Solomon Elusoji writes about gender inequality and what young women can do to change the narrative

Minutes before the start of a European Union-organised women conference held recently in Lagos, a group of women had a roundtable discussion about the gender related challenges they face in their workplaces. Ojuolape Arojo, a vivacious young lady who founded and runs a delivery service start-up, said she gets surprise reactions from people when they realise she works in logistics. “They can’t believe a woman is in this industry,” she said.

But that ‘surprise’, according to Sangoleye Oluwaseun, the Chief Executive Officer of a company that deals in baby products, also comes with certain ‘privileges’ when it comes from a man. “I think it stems from the chivalrous nature of men; I have had many instances where just being a woman paved ways for me to access some privileges I had no rights to.”
When the question of whether women were disadvantaged, in terms of economic opportunities, was raised, Onyeka Ezeamama, who works at a real-estate company, answered in the negative. “This idea that women are ‘disadvantaged’ is a social construct that binds women to not think too high,” she said. “As far as I am concerned, it’s a level playing field out there.”

The conversation ebbed on, as the women considered factors such as religion, culture and societal values in the evaluation of a woman’s ability to will herself to personal success in the modern world, until a gruffy voice boomed from the well positioned speakers announcing the start of the conference.

The grim-grim data
Across the world, gender inequality, the idea that women need to get better economic and social deals, is a hot topic. Even in the developed world, women continue to be short-changed. For example, according to data from Workplace Gender Equality Agency, every country in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a gender pay gap in favour of men. On the average, women in the OECD earn 15.1 per cent less than men and the median gender pay gap across OECD countries ranges from 36.7 per cent in Korea, to 3.3 per cent in Belgium. The gender pay gap is the difference between women’s and men’s pay, based on the average or median difference in pay, expressed as a percentage of men’s earnings. Over a lifetime, the cumulative effect of the gender pay gap and other factors, such as time spent out of the workforce, and unconscious bias, contribute to women retiring with far less superannuation savings and a higher risk of living in poverty in retirement than men.

In less developed countries like Nigeria, the statistics are grimmer. While women in Nordic countries have up to 45 per cent representation in parliament, women in Nigeria continue to be under represented at every level in governance or positions of power. For instance, at the national parliament in 2011, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBE), 93.6 per cent of seats were occupied by men, compared to a mere 6.4 per cent recorded for women. Similar patterns were also depicted at the state and local government levels, including the judiciary. This is despite the fact that women make up about half of the electorate and have attained the right to vote and hold public offices.

For example, African women are one of the most illiterate people in the world. In a study published in the African Journal of Reproductive Health in 2010, it was showed that in Northern Nigeria, there is a high gender inequality in education, which places the majority of young girls at a severe disadvantage.

The cross-sectional study examined enrolment, dropout, and primary school completion rates in three communities in Kaduna State. It found out that less than half of young people (6 – 25 years) living in northern Nigeria are currently enrolled in school and the majority of students are males (60 per cent). The analysis indicated that there are nearly twice as many boys graduating from primary school as compared to girls, and the dropout rate for boys is close to half (3 per cent) of the dropout rate for girls (5.4 per cent). According to the study, no more than 20 per cent of women in the North-west and North-east of the country are literate.

The statistics may be more favourable in other parts of the continent, but the average numbers still show considerable gaps between educated males and females on the continent.

The researchers concluded that the high level of out-of-school girls has grave implications that are detrimental to the society as a whole and will affect girls’ lives negatively in all ramifications. It is true: uneducated girls can easily slip into the margins of societies, ending up less healthy, less skilled, with fewer choices, and remain ill-prepared to participate in the political, social and economic development of their communities. “As under educated women, they will remain at higher risk of poverty, maternal mortality, child mortality, HIV/ AIDS, sexual exploitation, and other forms of violence,” the study opined.

Women who thrive
One of the speakers at the recent EU conference, themed ‘Reducing Institutional and Cultural Barriers for Young Women’s Entrepreneurship’, was Ndidi Nwuneli. Nwuneli belongs to an elite group of successful women whose essence disprove the theory that women are inferior. After working at McKinsey, she received an MBA from Harvard at 24 and served as the Executive Director of the FATE Foundation, Nwuneli, at 28, established Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability and Professionalism (LEAP) Africa. This leadership development organisation has worked in 26 states across Nigeria, providing leadership training and coaching to more than 30,000 people. They include entrepreneurs, teachers and young people—the human infrastructure of the future.

Nwuneli has been recognised as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and has received a National Honour from the Nigerian Government. In 2011, she was listed as one of the 20 Youngest Power African Women by Forbes. In 2013, she was honoured by the Global Fund for Women during their 25th Anniversary Celebration in San Francisco. She serves on numerous international and local boards including Nestle Nigeria, Cornerstone Insurance, Nigerian Breweries Plc. and USAID’s Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid.

“You need to develop a clear personal mission and vision,” Nwuneli told the group of young women at the conference, after outlining the institutional and cultural barriers that will bedevil their growth in a society like Nigeria. “You need to identify mentors, critics and role models and create a support network. It takes a village.” These, she pointed out, were some of the things she took into cognisance when she started LEAP. “I didn’t know anybody and my father was not a big man, but one of the first things I did was to invest in a Board of Directors and surround myself with individuals who share my vision and values.”

It can be argued that Nwuneli’s education prepared her for success, but even foreign degrees are not an inoculation against the way society perceives a woman. The famous medical doctor and founder of Flying Doctors Nigeria, an air ambulance service, Dr. Ola Orekunrin (now Ola Brown) also spoke at the EU conference. She was motivated to start the company after her younger sister tragically died whilst travelling in Nigeria as a consequence of the lack of a medical air service to transport her to an appropriate hospital.
Growing the company to what it is today, however, was a big challenge for Ola, as she was constantly criticised for being too hyperactive and behaving “like a man”.

“People thought I was not going to get a husband, because of my restlessness,” she said. When she bought her first car, which was worth about 10 million naira, a confederation of aunties paid her a visit and said she was on the verge of scaring away every potential suitor. Although now married, she noted that she had to “ignore” such talks and focus on building her business. “Women have to make a conscious effort to tear down these walls and speak out against every form of gender bias.”

The biology-curse theory
There are naturalistic theories that attempt to explain away gender inequality as a consequence of the biological differences between the sexes. This means that the value in which we place on either gender is determined by the vicissitudes of evolution. So, for example, women are less likelier to be paid more than their male counterparts because they get pregnant and are perceived to be weak and emotional – qualities which are frowned at in capitalistic ventures.
It is necessary to point out that although these theories are built on little or no academic evidence, but psychologically, they are beliefs widely held and entrenched among diverse cultures.

To blame biology for the sad history of the economic and political oppression of women might be shallow, but it sheds light on some of the root sources of outdated cultural and social philosophies which put women at a disadvantage.
At the EU conference, one of the women told this reporter a story about how she goes to work despite suffering from menstrual cramps. She heads a team composed of males and wouldn’t want to be seen taking days off for things as ‘trivial’ as a cramp. In other words, she has to do more, endure more pain, to prove that she can do what a man can do.

“It’s not fair, but life isn’t fair,” Ifeoma Idigbe, one of the panellists at the EU conference and a business analyst with over 30 years of professional experience in corporate consulting said. “It’s the same way that black people have to work harder in a white environment, because they are not expected to do well and they have something to prove. So because we have something to prove, we work harder to prove we can do it and that childbirth and all these other inconveniences don’t affect our ability to think and deliver. These are temporary inconveniences and, anyway, life has to go on. People shouldn’t let biology interfere.”