Women and the power of stereotypes 

Source: Women and the power of stereotypes – NewsDay Zimbabwe

By Miriam T Majome

People are programmed to identify evidence that supports the pre-existing hypothesis. The hypothesis being that it is impossible for women to live with and work with each other. That women hate and despise each other and do not support each other.

When at least two women get into an argument or contest, for example, a political or business contest the contest is more likely to be perceived as a personal conflict between females than a contest between worthy opponents.

One of most memorable political contests involving women in the 1990s was between Margaret Dongo and the late Vivienne Mwashita for the Sunningdale constituency seat in Harare. Despite their respective political gravitas and war veteran credentials, the contest was seen mostly through sexist lenses. The two women were reported as mere pawns for men who were pulling their strings. There was almost no question that the women were qualified in their own capacities.

Sexuality and gender are played up more when women are involved. There is much more curiosity about the private lives and marital status of women public figures than of men in similar positions. In company or political profiles, the marital status of women is likely to be divulged than men’s.

Women are often mentioned as being mothers more than men are described as fathers. Women may volunteer this information themselves because they have been taught that being married and having children is the most important accomplishment for a woman.

Men’s profiles usually feature just their academic and professional credentials. When women in leadership positions mess things up and engage in corrupt activities or are just incompetent, their mistakes are expressed through sexist lenses.

Women who fall or foul up publicly are deemed as having brought shame to other women as a whole. Male leaders mess up and commit crimes all the time, but the threshold of shame for them is much higher than it is for women.

Women have fewer chances to mess up. Gender is rarely ever a factor when men mess up. The shenanigans and foibles of Henrietta Rushwaya at the helm of Zifa and other organisations she subsequently went on to lead are used as examples of why it is a bad idea for women to get into leadership positions. This is despite the bottomless pit of evidence of the incompetence and corruption committed by men leaders at all levels.

If women do not support other women it implies that men are the ones who support women. When a woman gets into real life problems other than mending a flat tyre or a hitching a lift, it is women who come to her side. It is women and not men who are there for other women when they are raped or abused by men.

It is women who are there for women in crucial life events like illness, funerals, having babies, celebrating success, getting married etc.

If women are honest they will compare and contrast the number of their women and men friends and colleagues who show up for them when they are in real need.

The most curios type of women are those who say “my best friends are men” and that they prefer to hang around men than women. Interestingly, their so-called male best friends rarely ever say the same about them.

It is important for women to stop perpetuating women bashing. Statements like “women are difficult to work with” or “no two women can share a kitchen” are all just women-bashing stereotypes. Women also have to stop perceiving other women as natural enemies.

If a woman finds herself saying things like that, it only means she is the woman who other women find difficult to work with. Women like this get into situations with unfounded preconceived negative attitudes about other women. The prophecy of the difficult woman is easy to fulfil because it is expected.

I was never tainted by those stereotypes against women because of my early experiences. I was very young when I experienced the genuine sisterhood and strong unbreakable bonds of women. I spent most of my time in female-dominated council clinics of Harare City waiting for my mother to finish work so I could catch a ride home.

I saw and felt the love and support the nurses had for each other in all life situations. They shared their sorrows and joys beyond work. The small cliques and petty rivalries were minimal compared to the strong supportive bonds between them.

Later, I heard stories about how women could not work with each other and how women despise each other. That was not my experience of women working together, so I have never experienced it. When I became a teacher and was posted to a rural school in Mutoko, there was one female teacher and the male teachers showing me around said they were lucky thus far because having one female teacher had saved them the problems associated with women working together.

I had to share a house with her and there were apologies about that and promises to separate us when more teachers’ houses were built. It was declared like a fact that we could not live together because we were women. The rest of the male teachers were the mirror image of the strife-ridden men’s world. There was a lot of backbiting, rivalry, gossiping, hatred, competitiveness, pettiness, sheer cruelty amongst them.  The fights between them were petty, mean and ugly.

My female colleague and I lived in harmony while all around us — the male teachers engaged in bloody duels coming to us to gossip about their rivals. Despite that, the sincere apologies and promises to separate us continued from the male-dominated school administration who themselves were embroiled in the fights.

They continued to tell us that “two women cannot live together”. When my female colleague left, other women teachers came to the school and the promises to separate us continued.

Meanwhile, we passed the time betting when we would see blood on the staffroom floor. Male personal enmity is rarely talked about because women fights  are more exciting. Rarely are all the wars and conflicts in the world perpetrated by men against men perceived in gender as sexist terms.

  • Miriam Tose Majome is a lawyer at Veritas and she writes in her personal capacity