Being a Woman in a 'Man's World' - Women's Stories
Story telling is an effective way of challenging the status quo. When we receive a story we do not merely draw applications or moral lessons from it, we inhabit it and the truth therein. In that way, the story becomes a part of us, or rather we become a part of its reality. When we as women name our experiences at work, we make them part of a living human narrative, part of our collective social reality. Therefore, by amplifying the voices of women we seek to unearth what lies at the root of the widespread disrespect of women in the workplace. What must change structurally to narrow the gap between the values employers espouse and the real experience of women in the workplace? How can we displace the old assumption that women should naturally be subservient in the workplace?
Assumptions that denigrate women are a carry-over from other contexts in our society where male dominance is taken for granted. Women need to valorise an alternative narrative to change social attitudes so that we can socialise our children and their children in an environment that takes gender equality seriously. Though women have today made impressive strides, they are still disadvantaged by lack of commitment to redress toxic power relations that deny women the autonomy and agency.
The importance of women in the workplace and in the society is well documented. To want to do it all and to do it well is a well-known female trait. Women’s productivity and contribution to the well-being of society is nothing but subservient. The UN Gender Report of 2012 captures the skewed worldwide facts regarding women’s work as follows, women:
• perform 66% of the world’s work;
• produce 50% of the world’s food;
• earn 10% of the income; and
• own (only) 1% of the property in the world.
The notion of equality is a contested and difficult term to reckon with. When courts decide equality-related cases, they take each case based on its merits rather than based on an established timeless principle that defines equality or the lack thereof. As a result, when the rights of a woman are infringed upon in the workplace, the burden of proof is on her. In such instances, women’s stories that corroborate each other are important in this regard. We have seen this kind of corroboration at play in the #MeToo movement. The individual stories of women’s experiences about how their rights are violated – written or told orally – form an important body of work that when used in juxtaposition with empirical research is a viable tool for advocacy and empowerment of women.
Below are three examples of women’s workplace issues with anecdotes from real women .
1. The proverbial ‘competing in a man’s world’
Women experience the proverbial ‘competing in a man’s world’ in the working environments because the workplace is a male-centred space to be in. The Church as an example of that, can be quite confining for women because the position it takes is theologically/religiously sanctioned. Cheryl Dibeela, an ordained woman from South Africa who resides in Botswana quipped, ‘I think the church is the worst at human rights of women in the work place.’
Although churches in Africa have recently been increasingly committing themselves to the fight for social justice and freedom and the call to stand for the rights of the marginalised has been growing louder, they are not as outspoken on the question of women. The late Pope John Paul once wrote, ‘The moment is coming, the moment has come, when woman's vocation is fully realised; the moment when woman takes on the power until now unattained. That is why at this time when humanity is undergoing so many changes women filled with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to help humanity not fail.’ (Papal Pastoral Letter, 1989). It is an encouraging meditation and call to radical action, change of mentality and a redefinition of the man-woman relations in the church. Yet it largely remains just a beautiful meditation. As an ordained minister of the United Church of Zambia, which has a relatively long history of ordaining women, I know how that would be. Structures remain persistently patriarchal. Ordination is not necessarily an invitation to lead the challenge to the oppressive culture, which persists even when women occupy leadership positions. Therefore, although on paper women are welcome, but the structures remain prohibitive.
For instance, the traditional understanding has been that women play a supportive role to men as reflected in the role of the minister’s wife. Though not employed by the church, she was / is the unpaid extra whose role was / is to offer hospitality and to be a mother figure of the congregation. Implicitly, women clergy are expected to play the duo role of minister and minister’s wife rolled into one. Competing in the man’s world, means the woman minister’s performance is evaluated against hospitality and mothering skills in addition to ministry skills. Only the latter applies to her male counterparts.
This experience is not field-specific. I have heard stories of women corporate executives mistaken for personal assistants who must serve rather than participate in meetings as decision-makers. Then, there are myriad ways in which male colleagues undermine their female counterparts based solely on their gender.
