15 Women Worth Looking Up To

I did a blog post about inspiring African feminists a while ago, but there are so many other inspiring women out there that I decided to do a follow-up post, this time about non-African women, who are worth knowing.

1. Emma Watson:

Best known for portraying Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series (who, by the way, is one fierce and powerful woman herself), Emma Watson is so much more than a pretty actress. She has a Bachelors Degree in English Literature from Brown University and is a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. It is in this role that she launched the ‘He For She’ campaign, which calls for men to advocate for gender equality. Watch her launch speech here.

Emma Watson
Emma Watson

2. Malala Yousafzai:

Malala Yousafzai is best known as the girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban when she was 16 years old for standing up for the education of girls in her native village in Pakistan. She has since won the Nobel Peace Prize (the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize Laureate) for her advocacy for the rights of women and children to receive an education. (Fun fact: Malala, only in 2015 after hearing Emma Watson’s He for She speech at the UN, decided to call herself a feminist, even though she had been fighting for the rights of women for years by then.)

Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai

3. Sheryl Sandberg:

Sheryl is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Facebook and the founder of the Lean in Foundation, which aims to help women achieve their goals. It focuses on three areas: community, education and small peer groups where women are able to learn from one another. Sheryl became the first woman to serve on the Board of Directors of Facebook when she was voted onto the Board in 2012. She had previously served as the Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google. She is considered to be one of the most influential women in Silicon Valley.

Sheryl Sandberg - Washington, DC
Sheryl Sandberg

4. Oprah Winfrey:

Oprah is best known for her talk show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, but is also an actress (she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Color Purple), media mogul who owns her own television network (The Oprah Winfrey Network) and magazine (O, the Oprah Magazine) and philanthropist. Oprah managed to enter the world of media when it was dominated largely by white males and is credited with inspiring other minorities such as non-white women and non-heterosexual women and men to enter the world of media as well. She was awarded Honorary Doctorates by Harvard and Duke University.

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey

5. Michelle Obama:

Michelle Obama is the first African American first lady of the USA, wife of Barack Obama. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School and is a lawyer and writer. She is an advocate for women’s and LGBT rights and is particularly passionate about healthy living. She is an avid believer in education and in a TED Talk, she pleads with students to take education seriously.

Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama

6. Hillary Clinton:

Hillary Clinton is the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party for the 2016 USA National Elections. She made history by being the first female in the USA’s history to be the presidential nominee of a major political party. Hillary holds a postgraduate degree in Law from Yale University and became the first female partner at Rose Law Firm in 1979. She became the first female senator of New York in 2000 and served as Secretary of State to the Barack Obama administration from 2009-2013 after losing the Democratic Party’s 2008 presidential nomination to him.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton

7. Maya Angelou:

Maya Angelou (deceased) was an African American poet, author and civil rights activist. She has published plays, poems, essays and books, the most famous being a series of biographies, one of which is ‘I know why the caged bird sings’, which portrays her life up until the age of 17. Having grown up in an abusive household, her works have lent a voice to other black women who have come from similar backgrounds.

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou

8. Coretta Scott King:

The wife of Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King (deceased) was also an activist, author and civil rights leader. After Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, she took on the leadership of the struggle for equal rights herself and was instrumental in the fight for racial equality in the USA. Afterwards, she became active in the Women’s Rights and LGBT Movements and publicly voiced her opposition to Apartheid in South Africa. She is still referred to as ‘The First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement’. She was also an accomplished singer.

Coretta Scott King young
Coretta Scott King

9. Coco Chanel:

Coco Chanel (deceased) was a fashion designer and founder of the Chanel brand. She is credited with liberating women from restrictive clothing by designing and popularising more comfortable and chic wear. Her pants suits inspired women to wear more comfortable clothing and her designs were specifically intended to enable women to go about their daily business without exposing areas which they did not want exposed. Chanel is still considered to be the biggest name in fashion.

Coco Chanel young
Coco Chanel

10. Gloria Steinem:

One cannot discuss feminism without talking about Gloria Steinem, who is widely considered to be the face of feminism. After the Civil Rights Movement, Steinem published an article ‘After Black Power, Women’s Liberation’, which catapulted her to fame as the voice and face of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. A qualified journalist, her first article was about how women were forced to choose between a career and marriage, an issue which is still rife in many parts of the world today. Steinem now travels the world as a lecturer and spokeswoman on the issues pertaining to the equality of women.

