Gender issues continue to dominate public discourse worldwide. Many advocates have called for women to have it all. Many women have over the years worked hard to have it all. What has been the result? Have many African women especially in their 30s been able to have it all? What I mean by having it all is being able to successfully combine domestic work, community work and a professional leadership role. Being part of this age group and also a professional myself is part of my motivation to write this article.
Many women in this age group grew up listening to their mothers and grandmothers tell their stories and how they grew up in a man’s world. Some of our mothers and grandmothers grew up in the 1930s, and 1950s or earlier and told us what was their position in the then traditional African families. They had to be good girls, mostly given in marriage by the male representatives of the families; many of them did not go to school. The few of our mothers who went to school were trained in jobs, which were generally an extension of the roles they played in the households such as teaching, home economics, or nursing amongst a few others.
Our mothers and grandmothers taught us how to become good women when we grow up. Many of them were scared about the changes that were happening with the global feminist movement gaining roots in Africa and what the implications maybe for our generation. Our mothers were right, when we went to school and some of us attended gender studies classes or read about feminism as well as discussed these in our school days, it sounded as though our work environment will be so favorable to the point that we would have it all when compared to our mothers.
Do We as Women Have it All Today?
Today, the question is…how many of us in our 30s are in the boardrooms compared to our male counterparts (who are our role models)?…How many of us have successfully stroke the balance between being successful in that boardroom and combining it with successful motherhood at the same time?
My experience as a mother of two boys all younger than ten and trying to combine it with professional success tells me that it is hard to have it all. Our male partners are more successful because they do not have similar life choices as we do….not discounting the strides made both at policy levels and in practical terms of women’s access and success in the workplace and in politics? In fact there has been enormous progress. However, whether or not women are compromising one role for another is the issue that I attempt to analyze.
Unlike in the days of our mothers when one working parent could provide the required income for the home supplemented by our mothers’ unpaid family work, today most families need salaries from both parents in order to survive. The challenge for us as women is to what extend have we been able to strike the balance between achieving high careers goals and combining that with successful parenting? Many in our generation have resorted to the trade-off of either asking our mothers, or grandmothers to raise our kids, send them to daycare, keep them with friends, or work nightshifts (for those who can select night shifts) to be able to take care of our kids during the day. A few more have decided to become full time moms, especially when it becomes impossible to combine work and motherhood. This is particularly true for mothers with children with special needs.
The Elusive Balance between Successful Career and Successful Parenthood?
There are several questions to ask: Why have most women not been able to succeed in striking the balance between successful career and successful parenthood? Are the boardrooms of today’s corporations any different from those of the past? Have the fundamental structures of these boardrooms that initially excluded women been reconstructed to accommodate women and women specific needs? Or are women just an addition to the male conceived and male dominated boardrooms that expect women to succeed under gender biased conditions, which exclude them to a large extend?…
Until the corporate boardrooms of today become deconstructed and reconstructed to carter for women’s needs from the onset, the question of whether women can have it all will continue to be an illusion for many women. Until gender parity exists in practice in today’s boardrooms where women have leaders and role models they can look up to…not just by taking lone women in specific positions, as is the case today. Women have to rise and be united to actively push to see these changes happen in our lifetime. It is possible. It is not given-but worked for. Women have the potential to advocate and actively push for more equality in today’s corporations. It takes collective efforts for the African Women to have it all.
———————————————————————————————————————————————————————Vivian Atud is Director of Atud and Associates Consulting; Johannesburg South Africa.