Why affirmative action is needed to close the workplace gender gap

There was pandemonium on Twitter last week following a tweet by a new generation bank announcing an internship opportunity for women, created in celebration of Women’s History Month. Outrage followed the announcement led largely by men who concluded the temporary policy by the bank is sexist. Sexist is however not the term for what happened.

Institutions around the globe have for years employed policies to further inclusion in areas where historical discrimination has led to a lack of representation of persons based on their gender, race, sexuality and/or creed. This is affirmative action, which means positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, politics and culture from which they have been historically excluded.

The bone of contention for the many who opposed the internship opportunity which excludes men is what most of them assert is the need to focus on ‘meritocracy’ rather than gender or any other sundry affiliations. This however ignores the reality of how it came to be that women are largely excluded in all opportunities save for the few that a deeply patriarchal Nigerian culture deems feminine, like teaching and nursing.

Years of research on how men and women differ in their cognitive abilities have not arrived at conclusively proving that men are better than women at technical jobs. There is no simple answer to the complex questions, “are men better than women at Math and Science? And is this responsible for the underrepresentation of women in the STEM field?”

Women’s experience, when they share them, however, points to how inherent bias in men and women both can lead to the deliberate exclusion of women in these fields.

A’isha* remembers being top of her class from Primary school through to University. She was the overall best pupil in Mathematics for 5 years, and her skill at the subject didn’t wane with her eventual choice of career as a teacher, something she didn’t choose for the love of it.

“I remember as far back as primary 3 my Mom bringing up my excellence just to lament that my older brother whose education has more value since he is being groomed to be a provider isn’t as bright as I am.”

It didn’t end there. She wanted to study Engineering for a while, partly because she was looking up to her Dad who was a mechanical engineer until he retired 3 years ago, but also because she was looking for where to channel her passion for Mathematics in a technical way that could make the world a better place.

“My own Dad told me to kill that dream,” she said, “He said engineering is a male-field, no woman should be doing all that. He advised that I go for B. Ed in Mathematics instead.”

She is just one out of millions of women who are sometimes gently persuaded away from careers and educational fields considered male-specific by a flawed belief that women are interested in people and men are interested in things.

Niola* had been into coding since she was 14. She has won awards for her school in international coding competitions at 16 back in 2014, and she has been getting better at it year on year since then, but her job prospects dwindled with her growing expertise because “The coding community feels like a boy’s club.”

“When we think tech often the first next word that comes into our minds is ‘bro.’ Techbros, you know, and you see the desire to keep this status quo unchanged in the body language of these guys if not in their words and actions.”

Niola has had virtual interactions with peers who share the same passion for coding who upon meeting her are surprised she had been a girl all along, and become cold after.

“I have applied for jobs, scaled interview stages, and gotten called back but then never heard from the boys after,” she said, “it is almost like if there are two excellent resumes and the only variable is gender men will hire other men to avoid having to deal with what they consider ‘female weakness’.”

Women have been denied opportunities they have earned for fear, “she could get pregnant” or “her period will get in the way.”

This Twitter user’s account is far from a rare practice.

Rather than an unearned leg up, what women are getting with affirmative action hires as in the case of this bank is a more equal playing field while cultural attitudes against women’s capability continue to evolve.

The outrage that followed this one case of affirmative action is a testament to the problem that warranted the action. It shows that men think that the only way women can compete is if the bar is lowered when in fact women can scale the highest bars and still get tripped by men who think they are too much complication to work with.

Women aren’t incapable, men’s exclusive boys’ club is standing against the door like a wedge of evil. While the resistance against levelling the playing field is to be expected, it is still saddening to see the extent many are willing to go to keep the wedge in place and women outside the door.

The (*) means names have been changed

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