The phrase ‘women’s work’ has different meanings depending on culture and society, however recent data shows that regardless of what one thinks a woman’s work is, it is almost always undervalued and underpaid. As one Guardian article noted, we live in a world that refuses either to measure the work that women do, or formally acknowledge it as economic activity.
On 24 March, 2016, the United Nations (UN) wrapped up its 61st Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with a resolution to “ensure women’s full and equal participation and leadership in the economy, as well as women’s right to work and rights at work, as a vital step to achieving sustainable development”.
This will be no easy task. As the CSW itself noted, women do the vast majority of unpaid work, including child care, cooking, cleaning and farming. This unpaid work is essential for households and economies to function, but it is also valued less than paid work. Even when women attain formal employment, they are paid less than men – an average of $0.77 USD to every $1, and often at rates below decent living wages.
In Nigeria, as in many countries, women face sexual harassment and discrimination at every level of formal and informal work, most of which is not acknowledged or redressed. And they continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions in government, business and education.
The Education Solution
Over the last two months, I have been talking with gender activists in a variety of industries in Nigeria. When asked about the solutions to persistent issues of gender inequality, they usually point to education. Making sure that girls go to school and stay there until they graduate is important, however, looking at the statistics, I am not sure that education alone is enough.
According to data, girls generally do better in school than boys. In her 2010 article ‘The End of Men’ about changing gender relations in the American workplace, Hannah Rosin pointed out that, for every two men who get a college degree in the US, three women do the same. Boys struggle more with reading and writing, and the US’ National Endowment of the Arts reported a correlation – though not necessarily causation – between lower levels of literacy and lower levels of academic achievement.
Girls’ educational excellence doesn’t always pay dividends when it comes to their employment as women, though. Across Africa, Asia and Latin America, women with the same levels of secondary and university education remain unemployed longer than their male counterparts, and when hired they are paid less and promoted slower. According to a 2012 British Council report, a woman with a Bachelor’s Degree in Nigeria can expect to earn the same as a man with a secondary school certificate and a woman with a secondary school certificate will earn the same as a man with no education at all.
The Real Change
I believe the real change needs to come not simply from educating girls, but in broadening the ways we educate both sexes. Today’s world increasingly calls for a full range of skills and traits that cut across the traditional divide of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. Success in the global economy tends to go to those who can best demonstrate the right balance of assertiveness, empathy, open communication, cooperation and self-motivation. Societies that are unwilling to adapt to these realities will lose out on opportunities to stabilise, grow, and lift their populations out of poverty.
On one hand, Nigeria’s ailing education system must be improved. On the other, what is taught also needs to shift. Our daughters need to be taught courage over perfection, and our sons must learn to value traits such as empathy, openness and communication. We need to teach boys how to work in cooperative groups instead of dominating teams and we need to instil in them the discipline required to concentrate on abstract ideas for long periods of time. Girls must learn that femininity and ambition are not mutually exclusive.
An Urgent Need
The need for change is often framed in abstract terms of ‘justice, equality and fairness’, but there are concrete costs to disempowering women in the workplace. As the CSW noted, failing to educate girls to the same standard as boys lost 65 low- and middle-income countries about $92bn a year. And according to the IMF, if women and men had more equality at work, it would increase GDP in several economies – in the US by 5%, in Japan by 9% and in Egypt by 34%.
Lack of women in power costs us in terms of leadership. A Harvard Business Review article pointed out that prejudiced stereotypes about what makes a good leader often cause us to misinterpret displays of confidence as signs of competence and leadership potential. The end result is that we promote self-centred, overconfident and narcissistic individuals – and these are usually men – over more competent women. This concentration of incompetent male leaders means that “the majority of nations, companies, societies and organizations are poorly managed”.
The structure of global power is shifting, moving away from the West. In this changing landscape Nigeria has a chance to reposition itself, taking advantage of new opportunities for trade, investment and diplomacy. Similarly, the world of work is also transforming, spurred by innovation, globalization and increasing human mobility, notes the UN. However, progress is overshadowed by the threats of climate change and widening inequality between the rich and the poor.
If Nigeria wants a sustainable and healthy economy, and the grounded leadership that can help it navigate the coming storm, it must work to empower its women and re-educate its men to see value in the feminine. Only by doing this will our children grow into the kinds of adults who can take advantage of the new global economy.