We are living in a world where rhetoric is rife especially around women empowerment. It's a world where women only hold 4.4% of the CEO positions in Fortune 1000 companies.
This contradiction was clearly evident recently at Davos 2014, a World Economic Forum meeting of world leaders, where there was a clear underrepresentation of women.
This is despite the forum investing in programmes to promote the participation of women leaders in its activities.
The male leaders at the event, in response to this inequality, gave a standard well rehearsed response pledging to empower and give a better standing for women in their communities in the coming days and years.
There are a number of questions that need to be asked about the empowerment quagmire. Are there instances in history where women rose as a corporate body of people and became equal to their male counterparts in society? Does it benefit women to be given a footing in society so as to rise and be equal? Are there comparatives found when empowering marginalized groups?
For the purposes of this article let us try and answer each of these questions objectively.
Are there instances in history where women rose as a corporate body of people and became equal to their male counterparts in society? The answer is yes and no.
When you read Greek mythology, there are rich metaphors of a strong group of emancipated women who were warlike, courageous and brave termed as the Amazons who rose to power collectively and fought like men, and in certain levels even better than them. However, this depiction slowly starts to lose its luster, when you realize that for them to sustain their power they had to exist without men. Men were only enslaved to retain the women’s kingdom perpetuity.
While this story is mythical and its validity still open to discussion, it rings tragic and confirms stories told over and over again by men to confirm their fear of female dominance. It seems for women to succeed, men have to be removed from the picture or treated as subhuman, and in most instances women have to display the same brutish machismo to be considered equal.
Chairman Mao Zedong was vilified, more so for some of his draconian policies, including the one child policy. Having said so, Mao recognized the rights of women across the Chinese society. He acknowledged it essential to protect the interests of women, providing assistance to those who could not afford to continue their studies, and helping them organize in order to participate on an equal footing in all different sectors of the economy. Due to his stance the role of women in the Chinese society totally changed between 1949 and 1990. In fact, China’s female labor force participation is one of the most egalitarian in the world. A reflection of this fact is that more Chinese women contribute greatly to the family income. It is also imperative to note that half of all women billionaires come from China.
So, does it benefit women to be given a footing in society so as to rise and be equal?
Yes! However the solution is more complex than that. And I would like to assume this position while greatly appreciating the good work that has been done to uplift women over the last century. But I also think looking at certain societies will give a picture of what needs to be done.
If you look at the Gender Gap Index, the Nordic countries of Iceland, Finland and Norway and so forth seem to win the race. But are there other factors that need to be appreciated? For example, these countries have very well run governments that are almost fanatical about democracy, to a point of embracing immigrants from failed states in their local politics. Their economies are robust, education systems world class, very inclusive and affordable if not free up to the university level. They have some of the best affordable health services in the world that is available to their general public.
When we start to equate Gender equality with the services that are generally available to women in a country, then we start to ask questions like, would one as a woman rather be a citizen of Burundi which was featured at a high position of 22 in the Global Gender Gap index or be a citizen of Australia which was a lower 24 or better yet United States at 23.
I do believe there is a subtle intertwine between female genital mutilation, gender related violence, human trafficking, prostitution, illiteracy, extreme poverty and bad governance. A badly run country does not invest in health, infrastructure, education or other institutions and thus directly or indirectly relegates women to second-class citizenry.
Finally, are there comparatives found when empowering marginalized groups?
The world is male dominated; every sphere in society is patriarchal in nature. For example in politics, masculine traits are considered political attributes.
While women may be free to join politics, it still is an agency of male domination.
A good comparative of this is in South Africa when the White minority handed power to the Blacks. Because the economy was an agency of their heritage, they still dominate the economy of South Africa, more than 20 years after handing over power.
In retrospect the only way women can take charge and do so decisively, is when more of them rise up and offer an undiluted example for other women to aspire to, so that the world can embrace a more feminine model of modus operandi.
Article written for Management Magazine March 2014