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Feet in mouth during Women’s Month

As we approach the end of Women’s Month, Terence Pillay couldn’t help but notice that the entire month has been littered with some pretty questionable incidents. 

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It all started with reality TV contestant Tevin Naidu’s caption to an Instagram post that used molestation as an analogy to describe how he was looking at a woman in a picture. He captioned the post: “Find yourself someone who looks at you the way I look at her (like a molester who found his next victim).”

There was outrage to the caption and Naidu apologised for the gaffe.

Then a local comedian was reported to have sent his ex-wife a message claiming he would send five men to rape her. I chatted to the journalist who broke the story and she says he confirmed he had in fact sent that message to her.

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In a more recent story, South African Institution of Civil Engineering CEO Manglin Pillay has apologised for offending so many people with his “misogynistic article” about women engineers.

In the offending piece‚ also published on his LinkedIn page‚ Pillay questioned whether South Africa should invest heavily in attracting women into the science‚ technology‚ engineering, and mathematics fields. He claimed that research showed women to be “predisposed” to caring and people-orientated careers.

The only reason women would probably go into the caring and people-oriented careers is because that’s how structurally unequal society is. First of all, women do get pregnant and have children, so businesses need to set themselves up to support women who are pregnant or have young babies, as opposed to saying “don’t go into this kind of career if you’re a woman!”

It’s a contentious issue as well as a costly one. I mean, businesses should have crèches and suitable maternity and paternity leave.

But this is not the only example of sexism within professions. We see it all the time.

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I saw a tweet recently from a government official who tweeted something to the effect of: “If another person wishes me Happy Women’s Month, I am going to slap them”. The fact that we still have to have a day like Women’s Day tells me that society is still largely unequal. If you look at something like gender pay parity, I think it’s only Iceland that has absolute gender pay parity. The whole country came to a standstill because some man found out that women were being paid less than men and so they all went on strike to address the problem.

The point I am making is that there is still so much tacit discrimination and sexism, and this way of thinking has to change. If somebody in the position of CEO of an Institute of Engineering feels that’s it’s okay to say something so stupid, because research shows that women tend to go into caring and people orientated professions, then we know there is a real problem to be addressed.

It’s like saying, because under apartheid, black people only worked as labourers on farms, therefore black people shouldn’t study maths. It’s the system that created that inequality, so you can’t continue the inequality simply because it once existed. That’s a stupid logic. I mean I have to question his intelligence.

I was chatting to a friend about this very subject and his mother, who is 89, related a story that really got me thinking about men and women and how the past seems to be informing the future. She said when her husband died she took it really badly, but when someone asked her if she could have him back, would she? And she said no she wouldn’t. She said while she loved him very much and he was the father of her children, when he died she experienced freedom for the first time in her life.

She said when she grew up, her father was very strict and women had a place and he decided what it should be. Then she got married and the same thing happened with her husband. He would go to the shops and buy her fabrics and she would have to make dresses with the material he gave her. And she said when she started to work, even though it was her money, her husband had to sign for her to get a bank account. So he would be able to control her finances but she couldn’t have anything to do with his.

Since he died, she doesn’t have that anymore. She’s travelled the world, which she wouldn’t have done, and for the first time in her life, she’s making decisions for herself. The thing is, she said he was the only man she wanted in her life, but things are very different for her now.

Someone on Facebook asked why there should be a Women’s Day in the first place and no day for men. The whole point of having a day that focuses on a marginalised group is in order to draw attention to these very inequalities that exist in society, because people don’t see them. They have become so normalised that we don’t see them, so you have to draw attention to them. The fact that white men in particular are at the pinnacle of society because of the mere fact that they are white men still exists. Like it or not, structurally that’s how it has been created by men of privilege over centuries. You can’t then have a day for men because we don’t need a day. Our entire life is a day!

If you look at the CEOs of listed companies in South Africa, you will find that about 80 or 90 percent of them are still males. So when someone in a position of leadership, someone who is directing policy decisions, influential in their space, and heading up institutes that are supposed to promote a particular profession and doesn’t practice equality, you need to ask, what’s wrong with him?

What happens if there is a young girl in an area somewhere who dreams of, say, being an engineer and hears some inane comment like the one this engineer made? You kill that dream is what you do!

This man reads a research publication about this particular view of women – that they should be soft, nurturing, caring, and go into people-oriented careers – and he immediately sees that as a valid position. And that’s because he’s programmed to believe that. My reaction to that would have been, “That sounds like bulls**t!” And I would have questioned some of those assumptions about that research. You’ll probably find if you read a lot more of that research or study, there’s a lot more nuance in it and it’s a lot more detailed. But what he does is he latches on to one component of it which supports his sexist view.

You often hear women say, “If you want to have better men, you need to raise better boys.” But it’s not easy to break cycles of that. And while this is our South African context, these kinds of views are magnified all over the world 

You can email Terence Pillay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @terencepillay1 and tweet him your thoughts.

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