3 Things I’ve Learned From My Experiences with Cultural Bias against Women

I was in Abuja last week facilitating a workshop for government officials in West Africa. While there, I had an interesting conversation with some of the participants who work in the public sector about the early years of their careers when they faced some harsh discrimination because they were young and/or because they were women. The conversation jogged my memory of my own experiences with discrimination when I was also starting out in my career. In this blog, I share these experiences and what I’ve learned from them.

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My first and most painful memory of discrimination was around 2006 when I was working with the African Union’s governance programme. I was part of a technical team invited for a meeting with the then Minister of Public Service in South Africa. In the middle of the meeting, my boss gestured for me to serve the tea that had been placed on the table. I tried to ignore it at first but he made it painfully obvious, even asking a representative from UNDP, who was seated next to him, to tell me to serve the tea. I was mortified. Here I was, a 20 something year old LSE alum that needed to prove herself. With all eyes on me, I stood up slowly and did I was told. But, it was humiliating and honestly, I regret it to this day. If there was ever a moment to be rebellious, that was it. To make matters worse, I didn’t say a word at that meeting because my confidence was down to zero.

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My other experiences took place in Nigeria – a country I’ve visited four times and have much respect for. But some of their cultural norms (in certain parts) were really difficult and upsetting. I cannot remember if it was the Northern part of Nigeria, where this incident took place but, I was on the high table (a bit like a panel of experts) alongside my colleagues. In the middle of making my presentation, I was interrupted and asked to move from the middle seat to the end of the table because a “high level panelist” from the Nigerian government was joining us (fashionably late) and could not be seated next to a woman for cultural or religious reasons – I don’t really know. So I had to gather my things in front of about 200 people and move to the end of the table while the “Oga” was ceremoniously seated in the middle.

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A few days later, our review team moved to the Eastern part of Nigeria for further engagements. As always, each meeting had some ceremonial activity attached to it because in Nigeria, you can’t just get down to business. This time, “kola nuts” were being passed around as a sign of hospitality. When it got to my turn and that of my female colleague, the man holding the tray advised that women were not allowed to pick a nut but he would pick our kola nuts and give them to us. By this time, I had had enough and couldn’t even be reasonable. I declined to accept the kola nut which apparently was an insult to the host so the man pleaded and pleaded and I gave in to avoid making a scene.

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Looking back at these and other experiences I’ve had, I can say that I’ve come away with some lessons.

Lesson 1: Be culturally sensitive. It’s important to observe and respect other people’s culture especially when you are a visitor on their turf. There have been times when the female members of our team were advised not to wear trousers, cover their hair, not make eye contact with chiefs and should not initiate a handshake (this was in South Africa, by the way). And we did exactly as we were told. Defying the advise (as I tried to do with kola nuts out of an accumulated frustration) is silly. That said, because something is cultural practice, does not mean it is sacrosanct. Nigerian civil society and other external actors are still having big fights to get the “Child’s Act” adopted throughout the country so as to end child marriages which continues to happen under the guise of “culture” or “religion”.

Lesson 2: Take every opportunity to shine. Regardless of serving tea or being asked to move seats, I needed to make every opportunity count. I will never forget my dad’s advise many years ago to always make an input when seated at the table. For an introverted, inherently shy person like myself, that advise has always stuck with me. I’ve worked on my confidence over time and make a point of stepping up to the plate.

Lesson 3: Pick your battles. Sometimes, you have to be assertive or downright defiant – but with some finesse. Its a tough one and perhaps takes some experience to find this balance. You don’t want to appear insubordinate and get fired but some wisdom, courage and assertiveness is needed at times.

I would love to hear your experiences and tips on this topic. I think its important that we make an effort to mentor young people, especially women and always build them up and allow them to shine.

Peace and love!

p.s The photos are from a workshop that I co-facilitated in Accra in 2013.

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