March 8 is celebrated as International Women’s Day, and the theme this year is ‘Inspiring Change‘, ‘challenging the status quo for women’s equality and vigilance inspiring positive change’. Not surprisingly, we see a lot of press and other media coverage on the general topic, and probably more of an eye on the lack of ‘equality’. For me, it is important to understand if equal opportunities exist, rather than equal outcomes. There are many reasons why results will be different, given the same opportunities at the outset–not least, is the matter of personal choice.
In Jamaica, discussions in recent days have focused on the underrepresentation of women in national elective politics. Caricom’s Secretary General, Irwin LaRocque (a man; in fact, only men have ever held the position) commentated that women’s participation fallen short of ‘target of 30 per cent’. I’m not sure why 30 per cent is viewed as optimal. There are many reasons why representation is the way it is. What does Caricom know about the barriers to women getting elected? What are they doing to remove those? If they involve social barriers, then change is unlikely to be fast, as it takes decades for the so-called ‘big ideas’ to filter down to all levels of a society. Given the general rural nature of most Caribbean countries, ideas wont move much in a decade. All one has to consider is the pace of other changes. In Jamaica–not directly connected, we are still planning to eradicate pit latrines in schools, with a target date of 2016. That is not to condone the outcome, but to try to see the context.
The Caribbean is made up of developing countries, where information moves relatively slowly; where traditions are strong; where values don’t change because some bureaucrat or other person says that it would be a good thing. Think about how programs to eradicate disease have fared: communities held onto tried and trusted remedies rather than vaccines; people trust what they take to be ‘instincts’. The best things in lives are things that people can trace back over decades, even centuries.
Many communities have put women into certain social positions and it will take more than good wishes for that to change, even if all agree that the change is good–and it is unlikely to ever be all.
Jamaica has many women who could be role models for what it means to succeed in a world that is still dominated by males. The most prominent of these is the country’s prime minister, enjoying her second stint as the nation’s leader and having just celebrated 40 years in representative politics. Mrs. Simpson-Miller is a formidable woman. What I know of her personal story, however, is similar to that of many women who have had to struggle past the barriers men impose, including being in an abusive relationship with a man. She has risen through that and been notable for Jamaicans and internationally, for instance being amongst Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential Persons in the World” in 2012. She is amongst a handful of women who have become national political leaders in the Caribbean; Trinidad currently also has a woman heading their political regime.
Jamaica’s gender ratio is about equal between men and women, yet, not unlike many countries, the share of women in the country’s activities is not equal. If one looks around Jamaica, it is easy to see many women in all facets of its economy and society. Many times, however, we see women as the principal actors. That makes me wonder about any quotas. When I drive the streets early in the morning, most of the street cleaners are women. Do they have more innate skills? Are they the main applicants for the jobs? Are they preferred to men for other reasons? When I go to the market, most of the vendors are women. I can ask some similar questions. But, there I would need to consider that, if these women are farmers, maybe their men are at home tilling the fields and tending to other domestic duties. Just because I see a woman does not mean that the world is biased against them; I see some life choices and social arrangements that may work very well and need not be changed by force or edict.
Why are men dominant in some fields? Is there a brotherhood of taxi and bus drivers, with special male-oriented initiation rites? Where are the female DJs? Why do companies only have skimpily-clad women lying across cars or passing out trays of drinks? The companies are run by men, mainly, so… Why are banks filled with female staff? Men are no good with money? Men cannot speak to people? One of Jamaica’s big banks is not headed by a woman. Does that mean the face of the banks will become more bristly?
I read some discussions yesterday about the world of the ‘trailing spouse’–the partner who gets to travel to other locations while the other partner pursues career moves. Many of the comments were from women. I noted that they seemed to not see the many men, one woman talking about how few they were and that they were below the radar. I’m a travelling spouse, and often see men in a similar situation. We all appear very visibly and play a role that is vital for our families. I’d like to think that for the women in our positions, that too is the case. I could complain about being forced to move, and lament the limited work options I have in a foreign country, given my hard-earned skills and a career that might have been blooming and not ready to be chopped down.
I joined a club of French-speaking people for monthly lunches and discussions. They were glad to have me along–I was the only man 🙂 Why was that? The reasons were many. Some of the participants were ‘trailing spouses’, but many were ‘leading spouses’ (eg an Ambassador, a head of organization, a writer-artist, etc.) I don’t hear them talking much about the inequalities they have faced, which is not to say they don’t exist. The point is that they get on with their lives and make the contributions they can. I know some of them are in social fields, eg, running a school, or have businesses. Jamaican is the main single nationality, and most of the foreigners have been in Jamaica many years, some married to Jamaican men.