2. Duality in women’s lives
Outdated policies in many corporates and other organisations entail the assumption that a woman’s personal life and child-bearing will affect her work performance. On the other hand, there is the age-old assumption that a woman’s career negatively affects her roles as mother and wife. As a result, working women find themselves conflicted internally, even as they work in environments that do not support their diverse roles. Successful career women are often asked how they balance their work and personal lives. Successful career men never have to answer that question.
Research has shown that when duality is harnessed, it can prove to be an advantage, not just for the individuals but for employers too. It makes women more suitable for leadership roles that require multi-tasking and flexibility. The question is, how many institutions and employers recognise this gift and create room for its expression?
When women take leave to have children, sometimes companies do not restore the opportunities they would have missed while away. World-renowned tennis player Serena Williams who recently returned to the game after giving birth has highlighted this issue. The assumption is that family takes precedence henceforth or that balancing a heavy workload with the demands of family is too much. The bigger question then becomes how women can use such stories to challenge the very structure of the workplace, which limits women by failing to accommodate their needs.
Arising from that is the assumption that women cannot handle stress as well as their male counterparts. That is true only to the extent that the male-centred spaces in which women work do no accommodate their life-experiences.
Additionally, sexual harassment in the workplace is a stressor for women who are more likely than men are to become the victim of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is difficult to prove, embarrassing to report and compounded by the fact that the burden of proof is on the woman.
While working for an international organisation in Singapore, Mona received a call from her boss while he was away on a work trip abroad. He asked to meet her for coffee after work when he returned. She was still new and not sure how to respond to such a request, so she said yes. On the day, she went to his office just as others were knocking off. She had a premonition that this request was not innocent. She went in with pen and notebook in her hand to signal that she expected a work-related meeting. Her boss noticed and nonchalantly dismissed her from his office saying the planned ‘coffee date’ would not happen. The organisation’s values plaque greets visitors to the office stating the organisation’s commitment to justice in relationships and mutual accountability. Mona later resigned after her boss created a hostile environment for her and would ridicule her at every opportunity. She could never have proved the validity of sexual undertones of the incident. Nevertheless, she knows and trusts her experience and continues to tell her story because she knows it echoes the experience of other women.
The 2018 South Africa Film and Television Awards poignantly highlighted the problem of sexual harassment in the film industry through its #ITSNOTOK campaign hashtag. The entire audience stood and read a pledge during the ceremony as an act of solidarity and commitment to the cause. This is one example of a platform that is capable of amplifying women’s stories.
3. Women taking their power back
The UN General Secretary, Antonio Guiterrez recently said, “Gender equality is a question of power. And power is never given, it is always taken. That is why the empowerment of women is our most important objective.” Kalila worked as a middle manager for a US funded organisation in Zambia. She could not explain the sudden insolence of one of the administrative staff she supervised. She later discovered that the boss had been having an affair with the female worker in question, which had emboldened her to act as the boss’s proxy. The organisation clearly forbids sexual relationships in the work place, particularly where there is a skewed power dynamic. Kalila confronted her boss, at the risk of losing her job. She did not lose her job owing to the congruence of sound grievance processes in the organisation.
Women’s stories are laments that help to vent pent-up feelings that arise from work experiences that threaten to take away our power. However, the stories are not just laments; they must lead us to ask deeper questions, to disrupt the status quo and to replace it with more life-affirming alternatives. We need to connect with our own personal and local stories as well as connect to women’s stories beyond our immediate contexts. When we connect our stories within networks, we amplify our voices for the cause of gender justice. The Agreed Conclusions of the just ended 2018 UN Commission on the Status of Women has a natural link to the subject of this article (see http://www.unwomen.org/en/csw/csw62-2018). It is an example of a movement with which to identify this cause. It is equally important to pay attention to research outputs on the issues of women in the work place to inform and undergird our advocacy.
This article serves its purpose if it stimulates further thought on the subject and prompts more stories. Story telling is an important strategy for empowerment. Empowerment happens when the strengths women and the contribution they bring to the workplace are recognised and utilised. More importantly, the structure of the workplace itself needs to be responsive to the contribution of women. Telling our stories of experiences in the workplace is not an end in itself. Ultimately, these stories must challenge the status quo of the male-centred nature of the work place and creatively offer alternatives of how to transform the workplace to suit both women and men.
Rev. Kuzipa Nalwamba, PhD