The world celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8 and I was a little bothered by the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all against celebrating women and acknowledging their contribution to the world. I’m just against picking one measly day to do so when women deserve to be acknowledged every day of the year for all that they do.
More than half a century ago, Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung is believed to have coined the phrase “woman hold up half the sky”, a rallying cry for the nation’s Great Leap forward movement of the 1950s.
The movement was aimed at liberating women and encouraging them to join the workforce. Mao drew from the Chinese idiom that man should stand on the earth and hold up the sky and implied that women, who amount to half the population and hence half the workforce, also hold up half the sky. It was an endorsement of the role of women in contributing to the building and running of the nation.
Today, many enlightened people happily acknowledge this beautiful and empowering statement that women do indeed hold up half the sky.
The reality, however, is that throughout civilisation, women generally don’t seem to have been able to break through the glass ceiling that exists in many arenas. Even in China, where this edified metaphor was first coined, no woman has been appointed to China’s politburo, let alone become the country’s top leader.
It appears that while the powers that be in many parts of the world (who are mostly men) appear to expect women to hold up half the sky, there has been no concerted effort on their part to ratify the rights of women to be treated as equal to men.
Women’s rights movements are usually spearheaded by women and looked askance at by those that hold up the other half of the sky.
While I’m on that subject, what does “women’s rights” even mean? Why do we even have such a phrase? Do we have to go around shouting about “men’s rights”? Why ever not? Because the truth is that much of the world operates on a patriarchal system, in which men are given authority over women in almost all aspects of society.
University of California anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Hrdy says that patriarchy is a result of patrilocal residence, which is a system in which a married couple is required to stay with, or near, the husband’s parents. Such a system tends to bond men with familial ties closer together and give men more power and privilege than the women.
Was this always the case? Well, no. At least, not until some 12,000 years ago when agriculture and homesteading began to emerge as a way of life.
Before that, the first humans survived as hunter-gatherers, and couples moved to be wherever there was food to forage, which may not necessarily have been near either set of in-laws.
It was a pretty egalitarian way of life because women in those early societies had a choice of being able to move away from oppression of any sort from their in-laws!
When early societies discovered that they could grow their own crops and tame animals for milk, leather and meat, they began settling down and finding ways to protect their land and herds.
Power typically shifted to the males, who were thought to be physically stronger and in a better position to defend their assets. Male relatives began to stay close to each other and property was shared and passed down the male line of heirs, eroding female autonomy and firmly entrenching patriarchy as a societal system.
An article on the origins of sexism published in New Scientist magazine points out that this theory is supported through a 2004 study by researchers at the Sapienza University of Rome in Italy that delved into 40 nomadic populations from sub-Saharan Africa.
The study showed that women in hunter-gatherer populations were more likely to remain with their mothers after marriage than women from food-producing populations.
While there are a few matriarchal societies like the sub-Sahara ones that exist around the world, they are the exception rather than the norm.
Patriarchy rules on the world stage, with male-centric attitudes dominating most of civilisation today and permeating into decision-making at every level.
And yet, women hold up half the sky. If we are to address the myriad issues facing women today, the patriarchal structures that have shored up political, economic, and religious systems will have to be dismantled to allow capable, intelligent and creative women to break through the glass ceiling.
Zita Gurmai, a member of the Hungarian National Assembly who advocates for gender equality and ending violence against women says that “patriarchal culture is one of the biggest barriers in ending violence against women”.
In my opinion, patriarchal culture also contributes towards other forms of oppression, including sexism, sizeism, misogyny, sexual coercion, gender stereotyping, exploitation, workplace discrimination and a host of others that you would only understand if you’re a woman.
It’s going to be a long, long road to eradicating patriarchy in societies around the world, especially when it is in the interests of those who hold up the other half of the sky to keep the system going.
And yet, there are many enlightened men around the world who do not subscribe to it, who see the wisdom in taking apart a system that reeks of injustice and propagates evil against half the human race.
If they would have the courage to take a stand and speak louder against a system that benefits them, it would surely create greater awareness amongst those of the male persuasion.
Coming back to International Women’s Day, it’s great that there is one day set aside in the year to celebrate women around the globe, but my beef about it is that we shouldn’t have to have a day set aside to do that.
We should be doing it 364 days a year by implementing attitudes and behaviours that acknowledge the crucial role women play.
We could start by appointing more women to leadership positions. A report released last year by Grant Thornton International states that in Malaysia, women make up only 33% of the senior management of companies. This is slightly above the global norm, but it’s still not half, is it?
The report also revealed that 90% of businesses have at least one woman in senior management. Some may applaud at the high figure, but I’m asking myself “Why only one?”
The report adds that the top three senior management positions occupied by women are those of human resource director, chief financial officer and chief operating officer.
Clearly, women can manage people, money and operations. So why aren’t there more of them in chief executive positions? I got my answer as I read further and noted that only a dismal 17% of businesses in Malaysia are setting targets or quotas for gender balance at leadership levels. Where there is no will, there is no way.
In terms of actively working on removing barriers to gender parity at senior levels, the report said that only 60% of Malaysian businesses are endeavouring to do so.
Before we pat ourselves on the back, I’d like to point out that this is the lowest number in the Asean region. Almost all other countries in Asean scored above 70%, with Vietnam leading at 100%.
Why is it so important to have more women in leadership positions then? Well, it’s certainly not so they can thump their chests and say they are good enough.
Women are not in competition with men and don’t have to prove their capability. The most important reason for balancing the ratio of men and women at the top is to give women a voice in decision-making and to weaken patriarchy in organisations.
Women understand best what other women go through as a result of the patriarchal systems that govern society.
More women in the highest positions of leadership will allow patriarchy to be slowly but surely dismantled in a rational, elegant and non-threatening way that is collaborative and acceptable to the other half that hold up the sky.
Women, after all, are masters at negotiating with children to get them to do what they want, but it helps to be in a position of power to be able to do so.
Patriarchy is an obsolete system that is no longer relevant (and in my book, never relevant to begin with). Women have proven themselves just as capable as men of fighting to keep their lands and herds, metaphorically speaking.
They don’t need the dubious security of patriarchal systems that, instead of protecting them, have, over the centuries, vilified them, persecuted them, excluded them, objectified them and disrespected them in unimaginable ways.
I have a wish list that will help address these injustices against women both in the workplace and in our society, but that’s a story for another day, or for anyone who is willing to listen.
In the meantime, let’s make a conscious decision to daily celebrate the women we live with and work with – the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, domestic helpers, co-workers, subordinates, superiors – with the respect and honour they deserve.
Start small with just one thing today, which is to guard your tongue against making sexist jokes or statements that the younger generation will model and perpetuate.
All change begins with a will in each heart and one step in the right direction. Take that step today for a more progressive world.
Sheila Singam is the founder of Human Equation, a development consultancy specialising in mindset change and innovation. She is a “rational feminist” who aims to fight patriarchy one step at a time. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.