Crossing the gender divide: a revolution on the radar

9 Jul 13
Dr. Mamphela Ramphele is a woman on a mission. A lifelong anti-apartheid activist, she has stints in health care, academia and the World Bank Group on her CV. Now focusing on the formation of her new political party, she explains why a revolution is needed to genuinely address the gender divide

By the Ernst & Young Editorial team | 9 July 2013

Dr. Mamphela Ramphele is a woman on a mission. A lifelong anti-apartheid activist, she has stints in health care, academia and the World Bank Group on her CV. Now focusing on the formation of her new political party, she explains why a revolution is needed to genuinely address the gender divide

Public services tend to reflect the way in which a society is structured, and we, as South Africans, should have pride in having a government and a constitution that has tackled the issue of equality head on. It is built into our policies, it is built into the targets that the public and private sectors have to meet, and this is fantastic. But things aren’t improving everywhere.

For example, how do we explain the fact that gender-based violence in our society has never been higher? If, as leaders, we don’t ask that question, then we are failing in our leadership.

Partly this is down to gender stereotypes, and this is a global phenomenon. There is a mindset about the role and place of women, which means that we can have 45% of women in public leadership but still when we talk of a leader what springs to mind is a man. And, of course, whether you’re at the G20 or the G7 they are often dominated by men in gray and dark suits.

Getting down to hard work

We have embraced very deep down the idea that men must do certain things and women must do other things, which is why we are supposed to be so grateful when he is prepared to babysit his own child, for example. But we won’t just get up in the morning to find we are in a gender equal society; we have to acknowledge that there is still work to be done.

We have to accept that in any change situation, those who stand to benefit from change have to be prepared to do their hardest work. Look at our struggle for freedom in South Africa. Nelson Mandela reminded us, even in the negotiation process, those who stand to benefit from the fruits of labor might have to give a bit more, compromise a little more, because the gains are so huge. If we had waited for both black and white people to be equally concerned, and therefore equally committed, it wouldn’t have happened. Women have to be the ones driving the strategy and the execution of the change process. We mustn’t wait for men to suddenly put themselves in a position where all those benefits they are getting are shared. It’s not that they are bad people. It’s a journey, and something has to be triggered in their mindset to really embrace gender equality.

Another important point — and this is something that my generation of women understands very clearly — is that solidarity among women is absolutely vital. Unfortunately, this has receded in recent years. It wasn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of feminism, but we have allowed a male-dominated framing of the issue to emerge. This means it is now seen as elitist, as foreign, and you are made to feel there is something wrong with women talking about what they can collectively do to change the system.

The case for change

Part of the problem is that we lack a compelling business reason for a greater number of women leaders — we need to be able to say something like, “Unless we have women going to Nigeria, we don’t get different business.” Take the example of Scandinavian countries. The environment of equality they have created has helped lead to better health outcomes, better economies and better life expectancies.

We need in-depth numbers to help make a compelling argument. And finally, we have to confront the resurgence of traditionalism around the world, which is used by some to justify brutality and the pervasiveness of gender-based violence. How do we make sure that we do not give permission to anybody to violate someone in the name of tradition, and that young men don’t have to feel ashamed about being associated with men who don’t do that?

We have not had our voices heard about this resurgence of traditionalism to justify the unjustifiable. We need to challenge traditionalism, challenge the assumption that to be a man you have to rape, to be a man you have got to dominate, and we need to find ways of building this into our strategy and our agenda for change.

Revolution in the air

So what is that agenda for change? We really need a revolution. Without one we are going to continue to see children being raped by their fathers, uncles and brothers; grandmothers being raped by their grandsons; and so on. It’s a revolutionary change that is needed, and that is the mindset required. The number one part of the revolution is that we need to talk about the outrages that are happening in our families, in our communities, in our places of worship, in our workplaces and in the public space.

I remember traveling with a young woman on a plane and she said, “Mama you have no idea,” and she told me about when she arrived in our Parliament as a young woman representative and someone grabbed her breast. She ran to the senior person to report this, and he responded “Oh my child, I wish it were me.” And this in a country with gender equality and taking place in a Parliament that is the custodian of such equality.

This type of incident is not unique to South Africa — anything but — but it helps illustrate why we require nothing less than a revolution in our mindsets, actions and ambitions.

Dr. Mamphele Ramphele is a medical doctor and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town and Managing Director of The World Bank Group. She recently announced the formation of a new political party, “Agang,” meaning “to build” in the language of the Sotho community, that will contest South Africa’s next elections.

This article is drawn from remarks made during an Ernst & Young Women Public Sector Leader's event in Cape Town, March 2013.

This article first the April Edition of Ernst & Young's Citizen Today magazine

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