Progressing by merit, not favour


Esther Mbabazi is Rwanda’s first female commercial pilot, a field that is still largely perceived as men’s domain.

‘Can we compete without conflicting?’, was the closing question by Dr. Donald Kaberuka during a panel session at the recently concluded ‘Umushikirano’ in December 2017. I thought it very pertinent not only professionally, but also in our day to day lives. How I would love this to be the slogan for women that are intent on progress by merit. Yes, I am talking of merit that is not through positive discrimination, or gender promotion but because we can and are able. True, there is still a lot of work to be done under women empowerment and emancipation, but with a supportive government and positive policies, there are now many women in Rwanda that are already way and above such support.

I believe they could join the trendsetters out there that have made it against all odds like successful businesswomen, heads of state, senior government officials, CEOs and heads of mega organisations or companies like Oprah Winfrey. Why not?

And this why... I am waiting in cue for an interview, one woman amongst five men. I believe I have the qualifications and experience that are just right for this job and I was so confident about this when I applied that I wasn’t shocked when I got shortlisted for interview. I remember this tall very executive man looking down at me and saying, ‘you are lucky you are a woman, you are likely to get this job’.  I don’t know if it was just his wistful thinking or not, but I felt truly demeaned. ‘So much for women empowerment’, I thought. Fortunately, my confidence wasn’t shattered and I got the job. I had honestly earned it and was by all means ready to compete, not be favoured. But could that gentleman have been conflicting, he would have sued on grounds of favouritism. Like it or not, the fight for gender equality and equity has been fought tooth and nail from the highest to the lowest levels of society. Even as we speak, there are many that feel disgruntled by affirmative action albeit all the good that has come out of it.

On another occasion, a group of people shortlisted for a fully funded Master’s scholarship were waiting to enter for a session of interviews. One young lady seemed a little confused. ‘You see, I’ve already been selected for Harvard on partial scholarship, but they asked me to let them know if I get another offer’. Her colleague looked up with curiosity; ‘what do you do?’ If you have that offer, why waste our chances here?’ It turned out that she was a lawyer working in a highly acclaimed organisation, a candidate that every university would have loved to admit. All she had to do was pass the interview and she did, coming out top of the other candidates. She eventually went to Harvard on full scholarship but purely out of merit. No gender favours and no cause for conflict.    

One local government executive knew what she wanted. To become a Member of Parliament under the 24 of 80 seats reserved for women representatives. Yes, she had to prove herself at work but in a different setting. She was taking advantage of an opportunity offered for the disadvantaged. It was not a bad thing to do and she eventually became an MP. What one cannot be sure about is first, whether she had the same level of competence and competitiveness as her counterparts. Secondly, whether she wouldn’t have to work harder at proving herself than would her counterparts that had competed for the same position. Fourthly, whether she wouldn’t have the discomfort of knowing others are tolerant of her as the disadvantaged person as opposed to being a competitive person.

Affirmative action is already a subtle source of conflict in a very competitive world where if push comes to shove, the very nature of society will tear you down if policy is not protective. It is also easily misinterpreted especially when those that truly merit a position are side-lined and suffer in the bargain, a double-edged sword so to say.

So as 2018 rolls on and with all the policy support by our government, it important to learn to compete without fear or favour, for those women that have risen above the waters and feel empowered enough to hold their own. Whereas Dr Kaberuka was probably referring to competition and conflict in a much larger context, it may also refer to a sense of disgruntlement and source of friction, which in this case, could lead to the evolvement of another group of the disadvantaged.

But for there to be a healthy sense of competition amongst the genders, it is equally important that men fully comprehend the real values of gender. But that is another whole topic for discussion.

Happy New Year!