Nigerian Women: Can We Have It All?

This business of womanhood is a heavy burden. . . . How could it not be?
Aren’t we the ones who bear children? When it is like that you can’t just
Decide today I want to do this, tomorrow I want to do that, the next day I
Want to be educated! When there are sacrifices to be made, you are the
One who has to make them? And these things are not easy; you have to
Start learning them early, from a very early age. The earlier the better so
That it is easy later on. Easy! As if it is ever easy. And these days it is
Worse, with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood
On the other. Aiwa!
—Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions

Recently, I came across an article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in the July/August 2012 Atlantic Monthly Magazine titled “Why Women can’t Have it All”. This article has generated a lot of buzz in the United States and in it, Ms. Slaughter argued that women are not getting an even playing field from business and government and do not necessarily want to aim for leadership positions because of societal expectations and pressure, citing examples of women in top paying jobs and levels who have stepped down in recent years to pursue personal advancement. On the other hand is a book by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook titled “Lean In”…. the art of “lean in” is to exercise more control in areas where women think they have leverage in a male dominated workforce or as she aptly puts it ”learn to sit at the table.” Women she said often “leave before they leave” to pursue personal advancement and fulfillment because the conditions are not conducive for them to pursue both professional and personal advancement simultaneously. Every woman has every right as their male counterparts to pull up their seats and sit at the table simply because we deserve to be there but being there is not without its sacrifice.

Reading both writings by Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Slaughter and having had the privilege of living in both worlds prompted me to ask the following questions as a Nigerian Woman.

Can A Nigerian Woman have it all?
Can We Pursue both Professional Success and Personal Fulfillment simultaneously?
Are We Playing on an Even Playing Field?
Is Our Society Supportive of our Advancement?
Is Our Workforce Supportive of Our Advancement?
Are We Afraid of Leaning In and Sitting at The Table?
Are we Afraid of Overreaching, of Being Judged, Of Failure, Of Making the Wrong Decisions?
Are Nigerian Women at a Disadvantage in the Corporate World Relative to Men?

Yes, an average Nigerian woman can have it all, as a matter of fact; most of us are masters at having it all. We seem to be able to balance both work and home well and in addition to it a very active social life. The Playing field may not be an even one but we very well know how to command both the playing field and wield the game in our favor. The Post-colonial Nigerian woman is unstoppable in everything she does. We are not afraid of overreaching or of being judged. We would rather make the decisions and find out it is a mistake than take a backseat

Recently in the United States, Michèle Flournoy stepped down after three years as undersecretary of defense for policy, the third-highest job in the department, to spend more time at home with her three children, two of whom are teenagers. Karen Hughes left her position as the counselor to President George W. Bush after a year and a half in Washington to go home to Texas for the sake of her family. Mary Matalin, who spent two years as an assistant to Bush and the counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney before stepping down to spend more time with her daughters, wrote: “Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.”

Is this the case in Nigeria, I thought? Over the years I watched my mother have a career and family at the same time; I watched my aunts and most of my female mentors do the same so effortlessly it seemed easy. I can confidently say that an average Nigerian woman comes from a lineage of very strong women. Personally, growing up, I remember the 5am wake up call, the breakfast and lunch preparations, the drop off at school and the pickup from school followed by after school tutorials with teachers whilst mother heads back to work for the second shift. She finally gets back between 5 and 6pm, eats her “lunch” and then we start dinner preparations. Evenings are filled with homework on the dining room table with mother studying alongside with us. It was a cycle and this was done 24/7, 365 days in a year. There were no vacations, mothers don’t take vacations, I have always thought. This was her schedule and she seemed to be able to balance it. Our parents made it look so easy, but now in my adulthood, I seem to have a new found appreciation for our mothers and all that they did. It is not easy at all, it is tough, BUT we are trained to do it.

Economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson have said that women are less happy today than their predecessors were in 1972, both in absolute terms and relative to men even though they have made substantial progress in issues like educational attainment, increased wages and career advancement. Growing up, I never noticed this nor saw an inkling of this in the Post-colonial Nigerian women. They were happy it seemed to me or were they masters at masking their discomfort? I guess the answer lies in their perception of it, it was something that had to be done with its sacrifices and they were ready to make those sacrifices. Our mothers did it with so much ease that the challenges and difficulty of it was downplayed!

Why is it difficult then for our American counterparts with a gender gap index of 22 out of 135 nations to have it all? Why do they find it increasingly difficult to balance a career and family, whilst a NIGERIAN WOMAN WITH A GENDER GAP INDEX OF 110 OUT OF 135 DOES IT PERFECTLY WELL? Plagued with Economic, social, political, health-based issues and inequality compared to other women in the world, we are still unstoppable, we are a set of rugged successful strong women. Rather than take the word “NO” for an answer, we see it as New Opportunities. Borrowing from Maya Angelou, I would say Nigerian Women …”MAKE ME PROUD TO SPELL MY NAME W-O-M-A-N”

Someone said recently that “having it all” is not a personal choice rather it is a function of custom, policy and structure way beyond the woman’s control. We are blessed in Nigeria to have a communal society and we take this concept with us anywhere in the world. We come together and rally around each other to make it easy. This is the secret to our success. However with women making up a half of any economy’s potential human capital; we have to make it easier on them, so how can we do this? Let us start by investing in them and our economy and families will yield greater dividends in the future. Our government can help by bridging the gaps in political and economic participation by promoting and encouraging women to run for public offices and empowering them in the political processes. A passage from a recent book authored by the World Bank states this: “Greater women’s rights and more equal participation in public life by women and men are associated with cleaner business and government and better governance. Where the influence of women in public life is greater, the level of corruption is lower . . . women can be an effective force for rule of law and good governance” (2001, 12–13)

In the corporate world, networking and mentoring facilities should be provided more for Nigerian women; one of such programs is the World Women Trade Fair Nigeria which supports women entrepreneurship development and access to global trade opportunities. Part time job opportunities should be made a

vailable for those who cannot work full time. We should not limit our working sector to strictly full time or weekdays only, and for new mothers, daycare facilities for nursing mothers conducive for breastfeeding should be provided as well as afterschool daycare facilities and most importantly at the home front, our men should embrace and support us more as we venture out to advance our career and education. They could help more and be our stalwart ally and in doing this; an example is laid for the children most especially the male child and his concept of “a woman” changes and therein starts an intergenerational change.

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