What will it take to have more women in the workforce?

Gender inequities and the lack of enabling conditions in the workplace make it difficult for women to actively participate in the labour market. / Net photos

Conversations topping this year’s International Labor Day include the economic gains and downturns, growth and development; GDP (per capita) is the focal point of discussion. With men eminently at the helm of contributing to economic growth – they’re the majority in the labour market, while women are sidelined — it is ironic that we are celebrating a rise in GDP per (capita). Rather it should be GDP per (man). After all, the economy is male-dominated. But this should not be a celebration of male achievement. Besides achieving economic growth, men have maintained their achievement of suppressing women, socially and economically, as they have done for centuries.

Throughout large swathes of history, the predominantly patriarchal societies of the world have diminished women’s role in society to that of a homemaker and baby caretaker. The female role in society is fixed with little freedom or responsibility, other than the impossible responsibility sanctioned to them to create the perfect environment to nurture the next generation – and of course the head of the household too. In Sapiens; A Brief History of Humankind, the historian, Yuval Noah Harari, follows the historical narrative of the woman – the homemaker; only; a fragment of society – back to its origins which he describes as a social contract between man and woman. This contract is very simple. Women are assigned a role of raising children alongside a duty of obedience to their husband, and in return, women receive the right to protection from violence by their husbands.


However, Harari convincingly and simplistically makes the case against the socially constructed logic behind this social contract. He says that most socio-political hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis; they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths. Thus, Harari debunks the myth that women are naturally supposed to raise children by examining the origins for how we define something as natural or unnatural. Interestingly, the human concept for phenomena that are natural (or are universally true) or unnatural, is derived from Christian theology and NOT biology. 


While others contend that men and women are not the same, therefore, reach a logical fallacy that there can never be equality between them. In other words, men have different physical capabilities, and the variations in stature and subsequently, equality is deemed a unicorn. This thesis and the stubborn cultural attitudes have marginalised girls’ education opportunities and defined what jobs are appropriate for women, and women face barriers to gainful employment.  


Despite the 19th and 20th Centuries movements that sought professional, legal and political equality, women still have not made up to half of the workforce in our country. Whilst we claim to have open education and careers to women, gender stereotypes: perceptions and bias that women cannot manage complex tasks have persisted. Resultantly, women are discouraged from chasing their career aspirations. No wonder we have less females in science fields than males. Are women in the workplace judged by the same standards as their male colleagues? Are they described with adjectives (strident or emotional, for example) that would not be applied to men with the same characteristics? Continuous association of women’s failure to make it to these trades with lack of aptitude is itself a misfitting claim. Males’ attitudes towards women in the field have remained stagnant for centuries.

On Shakina’s first day at her new job as a site engineer, the male counterparts in jubilation remarked, “we have got a woman that will be making us food. No more males in the kitchen.”  She had been hired for her expertise but they reduced her to a housemaid, toting flasks, washing plates to serve the males. Did she have to go through university as the only female in 43 males, having to dress like males to avoid their suggestive tendencies, to end up as a cook at the site?

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, advancing gender equality could enable millions of women to pursue their dreams, work, and become financially independent, it will add $12 trillion to the global economy by 2025. It is already remarkable in countries that have opened opportunities for women, for instance, Rwanda. Political, legal and professional equality has been, to a great extent, granted, with at least 68% of the cabinet ministers as women. And voila, Rwanda’s proliferate growth accords her a name: Singapore of Africa. The female cabinet and women like Louis Mushikiwabo have set unprecedented records. It affirms the fact that when we give women equal rights and opportunities just like men, they can even supersede our default setting. This should inspire a radical, holistic, mental revolution. 

Historically, and to this day in some places, culture dictates that a woman is to be defined by her ability to carry children because it is a natural and God-given ability inalienable to women. In reality, it is biology that enables a woman to carry a child, in the same way that biology enables women to ‘naturally’ build walls and labour in every way imaginable. However, culture diverges from biology, with a varied set of standards about what is natural and acceptable for society. I believe that culture should adapt to the biological abilities of women and allow individuals to make decisions about their own bodies (because they are the same as the abilities of men) and in doing so open up new freedoms and opportunities for groups of people numbering at least 50% of whole nations populations. Throughout the long history of female oppression, the culturally accepted perception of how women should use their bodies has the effect of imagining women as sexual objects; they have no responsibility in society unless they have had canal knowledge and carried a child, and resultantly they surrender their freedoms to whichever man takes up the mantle of violence and protection for the family. As Harari makes clear, cultural perceptions — correct or myth — become fact when they are normalised long enough and so women believe in the same myths that preordain their often limiting role as a sexual object for producing children. Perhaps men are often led to believe that they must make displays of violence?

Fitting theory to a real life context can be a different matter. If a husband/father was to be the primary carer for a baby from its first breath, he would need powdered or bottled milk which is expensive, unavailable or unfeasible to keep safe in the average domestic Rwandan context. Therefore, it is possibly more efficient that women take care of young children for practical reasons such as breastfeeding. BUT, the short amount of time when a child needs breastfeeding should not dictate what a woman should do for her entire life. As Anne Marie-Slaughter wrote to summarise National Geographics, The Gender Issue, biology is not destiny. Additionally, the ultimate goal, surely, is to let all people define themselves as human beings, to break out of assigned categories and challenge received wisdom. These received wisdoms are to be found protected within Rwandan institutions and then fearfully guarded by the masses.

The writer is a public speaking trainer, leadership coach and student at the African Leadership University


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