Africa Policy and Futures Forum

The Looming Threat of a Merit-Based Society to Gender Equality

By Patrick Karekezi on March 25, 2022

In the era of modernity, the rise of African institutions has its roots in the founding principles of a merit democracy. The social and political hierarchies in our communities are filled with men and women of wealthy talent and enviable potential. Over time, the race to break through the ranks has turned many of the socioeconomic settings into gazetted 21st-century social Darwinism. The principle, which suggests that everyone, regardless of their sex, race and class, has the same chances to achieve in life (as long as they are intelligent and sufficiently hardworking) has become the trigger for the wanton disregard of equity and fairness in regards to gender politics. In effect, many systems have been built to the access of only the best— where the student with the highest scores in school gets admitted to the best university; completes the most marketable course; gets offered the best careers. The fastest runner, the best debater, and the best of everything gets rewarded. It is thriving for only the fit! Although this concept has served justice in our ancient societies, it has not adjusted to accommodate the urgent needs in fast-changing modern societies. As a result, it is seemingly propagating the same ills it was coined to fix. 

While the ground might be leveled in principle, it is quite contrary to the crude reality, where the scales have been tuned to the social biases towards gender and wealth. Those with the most wealth go to school with the most brilliant. Those born as males have more shots at success than those born to the less favorable gender. Those with well-connected relatives can land the same, and many a time better jobs, than the most competent. As such, you may not be the best, but can still buy your way there. The problem here is the failure of these self-proclaimed equity experts to acknowledge that the differences between males and females are not entirely biological. Consequently, the campaign for the unbiased visibility of gender differences falls short. The recognition of their unique potential has continued to drag on between chaotic and scarring press headlines that would make fairground to compete seem like a favor afforded to women entirely owing to their feminine identity. It is thus important that our population is awakened to the dangers of the seemingly fine and majority lauded merit-based system.

Familiar scenarios have repeatedly surfaced in the studies focused on the experiences of African women. These have cataloged faces of women all over the continent, whose cultures have tethered them to believe they are lesser than men and taught them to keep their place along the periphery. However, the only significance to these reports is the well-chronicled social maintenance of a system, which, in a bid to reward talent, has wasted more talent. Although the argument for the merit-based criteria in many aspects, such as employment, still advances the existence of equal opportunities and access to resources as adequate justification, it does not count in systems where merit is sold rather than attained. In schools where male students are still regarded as better than female students at science subjects. In homes where the girls are reared for marriage and boys are free to be out past curfew. In a society where women are considered more emotionally, physically and mentally fragile than men, it is almost impossible that both parties, even when conditioned to similar access to resources and opportunities, would compete fairly without underlying insecurities. Being in Africa, the majority of victims are steeped between bad wealth conditions and the deep cultural hesitation towards creating space for women in the circles of opportunities.

For several years, women have been caught in a web of such insecurities— economically sidelined and culturally undermined due to inherent gender prejudices. The virtues of our cultures and religions have inhibited the engagement of women, in spaces beyond the confines of kitchens and homes. These social constructs have reduced them to baby-makers and placed them in the shadows of men. Funnily enough, some stakeholders have bundled the whole situation and named it ‘normal’ for the sake of public peace.

Undoubtedly, the cultural and religious beliefs that raised boys into loud and proactive folks, have, to an equal measure, curtailed the same potentials among women. These norms raised the girls to be soft-spoken, obedient; to be ‘female’ - ambitious but not overly ambitious. They have projected men as humans with infinite potential to explore while the women have been forced to fit within the patriarchal average. Yet, biology groups us all as humans, while culture projects women as complementary beings, with roles as small as collateral. It is vehemently abhorrent, appalling. 

Impressively, the alarm in feminist movements, from the late 19th century to date, has, to a fair degree, triggered the broad expansion of the spaces to accommodate women’s meaningful and equal engagement in achieving social progress. They have firmly defied cultural beliefs and gone beyond to compete with men in careers, culturally built for men. We see women steering the latest four-wheel drives, managing engineering projects, stepping up to influence political decisions, working harmoniously with men to curate unprecedented technologies and in some cases, even outdoing their male counterparts. Despite this social mobility, the space is not as inclusive as it should be. 

In several societies, the men, who are riding on the ego and flexing in the power struggle contests, are still hiding behind the curtains of religion and culture to cultivate women's exclusion. Recently in Nigeria, the idea of gender equality was put on hold during the assembly's discussion of a bill that sought to create spaces that can support all to thrive and live to the best of their potential. But we know well that culture evolves and so should the humane rules of religion. The church I was raised in rebuked men who had haircuts, and men who dressed in tailored pants—they were deemed unrepentant sinners and often paraded for a joint post-church service staring fest. The women were subjected to keeping their hair natural and looking appealingly black without any treatments, their faces glowing without any cosmetics. Complex, is it not? But it is all changing.  

With this patriarchal practice that has existed for decades, the essence of merit-based considerations has often been overridden when people are seeking opportunities. Our societies have sidelined women for years; several societies have not offered them opportunities to go to school. They have set their life-ceiling so low that they feel marginalized. The social constructs are defined in such a way that a young girl coming of age sees marriage as an end to life. Some are guided to aspire to marry over pursuing the causes they are passionate about. With these hindrances, they are subconsciously cut off the grid and lulled into believing it is the best offer they could get.

When merit comes in as a metric for awarding opportunities, boys are more capable of thriving and leaving the girls behind. While there are exceptions, we may think that we are creating a safe society where everyone has an equal chance; we deliberately miss the background from which each of the girls and boys are emerging. Boys, mostly coming in from a consciously supportive environment, are more likely to navigate the new landscape while the girls are double victims of cultural and sexist biases which usually spawn further economic hardship.

If we are to achieve gender equality and proper distribution of opportunities, we have to look beyond merit. Merit made sense when men were the only ones contesting for big opportunities in a society that positioned them as winners, regardless. Even still, serfs contested the state of wealth distribution in medieval times. But where gender inclusion thrives, we must account for society’s gender stereotypes that count women’s knowledge as less valuable than that of men. Affirmative action should be fostered. Support systems should be designed and tailored to support women to get to the same footing with men if the metrics of opportunities distribution cannot be reviewed. Reservations of certain positions should be put in place for competent women who are able to support the creation of policies that can allow the rest of the young women to unlock their potential, grow beyond the social constructs and thrive. Finally, academic programs should be designed to target young women, encouraging them to build their capacity and compensate for the social and psychological repression imposed by the dictates of our patriarchal societies.

Patrick Karekezi is a Global Challenges student at the African Leadership University, working to amplify the voices and perspectives of young people in public policy spaces. 

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