Woman, Your True Potential Awaits

Photo by Divine Effiong on Unsplash

New York City. 1908. A deafening chorus of women’s voices rings in the air as a wave of 15,000 garment workers march the streets of the Big Apple. They are demanding fair pay, shorter working hours and the right to vote. A decade later and a continent away, another clang of women’s voices rings in Russia. Tens of thousands of women are on the streets powerfully demanding change. Same agenda: fair pay and the right to vote. They called it a strike for “bread and peace.” World War I had ravaged their country, 2 million soldiers had died, and despite tremendous political opposition, the women persisted for four days, swelling in number and growing in power. In the end, this revolution borne by women brought down the powerful Tsar, and ensured women’s voting rights.

Every year we honor this movement on March 8, a day celebrated as International Women’s Day. The need for gender equality is just as pressing today as it was a hundred years ago. While we have made tremendous progress as societies since then in terms of bringing women and men closer to true equality, we still have a few more battles to fight. Today, perhaps many of those battles are inner battles — a battle against outdated views, imposter syndrome, and deep-set biases.

While every International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on women’s progress and to celebrate women’s achievements and character, it is also a time to reflect on the progress yet to be made. And since the day became an official UN-recognized holiday, it has been celebrated with events centered around themes such as: Each for Equal (2020), Choose to Challenge (2021) and this year’s: Break the Bias (2022).

Breaking the Bias

A quick glance at these surely jolts you into a trip down memory lane. Haven’t we been here before? Time and time again, gender has proven to be a tough-to-overlook social construct creating a framework for expectations among men and women in the world. Regardless of race, religion, and other unique factors that shape our individuality, each of us holds personal opinions on the roles of men and women — often assigning expectations without even knowing it.

To illustrate, here’s an interesting riddle I came across while reflecting on gender ideals:

One Saturday afternoon a father and his child embark on a journey to see the land with hopes of encountering adventures. Before their dreams were realised, they were victims of a horrible car crash. The father sadly passed away while the son was taken to the nearest hospital to be operated on. When the boy was taken to surgery, the surgeon refused to perform the operation, proclaiming: “I can’t operate on him, he’s my son.”

Who is the surgeon to the child?

Think about this for a few seconds before reading the answer in the next sentence.

While the answer (the surgeon is the boy’s mother) seems obvious to some, this is not the case for nearly 75% of people who hear this riddle including myself and some of the colleagues I shared this with. A woman being present in an operating theatre is not something that immediately springs to mind. This is a common gender bias, that is still relevant in the 21st century.

There is a wall of silence that surrounds us with a deeper acquaintance of our own biases. This is why we find it challenging to acknowledge our own biases, even when we are only moderately or inconsistently so. The common preconceived notion that a man’s capabilities supercede those of a woman is a prevailing bias rooted in traditional gender constructs. This deep-seated and unconscious reference frame is fuelled by stereotypes manifested through mass acceptance of traditional gender roles. No wonder we often find ourselves having the same conversations about workplace inequalities, gender-based pay gaps and question why leadership roles are dominated by men.

The results of gender bias are as real in the 21st century as they were in prior decades. Women increasingly find it harder to advance to positions of leadership in their chosen careers despite having the opportunities in some cases. Although we still have a long way to go, it is essential we recognise and acknowledge how far we have come. The number of women role models has reached striking new heights globally with the likes of Tanzania’s first female president — Mama Samia Suluhu holding the torch high.

While there are a myriad cognitive biases that do not necessarily threaten generational progress, this is not the case for gender biases. Women have to consistently fight the urge to give in to the notion that we lack the drive and intellectual capabilities to pursue the same interests as men.

“Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.” (Hillary Clinton)

How can both women and men unlearn their gender biases?

Weeding is fundamental — check your own biases.

The first step is to acknowledge that unconscious bias exists and that we all have preconceptions about people. While we might be quick to assume that unconscious biases imply our identities are flawed, the reality is far more complex. Human beings are naturally biased. We instinctively place people into categories using criteria such as gender or religion to establish how to associate with them.

While, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming unconscious gender constructs, the only effective way to override them is to continually practice questioning the assumptions we make about ourselves and others.

Last but not least, I invite women excelling in their respective fields to reach back as they climb the ladder. In a world fuelled by the desire to realise our ambitions, the need to give back is unparalleled. In what areas of your life can you provide guidance to someone who needs it? Whether it’s through mentoring or granting opportunities, let us take the initiative to inspire people who believe in the same causes we do.

“We’re here for a reason. I believe a bit of the reason is to throw little torches out to lead people through the dark.”
— Whoopi Goldberg

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