It is all too easy for men to be smug

2011-08-10 00:00

YEARS ago, when I was still engaged in teaching, I was asked, as the president of the Natal Teachers’ Society at the time, to address a teachers’ conference on gender equity. At the time this was not on the statute books, but was gaining momentum as the world headed towards a much more enlightened phase. My presentation went down like a lead balloon. I was roundly attacked by the activists present and, in my naïveté, exacerbated the situation by trying to present counter thrusts. I remember the well-known Pixie Hardman trying to persuade me to keep my mouth tightly shut. She recognised that I was digging my own grave. And the worst of it was that I couldn’t understand why my input had been so poorly received. I had spent a good deal of time crafting what I thought was a liberal sort of approach to the issue. Later, when I reviewed what it was I had said, it struck me that I had been guilty of unforgiveable patronisation and my offering reeked of male smugness. Consequently, I have always been wary of this subject and write now without freedom from trepidation.

The reality is that it is all too easy for men to be smug. They have history and tradition firmly on their side and the achievement of equal opportunity and rights for women is rather like trying to swim against the tide. The law and the highly principled intentions behind it are often out of step with the ways of the world. In many communities, no less than business, men are at the heart of decision-making and control.

Community and corporate cultures are male-dominated. While companies produce ties to show solidarity with the corporate brand, something similar for women employees has not been common. There is no corporate activity that may be regarded as the female equivalent of the suite at the rugby stadium, although it is being acknowledged nowadays that a woman doesn’t have to be someone’s wife in order to be there to enjoy the game. It is still unlikely, however, that a male executive will engage his female counterpart on the merits of Saturday’s match when they meet on Monday morning. Such enthusiastic post mortems are reserved for male talk. The corporate culture of the future should not distinguish between male and female talk, but support engagement on issues that are not gender-focused. Like business, indeed. This is also counter-indicated by convention. In days gone by, women left the dinner table to go off and talk of domestic matters while the men remained, smoking and drinking, to deal with the weighty matters of the day, including business. Is this not commonplace even now at your average braai?

If social custom is guilty of perpetuating gender inequality, the school environment plays an equal role in portraying a society where females are inferior. Until recently, and it might not have changed even now, men were favoured as school principals, even in primary schools, on the grounds that they were better at maintaining discipline. Sometimes the male principal was the only person on the staff who was not a woman, but he held the senior post nevertheless. Such male-dominated management of education still persists and is largely responsible for the fact that young boys grow up believing this to be the way that society was ordained. Unfortunately, sometimes the subservience of womenfolk is not only implicit, but becomes re­inforced by the oppressive behaviour of men who dominate aggressively in their disrespectful treatment of women. In fact, it’s no longer a matter of chivalrous respectfulness, but a question of recognising equality. Men and women may be different, but these are equitable complementarities to be celebrated and exploited.

Times are changing, of course. The affirmative strategies implicit in the country’s constitution and a good deal of activism around Women’s Day, Women’s month and other events and programmes are giving impetus to a movement towards real equality which has greater depth and meaning than many of the mid- and later twentieth-century emancipation movements.

In all spheres, women bring qualities, skills and attitudes from which they were not able to benefit in the past when they were the sole preserve of men. It is entirely fitting, therefore, that we should, and do, celebrate the contribution of women in August. But it is equally important to see this as an illumination of the path we need to follow in the future.


• Andrew Layman is the CEO of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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