Gloria Steinam
Gloria Steinem

11. Billie Jean King:

Billie Jean King is one of the most successful tennis players of all time, having won 39 Grand Slam titles. In 1972, she was the first tennis player and first woman to be named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the year. King was a champion for women’s rights and in 1973, she won the exhibition match ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ against Bobby Riggs, which she played over 5 sets (women usually only play 3 sets) after Riggs claimed that the women’s game was so inferior to the men’s game that he could beat the current top female tennis players at his age (he was 55 years old at the time). King was the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association, co-founder of World Team Tennis and the founder of the Women’s Sports Federation. King has had an abortion because she did not believe that her marriage was strong enough to carry a child and subsequently came out as gay. She has since been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her work in advocating for the rights of women and the LGBT community.

1701964 001
Billie Jean King

12. Benazir Bhutto:

Benazir Bhutto (deceased) served as Prime Minister of Pakistan for two non-consecutive terms. She was the first democratically elected female leader of a majority Islamic nation and was the founder of her own political party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). She attended both Harvard and Oxford. She was assassinated in 2007, two weeks before the general elections of 2008. She was the leader in the race and was projected to win the election at that point. (Fun fact: Benazir Bhutto was a childhood hero of Malala Yousafzai’s, who also hopes to be the Prime Minister of Pakistan one day).

Benazir Bhutto
Benazir Bhutto

13. Marie Curie:

Marie Curie (deceased) was a Polish chemist and physicist who conducted ground-breaking research into radioctivity. In 1903, she won the Nobel Prize in Physics (becoming the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize). In 1911 she won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and is still one of only two people ever to win two Nobel Prizes. Together, the Curie family has won 5 Nobel Prizes. Marie Curie, regardless of her achievements, was not elected to the Academy of Sciences by virtue of her gender and the French press vilified her for being a foreigner and an atheist. In 1906, Marie Curie became the first female professor at the University of Paris. In 1934, she passed away from aplastic anemia, which is believed to have been caused by a prolonged exposure to radiation. (Fun fact: many of her papers from the 1890s are considered to be too dangerous to handle because of their prolonged exposure to radiation. Those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing.)

Marie Curie
Marie Curie

14. Muzoon Almellehan:

Muzoon Alnmellehan is a seventeen year old Syrian refugee who, whilst living in a refugee camp, was advocating for the rights of girls in the camp to have an education instead of being married off. While in the camp, she was encouraging girls to focus on their studies and to prioritise getting an education before getting married as a method of having some independence and a method of escape should their marriages not work. She and her family currently have asylum in the UK, but she hopes to return to Syria after obtaining a degree in journalism to help rebuild the war-torn country. (Fun fact: she has been dubbed the Syrian Malala for her work and is close friends with Malala herself.)

Muzoon Almellehan
Muzoon Almellehan

15. Jessica Valenti:

Jessica Valenti is a feminist writer and blogger. She is well known for her blog ‘Feministing’, which she started in 2004. She has also authored and/or co-authored a number of books on women’s issues, the latest one being ‘Sex Object: A Memoir’. Other books include ‘The Purity Myth’, ‘Why Have Kids’ and ‘Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape’. She has a Masters Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies from Rutgers University and currently works for The Guardian as a daily columnist.

jessica-valenti
Jessica Valenti

 

Advertisements

Guinea is failing its women

Early in November 2015, Guinean rapper Tamsir Toure was arrested by police in Guinea for allegedly raping a young woman at knife point. He, together with two alleged accomplices were arrested in November after Tamsir had fled to the Ivory Coast initially. According to Guinean police, one of the accomplices arrested had helped him flee. The accomplices were charged with complicity and Tamsir with rape.

Rape is a common occurrence in Guinea and although it carries a penalty of up to twenty years, rape cases often never reach the courts. In Tamsir Toure’s case, evidence suggests that he spent ten months in detention without a trial and that he has subsequently been released. Without a trial, the victim will probably never see justice and in a conservative country like Guinea, she is likely to be victimized and blamed for her involvement in the incident while Tamsir will be allowed to continue living his life with a clean record.

Besides rape, violence against women is common in Guinea, but it is rarely spoken about as Guinea is a conservative country where women are often blamed and criticized for their involvement in rape, sexual assault and violence cases. This causes women to remain silent on these topics, thus suffering in silence.

