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Our Daughters Deserve Better From Us, by Dr. Mbu Waindim

Related podcast - Feminism and the African Woman, Episode 7

In 2012 when I was about to graduate college, everyone kept asking what I would do next. I hated that question… and not because I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I hated it because I knew what reaction my answer will get. And so I avoided it and really didn’t share my plans until the day when my cousin who was also in an engineering program at the time asked. I was happy to share, figuring he would understand better since he was in the same position as I was. So I told him. “ I plan to do my PhD in aerospace engineering. I got into a pretty awesome lab, with a well renowned PI. I am really excited to start because the research is ground breaking and I got an assistantship, so school is free and in fact, I’ll get paid a stipend monthly. “

His response? “Hmm, Mbu. Are you sure that’s good idea? PhD? Who go marret you so?” This was news that would have been very welcome if I were male. But as a woman, it was somehow “bad for my market. “

That degree ultimately set me up to work at NASA, do research for the USAF, and work at two of the top defense companies in the world. It’s also the spring board for the next step in my leadership aspirations. I get where my cousin was coming from that day because I had the same mindset when I was growing up. As early as age 12, my friends and I wondered about what kind of careers we should pursue. And right off the bat, we eliminated certain options because they won’t be good for “the family.” Before our preteen bodies were even biologically ready to be mothers, we were determining our futures on families that we didn’t have yet, and honestly that we might never have. I wish I could say that these preteen conversations had no bearing on the career paths we ultimately took. But out of my high school class, a whopping 2% of us are engineers and I know one person who has a career in tech.

I’m always wondering. As a society, what are our dreams for our daughters? Our wives? Our sisters? And how are we enabling them to get there? What are we modeling for them? And what are we explicitly teaching them about what the role of a woman in society is?

Children pick up their lessons about the world from watching their parents and from the lessons that we explicitly teach them, and it’s easy for us to inadvertently cause our daughters to self select out of certain career tracks and ambitions before they’ve even gotten a chance to start.

In a lot of our families, there is an assumption and an expectation, that the woman will carry the load and make the sacrifices that make the family run. When there’s the need for one parent’s career to take the back seat, the mother’s takes the hit. Sometimes by choice and sometimes not. Sometimes by completely dropping out of the work force and other times by cutting their hours to accommodate what the family needs. Our daughters are watching these arrangements and ultimately end up picking careers that they think would allow them this flexibility that they’ve watched their moms create. Should our 12-year-old daughters really be setting their career goals trying to accommodate a boy whom they haven’t even met?

This is something that we need to factor in in making these decisions. Besides what we are modeling for our daughters, women dropping out of the work force might not be necessarily the best long-term decision for the family financially even if it makes sense in the short-term. When a woman drops out of the workforce, trying to go back is usually much harder, and sometimes even impossible. Even in the case where she succeeds, there are lost wages and missed promotions which have a cascading effect for the rest of her career.

There’s also the frustration and resentment that mothers harbor when these decisions are imposed, which affects their ability to parent excellently. Having a parent dedicated to looking after the children full-time can be a glorious thing, but if it involves curbing a woman’s ambitions, it defeats the purpose because a fulfilled parent is always better than a depressed and/or bitter one.

In some cases, it’s not necessarily dropping out of work. Who leaves work when there’s a sick child? Or when little Beri decides to act up at school? Surely, we can all come up with fairer arrangements that accommodate both parents’ needs and simultaneously teach our children that they’re equally valuable. The next generation will be better for it.

Alongside career arrangements, what are we modeling as who is responsible for all the unpaid work that we do to make our families run? In most homes, both partners work outside the home. Yet the woman still does most of the childcare and housekeeping. And even in cases where the man does some, he hardly ever does enough to pull his weight, because there just isn’t that expectation for men. Most of us consider him to be “helping” his wife. So what if we challenge the notion that a man cleaning the house that he lives in, making food that he will eat with his family, actively caring for the children that he brought into the world, is him “helping” his wife? What if we instead expected all the adults that lived in a house to pull their weight? Our daughters would dream more freely and shoot higher, if they knew that they could simultaneously have fulfilling careers and happy families, just like their brothers do.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

On Thanksgiving Day a few years ago, some new friends invited my family and I for dinner. We got there when mom was out. Dad was home with their four children, 3 sons and their youngest child, a 15-year-old girl. We sat down with the family and casually chatted in an effort to get to know the children. We spoke about educational paths, career plans, and the like and offered to mentor them except for one. The daughter. She wasn’t part of the conversation because she was scrambling to finish up dinner and set the table for everyone. It’s been a few years since that visit but that scene is one that I haven’t forgotten yet. Another interaction which happened around the same time also comes to mind. I was visiting the city in which my two teenage cousins lived and decided to take them out. We had a great time and when I dropped them off that night, the female one was concerned with feeding their baby sister, changing her diaper, cuddling her to sleep, and then making dinner for the rest of the family, which she hadn’t gotten a chance to do before she left the house because she had to get the little ones ready, feed them and pack a bag for them. Her brother meanwhile rushed upstairs to advance his FIFA career. The video game.

These scenes are very familiar to most of us. They seem inconsequential. But while our sons have the luxury of networking, exploring, learning how to fail, listening in on conversations about technology, investments, real estate, all of which are useful skills for succeeding financially, we are shielding our daughters and preparing them for marriage. Which isn’t in itself a bad thing except for the significant disconnect in what we are teaching children of the different genders to value. That’s why marriage is seen as the ultimate goal for women, in spite of the fact that marriage seems to help men live longer, but not so much women.

It’s easy to think that all is well. After all, things are much better than they used to be. And things are much better in our part of the world than in other places. But we wouldn’t be here, if the people before us did not challenge the status quo. And we still have a lot of work to do. At the rate we are going, it’s going to take 207 years for us to reach gender equality. And we can’t deny that certain industries are male-dominated and most positions of power are still held by men. I was the second woman to ever be hired on my current team. The first woman was hired in 2016. That’s pretty dismal for a company which has been around for almost 100 years.

So we all need to work together to build a fairer world and in the process get more women into tech and leadership positions. It doesn’t make sense to leave half of our most brilliant minds on the sidelines as we build solutions for tomorrow and come up with the policies that govern our communities, institutions, countries.

Photo by Zach Lucero on Unsplash

So, let your daughters lead. Teach them not to make themselves small. Let them take up space.

Teach girls resilience. Let them struggle. Teach them that no one is coming to save them.

Teach them the value of family but also of passion, useful work, and how innovation is changing communities. Give them space to learn how to code. Explore. Invest. Break boundaries.

And for the boys? Let boys be accountable. Teach them responsibility. “Na just so boy pikin them dey ya” is a cop-out. Teach them the value of family. Of fairness and consideration. Let boys cry. Give them space to be vulnerable. Let’s raise bold boys. Boys who are willing to have hard conversations. Who will call out inequality and hold each other accountable.

A few months ago, we had a baby girl. She’s an absolute delight and has brought so much joy to our family. I hope that I can count on the rest of you to do your bit to build a fairer world for our little one.

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