On Gender

In life one gets accused of so many things especially when you are in leadership. I was coached not to preoccupy myself with accusations that are made against myself but once in a while you stumble on a claim that is made against which you feel is unfair and instead deserves a fair debate. I recently stumbled upon a claim that I am gender insensitive. Ouch! That stings. My approach in this blog is not to denigrate or call names upon those making those claims but instead argue my case and also hopefully learn from their input in a personal but also very intellectual way.

Let me start off with my personal background. I was raised by a no-nonsense mother in a family of six (4 girls and 2 boys), our dad sadly passed on when I was only 12 and I was doing form one at the time. In my mother’s house there was no boy or girl. We were all her children and had to contribute equally to the tasks at home; we didn’t have the luxury of a maid, once in a while a relative would come from the village stick around a bit but even then we all played a part. I remember vividly cleaning the toilets at home and many other household chores. I grew up with a clear sense of equality between boys and girls, besides at school I almost always came second to a girl. Most of my best friends were girls (and not they are ladies), even up to now and I appreciate the input they have made into my life.

Please indulge me as I continue with my personal background – when I got to University I found myself in two study circles one on Marxism (thanks to Munyaradzi Gwisai) and another on Pan-Africanism (thanks to Deprose Muchena). For those who know these traditions you will appreciate that they give pride of place to women’s emancipation. As an activist scholar I have developed lifelong relationships with some of the most progressive feminists on the continent and have been part of the struggles for women’s improved access to land and transforming the social relations of production on the farms. I have also as a small way of my contribution to the development of others mentored seven youngsters and of these five are female who have gone on to pursue Masters’ Degrees in prestigious universities despite the earlier challenges of low self-esteem that they faced or just lack of information on where to go or what to do next. Spiritually, one of my signature interventions has been putting together a program for women starting a savings club. In fact, had it not been for the challenging business environment in Zimbabwe by now I would have been working for a women’s bank together with other progressive sisters. In my family life, we are currently based in a small town outside of Harare and for those who know my love for the bright lights and also just the inconvenience of being away from Harare given my hectic travel schedule you will appreciate the sacrifice – it’s for my wife to actualize in her professional development.

My take on gender (especially the relations part)

I think gender unlike other identities such as the sex of a person (male or female) is not static, it is a highly socialized and fluid process and that’s why I started off with my upbringing and tried to demonstrate that even though patriarchy is pervasive its impact is not necessarily even. I was never told that I had privilege by virtue of being male. However, that does not mean that I totally understand the struggles faced by women or I can lecture them about what needs to be done or even how they look at the world. One can never speak with the same level of competency and confidence on behalf of the oppressed or marginalized but we still have to try. However, I honestly still think that the struggle about women’s rights is misunderstood in many circles. The struggle is NOT against men but instead against a system of patriarchy that through corruption of culture, traditions and norms makes men superior.

Secondly, and I think this has resonance for this discussion, whilst the struggle is about equality it is only through the pursuit of equity that it can be achieved. Equality demands without equity concerns have led us to a narrow pre-occupation with the number of women within a process, be it in parliament, number of female heads of state on a continent, number of female senior managers in an organisation, number of female board members within a particular board, etc. Then we use such quantitative head-counting studies to confirm whether we are making progress or not. For sure we need more female presidents, more female CEOs etc but the key question(s); (i) to what extent does improved representation contribute towards transformation of the lived social realities; (ii) is representation enough- what else needs to change?

I agree that women are the majority in terms of the overall population and as such they should be prominent in all positions of power. Granted. But I am not convinced with the fact that alone will transform gender relations. No. We still have a long way to go in terms of dismantling the pillars of patriarchy and gender inequality. For example, I have worked alongside others to dismantle customary tenure in the newly resettled areas of Zimbabwe as part of a broader systemic transformation of rural gender relations. The challenge of patriarchy based/informed customary tenure is not unique to Zimbabwe but spreads across the continent and if we devote sufficient energy towards ensuring that women have just as much similar rights to land as men then we would have won half the battle. New land tenure regimes that recognise the rights of women will help unlock financial value for the majority of women smallholders. I can go on with this example but the point I am making is that the struggle around gender equality should encompass the democratisation of the broader frameworks of social organisation and development.

Whilst the care economy has been widely accepted as a major contribution to family and societal well-being, we are yet to create sufficient conditions for professional women to drop off and re-enter the work-place without being negatively prejudiced by taking maternity breaks. To be fair patriarchy is not the beneficiary of reproduction anymore but a certain form capitalism which thrives on cheap labour. African patriarchy based agrarian systems depended on reproduction of cheap family labour and that’s why mostly the males paid dowry as an appreciation to the wife’s family but also to be blunt as a purchase of a labour producing machine – have you noticed the dowry was always paid when a child was born and the remainder when other children are born. But with the movement into urban settings where social reproduction is now dependent on the basis of paid employment – children have become an economic burden to families unlike in agrarian settings.  In such a case the state and the market should heavily invest in social policy regimes that ensure the well-being of women and also bear the costs of raising children given that they will ultimately service the needs of capital.

Furthermore, men are just as insecure in the employment space. They no longer have control over the means of production but are instead just as dependent on formal employment as their female counterparts. I have also heard of talk of old boys’ networks and how they help one get the ‘deal’ or even the promotion but honestly there are also men who are just as excluded from these. More and more women are also creating their own networks or challenging the male dominated platforms. Obviously there are certain conditions that remain different, women still have special needs such as where possible, considerations for monthly breaks during the menstrual cycle and also ensuring that the prices of sanitary pads remain regulated and affordable to many.

So yes we can tick the boxes about the number of women in senior management but I honestly think it shouldn’t be about that. When I look at my female colleagues heading institutions across the continent I know they will feel insulted if somebody was to insinuate that their selection was based on being women instead of being the best in the pool of candidates. The world has changed so much, and although I am aware of cases where women need preferential treatment (like those at the bottom of the pyramid) we also have to acknowledge that in the majority of cases they are just as good if not better than their male counterparts.

Honestly there is more to the debate on gender relations at the work-place. To others the solution should be a policy document. I have just taken a look at the policies we have at our organization – more than 14 – and we will soon be adding another one on gender-but the question remains besides a policy what else can we do? One of the things that I am proud of is that the majority of our staff training budget has been spent on women advancing themselves in the past three years. But my fear remains; we are ticking the box on something that is honestly a lived reality that needs more than just a policy document. Maybe we need a core set of values that we will practice. I do not want to trivialize the concerns raised by others but instead I am inviting colleagues to a real debate about how we can improve gender relations within our organisations especially for us who claim to be forces for good and I cannot claim to speak on behalf of our female colleagues.

Happy Friday!