This month, the world celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD). International Women’s Day aims to remind individuals that women’s rights are human rights. Thus, women deserve equal pay, equal access to opportunities and a safe working environment. In Nigeria and worldwide, social media was agog with different pictures and banners of women and men doing the theme sign and with the hashtag #Choosetochallenge by both organisations in the private and public sector. This was the case last year and the year before. It has now become a trend for organisations to do this, a good move. However, when we reflect on the themes of the last three years and the status quo today in workplaces, we can see that organisations in Nigeria are not walking their talk.
I applaud the organisers of the IWD for coming up with empowering themes each year. In 2019, the theme was #BalanceforBetter; in 2020, it was #EachforEqual, and this year, it is #Choosetochallenge. However, beyond social media posts and hashtags by organisations, how have these themes transcended Nigeria’s workplace? The essence of these empowering themes is not for performative actions, as is the case, but these themes should serve as a clarion call to deal with the existing inequalities in the workplace.
The theme for this year, #ChoosetoChallenge is challenging the existing biases in workplaces in Nigeria. These biases include a lack of access to social protection such as maternity protection 1. They can also be as subtle as second-guessing an employee’s capabilities based on gender. With the hashtag #ChoosetoChallenge, women are saying challenge the implied stereotypes, the harassments in workplaces and the lack of inclusivity. This begs the question, what are organisations choosing to challenge?
In Nigeria, one of the many challenges women face in the workplace is harassment, regardless of social status, location, income or age2. Women everywhere are vulnerable to men. In the workplace, precisely the private sector, we often see harassment from top-bottom by men who occupy 77% of management positions and 81% in the Board of Directors3.
A common denominator for women in the private and public sector is sexual harassment. In the status quo, the private sector is a male-dominated space. This is appalling because while the educational system produces more qualified women, many are not being hired, retained or promoted 4. Thus, many women’s reality is that power is weaponised by senior colleagues and other colleagues.
In Nigeria’s public sector, female representation is almost non-existent, evident in the political scene. Nigeria currently occupies the 180th position among 193 countries globally regarding female representation in Parliament 5.
The Nigerian Labour Act is silent on criminalising harassment in the workplace. The onus now lies with organisations to fill this gap while hopping on the train of a gender-equal world. About 35% of women reported having experienced discrimination at work than only 9% of men. pcl.’s report on Gender Equality in the Workplace shows that over 70% of women had faced workplace harassment. It is also important to mention that some organisations attempt to deal with this harassment, but existing numbers suggest that it is not enough.
Social media posts are good, but words are not enough. Actions by all relevant stakeholders should accompany it. What Nigerian women need are a safe space to work and deserved promotions. What they need are organisational policies that protect them from predatory colleagues. They need a working environment that allows women to speak up and not be shamed. The existing gaps in terms of policies, diversity and inclusion in the workplace emphasises the need for compulsory sexual harassment training for all staff.
Organisations need to consciously engage in transformational change by incorporating things like sexual harassment training in their onboarding processes. When an organisation cannot do so, it can outsource this to training firms.
International Women’s Day should be a day of introspection for individuals and organisations alike to interrogate their gender biases. Of course, social media posts are not mutually exclusive to this introspection; however, priority should be given to the latter.