“I believe that one man is better than ten women.” This is what a 57-year-old Ethiopian woman said during a Women’s Empowerment and Leadership training that I ran just outside of Addis Ababa. We were doing a gender roles exercise, in which the words “man” and “woman” are written on two separate sheets of flip chart paper. Participants are asked to think of the first thing that comes to mind when they see the two words. After the lists are complete, the participants are asked if the roles could be reversed. The objective of the exercise is to show that sex refers to the biological differences between men and women, for example giving birth or having a penis, whereas gender means the economic, cultural, and social attributes associated with being a man or a woman at a particular point in time (see WHO definitions). Sex is what our bodies can do, and gender is what our society wants us to do.
The characteristics that the participants associated with men and women were not surprising. Women do domestic work, make injera, cook for the family, care for the children, and keep the house. Men are police officers and office workers; they go out and earn a living and do not have domestic responsibilities. (Pilot is on the list under “woman” because Ethiopian Airlines recently appointed its first female captain!)
What I found interesting was how much emphasis was placed on men working, because all of the women in the training work extremely hard in their daily lives. In addition to domestic responsibilities, all of the women engage in some sort of income generating activity. Many of the women sell injera or vegetables on the side of the road, while others work as domestic servants for families or carry things. These women work just as hard—if not harder—than the men in their lives. According to UNICEF, women perform 66% of the world’s work and produce half of the world’s food. How are women paid for this work? By earning only 10% of global income and owning 1% of the property. This reality no doubt has an effect on a woman’s feeling of self-worth, which may be why an old Ethiopian woman valued one man as better than ten women.
The main difference between men’s and women’s work in Ethiopia (as well as in many countries) is that men go out and work, whereas women’s work is in their homes. Work inside the home is not recognized by other people, whereas everyone sees a man on a bus in a suit going to his job. Additionally, income generating activities done by women are primarily in the informal sector of the economy and provide no steady stream of income. It would be difficult to value one’s work if the payment is not guaranteed. People may talk about an intrinsic value of hard work whether there is compensation or not, but in a country where 90% of the population lives in poverty, putting food on the table is more valuable than any intrinsic feeling.
Coming back to the original comment, I wonder how much a three-day training can really affect 53 years of socialization. Probably not very much. I guess the idea is that efforts such as empowerment and leadership trainings will foster new ideas about gender roles. These ideas might not have much of an effect on the lives of the women in the training, but maybe the ideas will be transferred to younger generations and the situation will improve for the daughters and granddaughters of the participants. But when will the reality match people’s attitudes? What would need to happen? The third Millennium Development Goal is to eliminate gender disparity in education, which has been relatively successful at the primary and secondary levels, but still needs much work at the university level. As more women become educated, maybe more jobs in the formal sector will become available to them. But for women to obtain these jobs, the attitudes of men would also need to change. Change minds, change the world? I don’t know if that is the answer, but I’m going to keep on working at it, one empowerment training at a time.