”, “women cannot keep secrets”, “women are loud and noisy”, “women can’t read maps or navigate well”, “women have poor sense of judgement”, “girls are bad at sports”, “opinionated girls will not find men to marry them”, “women are bad drivers” etc . Like I pointed out earlier, the tricky thing about a stereotype is that the statements may hold true in some encounters, which causes a tendency for a person to conclude that it is so in all separate instances. This becomes a preconception and such is the nature of stereotypes.

In 2015 when I witnessed that heated exchange and the ensuing gender stereotypes, I kept my thoughts to myself and did not speak up when rather I should have stepped out and politely but firmly confronted the stereotypes and those promoting them. Now however, in 2017 I have grown bold for change. Not only do I train professionals in gender related concepts but I boldly speak up against negative gender norms in the society and point out gender stereotypes whenever I encounter them. Though there are risks, the bigger risk is to accept a world with gender inequality. This is my personal gender policy.

I would like to therefore issue a call to everyone reading this piece and it is that, after we identify the many different gender stereotypes operating in our society, let us critically assess our role in promoting and transferring these stereotypes to those whose thoughts we have the power to shape or influence one way or the other.This will ensure that the chain of transfer of gender stereotypes which shape discriminatory attitudes and behaviours towards girls and women in the society will be broken through us. This is not a task for women only as people are often tempted to think when they hear the term “gender” but it is a duty for every individual (male and female alike) who lives by the principles of fairness and justice.

Edem Dorothy Ossai

Founder MAYEIN

References

1An Introduction to Basic Gender Concepts and Socio-cultural Norms: A Practical Guide for Girls Connect role models, 2017

2 Reeves, Hazel and Sally Baden, (2000) Gender and Development: Concepts and Definitions, by Bridge for DFID, Report No 55.

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