AsianScientist (May 4, 2016) – “I have had FGM [female genital mutilation] performed on me,” said a lady of East African origin dressed in a polka dotted blouse and long black skirt.
Her hair was ironed straight, tied back untidily in a small ponytail. Her face bore years of restraint and controlled emotions; the words tumbled out of her in an almost insouciant fashion. She is a high-ranking judge now. The room was filled with women of other esteemed positions from various parts of Africa. We were gathered in a circular room in a forum to engage and strengthen the roles of these women in leadership. They applauded her candor, as did I. She was warmly embraced and we held hands.
Throughout history, women have been queens, empresses and princesses. Women have also been scientists, politicians and writers. Women have also almost always been mothers, and always been a daughter. Women comprise approximately half of the world’s population, and the inclusion of women in the workforce has been shown to yield higher returns on equity.
And in a shocking non sequitur, women are still largely perceived as unequal to men. There is a Chinese proverb that says, ‘it is more profitable to raise geese than daughters.’
Sixty two million girls around the world are denied an education due to their gender. Women represent two thirds of people globally who are illiterate. Some 15 million girls under age 18 are married off by their families. In the United States, women are paid 79 cents to the dollar. In much of the African continent, women drive much of the informal economy that is unaccounted for.
A global problem
In Tanzania, I saw women farming with babies strapped tightly to their backs in kitenge cloth. Some young men were lolling on grassy knolls by the street; some others had gone out fishing. In Malaysia and Singapore, women are seen at work all the time—selling nasi lemak, kickstarting projects, helming companies. Beyoncé is pop culture’s loudest and most popular spokeswoman for feminism, creating art while managing to shout profanities at Jay-Z re: his philandering ways. Women are workers, caregivers, cooks, chambermaids, and sources of stable income all at once.
However, it is 2016 and men in power still have the final say in what women do with their reproductive systems and bodies. Domestic violence and aggression against women is still an issue that pervades many societies across the world. Donald Trump—likely presidential candidate of the Republican Party and famous misogynist and an all-around classically hateful person—tweeted: “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?”
Although powerful businesswomen like Sheryl Sandberg have suggested quite simply that more women just ought to “lean in” at every meeting, there is evidence to suggest why women don’t. Studies have shown that women are actually perceived negatively when more voluble in the boardroom compared to men. Conversely, men are perceived negatively when they are less voluble in the boardroom. The social constructs that have been placed upon us are difficult to shake off.
Women in STEM
The field of science and technology is an area that is also sorely lacking in the participation of women. Women may make up slightly over 50 percent of the world’s university students, and around 50 percent of those who pursue doctoral science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees in the US and Europe are female, but yet less than 20 percent of full professors are women. Why?
Childcare is one of them. Culture and the prevailing notion that women are naturally more inclined towards non-STEM subjects is another. The fact that men dominate at all levels of the academic hierarchy—from editorial boards, grant reviews to hiring committees—cements the idea that science and academia are institutionally sexist.
Meg Urry, a Yale physicist, argues that “The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.” Einstein, too, argued famously that genius is “99 percent hard work and one percent talent.” Do women give up too easily? Are women told to give up all the time?
A male professor once told me that a PhD would be a waste of time and it would be better to have children first before it was too late.
“Don’t be like me and have kids when you’re 40,” he said.
All along, women have been conditioned to aspire to get married and have children, when men have been conditioned to achieve power and money. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton professor and influential thinker, argues that women can never have it all.
To change this, she says, we need to foster productive discussions about when and how to allow women to have a family while still being able to pursue their ambitions, i.e. being happy in both work and family life. The way forward is obviously not so simplistic, but when we do come together to talk about women in the workplace, perhaps then it will be less profitable to raise geese than daughters.
This article is from a monthly column called Our Small World. Click here to see the other articles in this series.
Source: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.