Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter (M. Luther King)
Every year Forbes, an American business magazine releases a range of lists, the likes of “The World’s Most Powerful People”, “Africa’s 50 Richest”, “100 Richest Celebrities”, and other similar titles. Earlier this month, I came across a Forbes article that caught my eye: The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.” Forbes’ 2015 power women list features eight heads of state that run nations with a combined GDP of $ 9.1 trillion with over 600 million citizens. The list features Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton, who have both been on the list for the last 10 years. While Forbes claims that more women are taking powerful positions, the article does however, warn us that most women on this list are not the pointy head of the pyramid—such as Facebook’s Sandberg and Nigerian Minister Ngozi-Iwela. This article has left me with one lingering question:
What (could be holding back) or might have held back the momentum of the women’s rights in the US, in spite of the recent efforts of the United Nations and the world leaders to promote gender equality?
Looking at the current power structures around the world, it is obvious that men are still the power holders for at least the next few years and this may lead some proponents of the women’s rights movement to believe that women’s efforts to bring about change might have fallen short of the original expectations. Perhaps a fairer assessment of women’s achievement in modern time should not only be based on the outcomes of the women’s right movement but also should consider the complexity of issues that women face in today’s social structures.
Experts argue that promoting structural change in power relationships between men and women is inherently a political process that is likely to be contentious and challenging to both institutions and individuals. According to Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook Chief Operating Officer, and #8 on the Forbes list) , more female leadership would lead to fairer treatment for all women. Past experience indicate that, once in leadership positions, women can tackle the world’s most complex issues. For instance the Institute For Inclusive Security (IIS) provides examples of women’s role in conflict transformation in Liberia, Uganda, Colombia, and Somalia. Women’s involvement in peace building efforts in those countries showed other qualities that are not traditionally associated with them such as the ability to bridge warring factions and the potential to understand uniquely the needs of the community. However, such peace building efforts were mostly fueled by “revolutionary women” who overcame their “internal barriers” through formal education just like most of those who appear on the Forbes list. While one would neither expect nor encourage every woman in the world to have a prestigious background before they start thinking about fighting for their rights, we could at least reflect on the factors that make individuals improve their self-perception and ability to bring about social change. At the forefront of these factors are modern education systems which are utilized to “shape” the many personalities and attitudes of young boys and girls.
Even though figures indicate that in the US more women are graduating from schools at a rate higher than men’s, a critical analysis of the existing education practices indicate warning signs of gender inequalities deeply embedded in the current education systems. Research suggests that when boys and girls are in a classroom they are educated differently (Eitzen, 2000:257). Teachers react differently to boys and girls; they have different kinds of contacts with them, thus different expectations for boys and girls. Some research indicates that girls who were physically close to their teachers received more attention than did boys who were physically close. On the other hand, boys who were physically aggressive received more attention than did girls who were aggressive (Eitzen, 2000). There are multiple other factors related to existing educational systems that also contribute to gender inequalities especially in early years of formal education. Other examples include the content of preschool children’s books and the message they convey to boys and girls. For instance facts as simple as the ratio of pictures in textbooks highlight a male biased content. The male to female pictures ratio was 11:1 while that of male to female animals was 95:1. Similarly, adult role models portrayed in the books were very different. Men led, women followed. Also in those books, no woman had a job or a profession; they were always mothers and housewives.
So, is the education system holding back women’s self-actualization and empowerment? Very likely. Education systems, viewed as pathways leading to women’s self-determination are not necessarily preparing neither women nor men to live in gender sensitive societies. Some ways to “reboot” women’s revolution should start from a grassroots level and capitalize on the proven ability of education to enhance individuals’ self-perception. Educators and policy makers should redesign school curricula and reestablish classroom student to student and teacher to student relationships in a way that lays solid foundations to a gender sensitive generation. That generation goes even beyond gender mainstreaming policies and tackles some of the established social institutions that overtly or covertly discriminate against women.
Of great concern are ways the mainstream advertising and the pornographic industry portray women. Gail Dines, a fervent anti pornographic feminist contends that both the current pornographic industry and the mainstream media affect girls and women negatively by stripping them off their full human status and simply reducing them to sex objects. An extreme case of greater concern though, is the “Gendercide” or China’s One Child Policy that inevitably forces poor/countryside Chinese women to abort baby girls because of the social patriarchal pressures favoring baby boys. So in order to “reboot” women’s revolution, one should start with women’s empowerment through gender sensitive education systems and mainstream media advertising. Such systems will eventually transform them into power holders capable of not only unleashing the proven ability of women to turn things around but also by tackling the gender biased social institutions. In that way, I believe, women can achieve their full potential with confidence and pride.