Female genital mutilation is also disproportionately high in Guinea, one of the only countries in the world where the practice is not decreasing. It has the second highest rate of FGM in the world, after Senagal. Although the practice is forbidden by international law, the United Nations reports that 97 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 in Guinea have undergone genital mutilation and/or excision. The practice is a traditional initiation rite in Guinea and refusing incision is seen to be dishonourable. The practice is detrimental to the health of women and there is no scientific evidence to substantiate the practice.

However, after the arrest of Tamsir Toure, Civil Society Organisations in Guinea organized a march against rape and violence in the capital, Conakry. Bloggers spread the word and the hashtag #TouchePasAMarSoeur (Don’t you touch my sister) started to trend on Twitter and Facebook. According to Fatou Baldé Yansane, the president of Leading Women in Guinea, 75% of girls between 8 and 20 are victims of attempted rape or rape and 96% are victims of gender-related violence. The movement was therefore a way to empower women, educating them about their rights with regards to sexual and gender-based violence and harassment, as well as to support Tamsir Toure’s victim.

Women in Guinea are tired of being treated like sex objects for the pleasure of men and are standing up for their own rights and their own safety, because the authorities appear to have failed them. Instead of punishing Tamsin Toure and signaling to the rest of the country that women are to be treated as equals in society, women were failed. Instead of using the case to implement social reform and show women that their voices are being heard, the opposite happened.

To all the rape, sexual assault and gender-based violence victims in the world, we hear you and we support you! Know that you are not alone.

Let’s talk about the bill

I don’t know why this is still necessary, but apparently it is, so let’s talk about the bill.

The bill arrives, now what do you do? The answer is simple: you take out your purse and you pay for your share (and don’t forget to tip). It’s not difficult. You eat, you pay. Of course, there are some nuances: women, in general, earn less than men. In that case, split the bill according to your earnings. If you earn 80% of what your partner earns, pay 20% less than he does. Similarly, if you earn 120% of what he does, pay 20% more.

If it’s a first date and you don’t know how much your date earns, just split the bill according to your share and if you happened to share a dessert, split it 50-50.

This ‘the man must pay’ nonsense must stop. It just makes us all look like gold-diggers. We want equal rights and therefore we should accept the equal responsibilities that accompany those equal rights, which means paying for our dates.

I actually cannot think of any justification for expecting a man to pay for a date, besides financial constraints and in that case, you have no business going out on dates. If you cannot afford to go out, stay at home, order some pizza and watch a movie.

Point is: split the bill.

 

My 3 earliest encounters with gender-based objectification

The first time I encountered gender-based objectification (that I can recall) was when I was about nine years old. We had a lovely neighbor who was always laughing and smiling, but she was also very feisty. One day I was on the veranda with my family when she walked past and a male neighbour wolf-whistled at her (with his wife and children present). The neighbor laughed, said something witty and kept on walking. From this moment on, I figured that if my trusted neighbour could wolf-whistle at someone, then it must be a form of flattery and thus whenever someone wolf-whistled at me I felt guilty for feeling violated. Instead, I forced myself to smile and pretend to be flattered.

The second time I knew that I was exposed to sexism was when I was about thirteen years old and an acquaintance tried to ask me out. When I said ‘no’, he responded with ‘Don’t be such an uptight bitch. I was joking anyway – no one would ever want to date you.’ I was thirteen!

The third time was when I had my first boyfriend at thirteen and we kissed. I was ecstatic, of course, and I was very excited to tell a friend. When I told her, however, she told me that her brother said that I was now slutty and that there was no way that he or anyone else would ever want to date me after that. The worst part was that I was the only one who was shamed; no one called my boyfriend a slut and when I told him, he shrugged and said ‘He (my friend’s brother) is right. Men have different needs to women.’ This is the guy who saw it fit to kiss a thirteen year old, but would not date someone who had been kissed before.

In so many communities, women are taught that being sexually harassed while walking down a street is just part of being a woman. We are taught to smile so as not to annoy the sleazy men who whistle at us just so that we can get home safely. We are taught to keep quiet about being raped or touched inappropriately and to keep going, because at the end of the day, no man wants a tainted woman. We are taught to be pure and virtuous and shamed for being human in a way that men aren’t.

No one teaches the men not to harass the women, though. My neighbour could whistle at another woman with his children present. What sort of example does that set? For years, I thought that I was failing at being a woman for not feeling flattered, but rather afraid and violated by unwanted male attention.