I live in a world ‘dominated’ by women–there are five of them in my household on a daily basis. I am NOT the head of household. The other ‘men’ living with us are not in positions of power–one is my aged father, mainly bed-ridden, but active in his own way; the other is a puppy (newly introduced, but getting to know us all). For me, it’s been that way for many decades. As a husband, I have assumed many roles. I do not fix things, routinely: I like to think that all of the intelligent women around me can figure out what to do, and manage most of it, physically. I am often called upon to perform ‘heroics’–move snakes, take out bats, remove flying birds, confront the ‘makers of noise’ during the night: “Dennis, go and see what that is!” I am not super brave. I have no cape or powers not held by other humans; I cannot fly. I do what I want to and much of what I am asked. I think that goes for everyone in the household.
I believe in equal opportunities, so give all of the women a good chance to take out the garbage; they usually refuse (no pun intended). Why? To get the women in my life to change has not been a mission of mine, but it’s been interesting to see how people adapt to circumstances. Our home is rented. I’ve owned a house and been in the position of having to deal with all of its problems: many I could do myself, but many needed the help of other professionals, most of those were men. We like climbing ladders and walking on roofs? We like lying under sinks? We are good at operating pumps?
I cook reasonably well, and would never die if a women did not set foot in my kitchen. My mother raised me well: “Never get married because you are hungry, need a shirt ironed, or have a button missing…” She gave me the skills to cope in life without the help traditionally given by women. I know many men, who have no idea what to do when put into a kitchen, other than to sit and wait for food to be put in front of them. I also know many women who relish seeing their men sitting at the table waiting for them to bring the meals. I’m regarded as odd for wanting to go and share out my own food, or cook it if I want. That’s part of the world I know.
All of my children are females, for which I give many thanks. I dont think I have ever been guilty of imposing a role on them based on their gender. I encourage them to stand tall and demand to be treated as equals, even better, superiors 🙂 They are often faced with males who have drunk the Kool-Aid of a different flavour: “Girls are not as active as boys”, “Girls can’t do that”, “My Dad says that’s not for boys; only girls do…” When I’m around such conversations, I often end up with some boy being a bit befuddled by questions that press his notion of what it means to be male. I cannot tell you if they have changed permanently, but for the time they are in our space, they are reoriented.
I love it that my youngest daughter swims faster than most of the boys in her age group; that may not last for long, but it’s good for the moment. I love it that my first-born chose to study in Canada, in part because the legal drinking age was lower than in the US and she could wait to try beer. I love it that she has girl friends who love to play rugby; she doesn’t herself, but appreciates it from her uncles and a grandfather. I love it that my stepdaughter decided to try to become a doctor.
I got quite animated last week with a group of women. One was lamenting that my daughter swam, and saying that the broad shoulders that swimmers develop looked very ‘unfeminine’. I seemed to be the only person prepared to defend the shape of women no matter what. The ‘slender is best’ brigade were in full flight. I asked whether they believed their own views and was greeted with “men want a woman who looks beautiful”. I had to go a little into what ‘beauty’ was. All of that stuff that’s written about people’s inability to love themselves as they are was flooding into my head. Let’s say that I made my point and thought it best to leave the ladies to figure themselves out.
I love it that my wife appears in the newspapers smiling at a bunch of other men, and wowing the editors with her dress sense. She’s an international representative and is the counterpart of political and business leaders. Her academic and professional training are similar to mine, but I have no problem with her being ‘the face’ of the family. I get my jollies elsewhere. I’m not fazed by being ‘the husband of…’. She did not seem fazed by being ‘the wife of…’ when I was representing. I’ve never had her iron any of my clothes, but I’ve pressed many of hers. She gets to participate in parenting whenever she’s on the island, and that’s not too often. Our daughter, somehow, has managed to grow up as a reasonably well-balanced and nourished child without her mother being in her pocket day and night.
The women in my life could be called ‘independent’. They all reached that point through different routes. They are all strong in a variety of ways. One of them is the breadwinner for her family, far away in Africa; without her, they would be in a rough way. My father is looked after by two women who have caring running through their veins. Every nurse who attends him is a women. His doctor is a woman. Yet, my father, by profession was a nurse. Ironic? A little.
How should we inspire change? Give a person a chance to be something. Object to every thing that seeks to categorize a person based on gender (much as we should because of race, or manner of speech, or other forms of arbitrary division).
Yes, many women may be ‘held down’ literally and socially, but many women are happy holding themselves down.
The change we say we want is not that which comes from it being written on paper or stated in quota. It comes because we believe in it.