Can women in politics overcome stereotypes?

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By Florence Gichoya

From the time a girl is born, the society already has pre-determined expectations from her. Many cultures bring up the girl child to be a home maker, caregiver, submissive follower and to uphold the family values. This is contrary to the expectations of the boy child. A boy is groomed to be a leader, provider, assertive and hard worker. The girl develops to be the kind of woman who would rarely be interested in political leadership. Society often frowns upon those that go against these norms.

Dr Alice Eagly a psychology professor once said that, “Cultural stereotypes can make it seem that women do not have what it takes for important leadership roles, thereby adding to the barriers that women encounter in attaining roles that yield substantial power and authority”

For a woman to vie for a political position today, she has to contend with lots of stereotypes compared to her male counterparts. There are numerous stereotypical views that she has to overcome during the race. This could be cultural, historical, personal, education, career development or media portrayal of a woman. More so, women do not support other women vying for political leadership like the male candidates do.

Chapter 4, article 27 (3) of the Kenyan constitution clearly states  ‘Women and men have the right to equal treatment, including the right to equal opportunities in political, economic, cultural and social spheres.’

Women leaders in the corporate world and local communities find it a challenge to be fully accepted. This is even harder for those that get into political leadership. A woman has to work harder to prove her worth and respect as compared to her male colleagues. It is hard enough for them to be nominated from respective political parties.

Also previous research showed that predominantly communal qualities such as being nice and compassionate are associated with women. While being assertive and competitive are associated with men. Hence women are expected to be soft and motherly in their leadership ventures.

 

It can be done

Over the years there are women who have succeeded in politics though the journey has not been smooth sailing. Since we attained our independence the rate of women who venture into politics as compared to men has been discouraging. A political career is not for the faint hearted. We have leadership personalities like Dr. Julia Ojiambo, Nyiva Mwendwa, Martha Karua, and Prof Wangari Maathai among others.

These remarkable Kenyan women leaders have experienced stereotypes though some more than others. For instance, former assistant minister Wangari Maathai had to endure a humiliating divorce and adultery accusations from her husband in 1979. Her husband alleged that she was too strong-minded for a woman and that he was unable to control her. As if this was not enough she had to contend in court for using his name. In 2004 while still an assistant minister she put Kenya on the map after she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in conserving the environment. The world celebrated her, yet she was not promoted to be a full minister. Others like Starehe MP Margaret Wanjiru had to go through invasion of privacy to a point of cancelling her wedding.

These women were not accorded due respect in their personal lives as compared to the male colleagues. Because of what the society dictates as what women ought to be. It is yet to fully accept and embrace women leaders.

The media can also be a fan of these stereotypes towards women. Many movies, soap operas and magazines undervalue women to sex symbols, and vulnerable individuals in need of male approval and attention. Very rarely will they emphasize a well balanced female character that is career focused, family oriented and successful. It is often quoted that women are the weaker sex. On the contrary women are strong and are capable of achieving just as men can.

Kofi Annan concurs that “…there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls.” Literate women are more aware of their rights, are open to vie for political positions and fight against stereotypes. Because of illiteracy levels, during the voting period most of the assisted voters are women and they are just given directions on whom to vote for by men.

In schools the education system needs to be reformed in order to cater for the needs of girls. In many homes especially in the rural areas the girl is expected to cook, clean, and take care of other siblings. At the same time that girl is expected to perform well in school.

Today there are more women who are educated and have vast career experience as men, yet research has shown that women are viewed as less capable as compared to their male counterparts.

Very few women take the plunge in politics; many are not willing to face the challenges and problems associated with being stereotyped. Therefore there is no true representation of a large part of the population. It’s ironical that the biggest percentage of voters is the least represented.

Interestingly women also don’t support each other in politics, if they would; women emancipation would be a won battle. Just as Germaine Greer a writer once said “Men rule because women let them. Male misogyny is real enough, and it has dreadful consequences, but female misogyny is what keeps women out of power.”

InKenya, women are majority voters yet they don’t vote in large numbers for other women. They are not accepting to women candidates and judge them harshly. This makes it very easy for the male candidates to win political positions.

Stereotypes against women in politics may take years to overcome. More women need to be encouraged and supported as they join political leadership. With time the society will fully accept and appreciate these incredible women. They will not have to validate themselves any more.

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