My neighbour was not a bad person (he was one of my favourite uncles on earth and a good family friend), but like just about every person on earth, he had internal biases. We all do. He thought that what he did that day was a compliment because that was how he grew up, without realizing how extremely sexist his actions were. That is exactly how gender-based objectification and sexual harassment become normalised.

If we continue to condition our women to believe that harassment is part of being a woman then we are raising an equally sexist and frightened generation to the one which I grew up in.

From cult to feminist

I grew up in a religious cult, following the teachings of William Marrion Branham, a post-World War II preacher who claimed to be a prophet of God. 

The cult was not exactly woman-friendly. William Branham started out his journey with God when he (as he claimed) heard the voice of God tell him: “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t defile your body in any way.” One of these ways of defilement was by having sexual relations with women. Thus, from a very young age, I grew up believing that being a woman was somehow on the same level as being a cigarette or a bottle of Jack Daniels. 

One of the cult’s beliefs is that Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden had sexual intercourse, which is how Cain was born. As a result, every woman potentially carried the seed of the devil. Furthermore, it was believed that the sins of modern culture were immoral women and education.

 

The cult is critical of the ‘immorality of modern women’ and preaches modesty. Women are considered to be committing adultery by wearing revealing clothing as it causes men to lust after them. (Yes, the WOMAN is considered to be the adulterer!) Furthermore, a woman’s place is in the kitchen where she is to look after her husband, who is considered to be the head of the household.

 

Thus, as a little girl, I grew up believing that my job was to serve my husband and bear his children when I grew up. Most of the girls in the cult did not bother with an education, with some dropping out of high school. I, however, was different. I wanted to excel at school and I did. I once told someone that I wanted to be a doctor and he said “You can’t be a doctor. Doctors have to wear pants to work and as a godly woman, you are not allowed to wear pants, therefore only men from our church are allowed to become doctors.”

 

Eventually, my family left the cult. I am now an accountant, but because of my own choosing. I have written about it before: The Corporate Feminist’s Struggle. Because of my upbringing, I always wanted to be a man, so I acted like one once I left the cult. I wore boys clothing, I watched sports, I refrained from wearing makeup for years because I hated being feminine. Boys at school would tell me that I was not like other girls and I would see it as a compliment because I so badly wanted to be a man.

 

I no longer want to be a man. As I grew up and read about the remarkable women on earth, I felt more and more empowered. I can now embrace who I am. I still watch and participate in sports, but I also enjoy wearing feminine clothing with jewellery, makeup, the works. I am also pursuing a career and I do not intend on having children and serving a husband. 

 

My upbringing shaped my feminism in a myriad of different ways. People often ask me why I am so serious about gender equality, why I can’t just let things slide every once in a while instead of being a constant wet blanket. Well, this is why. It is difficult to let things slide when the cult, with its misogynistic and homophobic views is still going strong, when women are still married off young because William Branham said so, instead of encouraged to become independent and career-driven. Most women do not experience this type of oppression and therefore do not understand the need for feminism, but it is still very much alive and I do not want to forget that because a simple “You can be whatever you want to be” can be very helpful to young girl.

 

This is how my feminism was bred. I hope that in a few years’ time such extreme circumstances won’t be necessary to breed feminism anymore, but that it will just happen, inherently, like learning to walk.

8 African Feminists of note

We are so bombarded with western culture that we often forget about the amazing rolemodels that we as Africans have right here in Africa. Thus, as a reminder of the brilliance of African women, here are, in no particular order, 8 African feminists of note:

1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

An author of a number of acclaimed novels, namely Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, and a collection of short stories published as ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’.

Chimamanda is a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and has been called “The most prominent of a procession of young Anglophone authors that is succeeding in attracting a new generation of readers to African literature.”

The Nigerian born author is also a women’s rights activist and has delivered a highly successful TED Talk entitled “We Should All Be Feminists” based on her book of the same name.

chimamanda-adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

2. Leymah Gwobee – Peace Activist:

Together with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakul Karman, Leymah Gwobee was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her assistance in ending Liberia’s 14 year long Civil War.

She formed a non-violent movement, ‘Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace’, that brought Christian and Muslim women together to play a pivotal role in ending the Civil War and ushering in a period of peace, starting with a free election in 2005 (which was won by her co-Laureate, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf).

After the war, she focused her efforts on peacebuilding and helping the people of Liberia deal with the trauma caused by the war. She obtained a Masters Degree in Peacebuilding which aided her in doing this.

