In which I learn that gender empowerment is really difficult

I want you to be empowered and think for yourselves!

Apologies in advance for this meandering rant. While writing the last post on getting women onto land titles, I was thinking about how difficult it is for external actors to actually change deep-held beliefs and customs, especially with respect to gender.

I used to work at the Ministry of Finance in Malawi, which has long hallways, but choke points a the main stairwell, where only one person could comfortably pass at a time. Whenever two people approached from opposite directions, one would have to give way, and this was usually determined by seniority. Every time a secretary or messenger girl approached at the same time as soime big bwana in a suit (Malawian or ex-pat), the women would always immediately get out the way first. As I said, a lot of this had to do with seniority, but somehow seniority seemed strongly correlated with gender.

When I was a kid, I once strolled through a door at a mall without letting a woman ¬†coming from the other side through first. My father told me off for not following the `ladies first’ rule.¬†I like to think that I’m chivalrous by nature, but it might just be residual guilt from twenty years ago (is chivalry even politically correct nowdays?).

In either case, I often find myself reflexively getting out of way of women around doorways. This was particularly difficult in university, where I’d¬†occasionally¬†find myself holding the door for minutes on end as an entire sorority exited the building.

Back to Malawi – if I approached a doorway and saw a secretary/messenger girl coming the other way, I’d fling myself to the side to let her through, while the woman would think “guy in a suit” and throw herself to the side to let me through. So begins the stalemate, where each implores the other to come through the doorway first.

How does the stalemate get broken? Usually with me, the man,¬†ordering¬†the woman through the doorway first, to satisfy my sense of gender equality. As far as interventions go, we’re in Life of Brian territory now.

We need to be cautious that interventions actually change things on the ground and don’t just satisfy our (often shallow) notions of progress. We shouldn’t be content with information campaigns when we think they might fall on deaf ears and with new legislation when there is doubt it will be enforced. We should be particularly wary of isomorphic mimicry,¬†the tendency for hollow institutions to appear when we demand they exist.

Recognizing that these things take a long time to change while also focusing on actual outcomes might be a better way, lest we end up wasting our time  ordering women through doorways.

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