She has also delivered a highly successful TED Talk entitled “Unlock the Intelligence, Passion, Greatness of Girls”.

Leymah Gwobee
Leymah Gwobee

3. Dr Amina Mama – Professor and Researcher:

This writer, feminist and academic spent a decade at the University of Cape Town’s African Gender Institute where she led the development of feminist studies and research for African contexts.

She received her doctorate from the University of London with her thesis entitled “Race and Subjectivity: A study of Black Women”. She is currently the editor of Feminist Africa, chairperson of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Davis and chairperson of the Global Fund for Women.

amina mama
Dr Amina Mama

4. Maame Afon Yelbort-Obeng – Musician and Activist:

The highly successful singer and recording artist is also the Program Director of “Moreni Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa” and a Board Member of “We Care Solar” – an organization that uses solar energy to facilitate timely and appropriate emergency care for maternal and infant health. This is an especially ground-breaking organization as maternal and infant mortality rates in Africa are currently the highest worldwide as a result of poor medical services available to women and their children during and after their pregnancies.

Maame Obeng
Maame Afon Yelbort-Obeng

5. Rainatou Sow – Founder of ‘Make Every Woman Count’:

Rainatou Sow founded ‘Make Every Woman Count’, which is an organization operated by a number of young women who use their passion and experience to promote women’s rights and to empower women and girls by providing news and resources to them.

Rainatou Sow herself has a rich history with women’s activism, starting as Minister for Children and Women’s Rights in the Guinean Children’s Parliament. She then held positions in the World Health Organisation and UNICEF.

Rainatou_Sow
Rainatou Sow

6. Fatema Mernissi – Pioneering Islamic Feminist:

Fatima Mernissi was an activist for Islamic women. Her best-known work, “Beyond the Veil”, examines Islam from a feminist perspective and critiques traditional, male-dominated interpretations. Her work cast doubt on the validity of some of the sayings and traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, and by extension, the subordination of women that she saw in Islam, but not on the Qur’an itself.

Her work drew attention to the active political role played by women in early Islamic history, especially in her book ‘The Forgotten Queens of Islam’.

Please read this beautiful tribute to Fatema Mernissi on ‘Muslim Girl’.

Fatima Mernissi world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie
Fatema Mernissi

7. Wangari Maathai – Environmental and Political Activist:

The founder of the Greenbelt Movement also authored four books: The Greenbelt Movement, Unbowed: A Memoir, The Challenge for Africa and Replenishing the Earth. Widely considered to be a relentless hero for the environment, she was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in environmental sustainability.

She was the first woman from East/Central Africa to earn a doctorate and was also the first woman in her region to become an Associate Professor when she achieved this in 1977.

wangari-maathai-1

Dr Wangari Maathai

8. Aisha Fofana Ibrahim – Author and Activist:

Her research into affirmative action was instrumental in getting women in Africa involved in politics. Her work focused mainly on the barriers to entry into politics for African women and how to overcome those barriers.

She is the Director of the “Institute for Gender Research and Documentation (INGRADOC)” at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone. She is also an executive member of the “50/50 Group”: Advocates for gender parity and women’s empowerment.

png;base64d662e67e55f1a527
Aisha Fofana Ibrahim

Selfie Culture: Is it really empowering?

I recently read an article entitiled “Feminism’s greatest obstacle in the digital age is the commodification of women’s bodies” by Marcie Blanco on Quartz. The article was centred around Nancy Jo Sales’ book “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers”. I have not read the book, so really all I have to go on is the above-mentioned article. It seemed like an interesting article to me, as generally, women’s bodies are commodified and this is a hurdle to feminism in general; it has been since Barbie and Kate Moss set unrealistic body standards to little girls.

In a nutshell (please read it for yourself), the article speaks of how social media is not actually empowering, but is instead alienating to women, and therefore is not a tool of feminism, but is instead one of the foes thereof.

This is true. For many young girls, selfies are a way of getting attention and validation. “Here’s my selfie. Like it and show me how hot and fuckable I am.” Who would not feel good about themselves if their pictures got 300 likes on Instagram? In this way, selfies are a form of commodifying women.

However, selfies are also not. One of the many things that young girls are told as they grow up is to cover up, to be modest, to reserve their bodies for their future husbands. This creates an irrational fear of the female nude and that is not empowering. It can also be a powerful weapon to be used against women.

When one is ashamed of one’s body, it is very easy to be blackmailed with an unflattering picture. I, myself, was blackmailed with a leaked topless photo a few years ago. It was a harrowing experience, because “what would my parents think? What would my boyfriend’s family think? I would have brought shame upon my school, my church, my town, the earth…” I realise now that one topless picture would not have ruined me, but that picture gave me sleepless nights for months on end because as women, we are taught to be ashamed of what makes us feminine.

Selfie culture has allowed women to be in control of what the world sees. Amy Schumer recently posed topless for the 2016 Pirelli Calendar. Malala Yousafzai chooses to wear a head scarf and cover up her body. Both of these women are considered to be feminist icons for different reasons. One chose to bare her body, the other chooses not to. Selfie culture has contributed significantly to this choice and allowed women to choose how they would like to be portrayed.

There is nothing more empowering than choice and this should not be taken away from young girls. Parents often feel the need to protect their children by prohibiting them from doing certain things, posting selfies being one of those things. This is not effective. Instead, we should be teaching girls how to feel validated without getting 300 likes on a photo. Encourage girls to pursue other hobbies: reading, writing, sports, science, whatever she needs to find her own voice. Do this from a young age. As soon as one’s self-worth is tied to something other than one’s body, the number of likes on a photo do not matter. If she still wants to post selfies, even after all of that, it will be for her own empowerment and not for validation from others, and surely that is a good thing, right?

Lastly, boys should be taught to accept ‘no’ for an answer. I have been called ‘uptight’, ‘bitch’, ‘you think you’re so hot, but really you’re not’ by boys simply for refusing to send nude or semi-nude pictures. I have always had a thick skin and I did not care for their opinions, but for other girls, these insults could be extremely painful.

Female empowerment with regards to selfies is a two-way street: girls should have a choice and that choice should be respected. Thus, in conclusion, the article has elements of truth to it, but it is also very flawed in how it seems to want to address the issue of the commodification of the female body.

The Corporate Feminist’s Struggle

“We need more women in Science” is a phrase that often comes up in discussions about gender equality and feminism in the workplace. This is definitely true. The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields are still shockingly low on females in the developed nations. This is even more pronounced in developing nations and especially in Africa.

It is therefore imperative that young women are encouraged to enjoy and appreciate the sciences from a very young age. I am and always have been an advocate for women to become doctors, engineers, astrophysicists, computer scientists and just about any sort of scientist possibly imaginable.

I, myself, however, am not in a STEM field. I am actually an accountant. For a long time, I felt guilty about this. I felt as if I were letting my fellow women down by pursuing a career in the corporate world where women are not necessarily as scarce, instead of following my own advice and pursuing a career in engineering or technology instead. I often thought that I had no right to celebrate the achievements of other women in science or to lament the lack of women in science ‘because I am not contributing towards rectifying this inequality’. I therefore thought that I had no right to call myself a feminist.

I believe that I definitely could have pursued a career in the sciences. It just did not appeal to me at the time and the hard sciences still do not appeal to me. I enjoy reading science books (one of my all-time favourite books is ‘Cosmos’ by Carl Sagan – the man was a poet!) and I have a deep love and appreciation for science. I do not wish to work in the sciences, though. The corporate world appeals to me: I enjoy working with people, I enjoy the idea of being able to run a company and all of the aspects that that entails, including employee relations, choosing the correct costing systems, operational and dividend decision-making and even taxation.

I chose to pursue a career away from the STEM fields. The key word is ‘chose’. I was fortunate that I had the opportunity to pursue a career in engineering (with a guaranteed bursary should I have chosen to take up the offer), but I also had the opportunity to choose to pursue a different career. That is something which I have misunderstood until now: we don’t want women to go into STEM fields for the sake of doing so; we want women to have the opportunity to do so, to know that it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to be a civil engineer, to know that a young girl can go and do her doctorate in Mathematics and become a professor, that she does not have to be a secretary or a nurse or a teacher simply because those are the roles which have historically been filled by women (which are all highly respected and honourable careers, by the way).

We definitely need more women in the STEM fields and I shall continue to encourage women to pursue careers in these fields, but I also am also going to own my own feminism. I happened to choose the corporate world because I had a choice. I doubt that men feel guilty for not pursuing a career in nursing, even though the world needs more male nurses, and therefore I shall be a proud corporate feminist.