The Immorality of “Ladies First” Mentality

Published on 24th October 2006

“Ladies first!” I shouted to over 40 delegates who had attended the Africa Resource Bank meeting at Lake Bogoria Hotel in Kenya’s Rift Valley province.  It was time to pose for a group photo. Since there were only ten seats availed outside, I thought it wise that ladies be given an opportunity to sit.

“Ladies first? Why? That is a wrong mentality!” Said Barbara Groeblinghoff of Friedrich Naumann Foundation. 

We had gotten along so well in my previous trip to South Africa. I wondered where this sudden clash of viewpoints had emanated from.  As I sought an explanation at mealtime, Barbara explained: 

“The “ladies first” mentality portrays women as victims to be pitied; a helpless people to be supported and disadvantaged people to be favoured.  It ultimately destroys the worth of a woman,” she said.

Erin Wildermuth, opines that she wouldn’t mind receiving favours once in a while, for this makes her feel good. “It is common in my country for men to open the door for a lady before they get into a car. Somebody should not debase my self esteem though.” 

“The motive behind “ladies first” matters a lot,” says Theopista Akullo, Director of a Ugandan based community based organisation. “If it is out of respect or kindness, I wouldn’t mind but if it is pegged on the fact that I am inferior, to hell with it!”

Gender activists are increasingly bent at getting more women in international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  Out of all policy-making areas, women are least represented in economics and finance, notes the Women’s Environmental and Development Organization (WEDO), an international women’s lobby group.

Around the world, there are only 28 female ministers in charge of economic portfolios.  At the World Bank and IMF, female representatives among leadership staff is around 20 percent, and fewer than 10 percent of the members of the organization’s boards of governors are women. The African women’s caucus at Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) lambasts the UN for not raising a woman Secretary General in its 60 years of existence.

In Africa, only three countries (Mozambique, Rwanda and South Africa) have attained the goal of having 30 percent of the seats in national parliaments filled by women, in line with the UN target of 30 percent in decision-making bodies. 

“To gain positions of authority, women frequently have to be overqualified just to be noticed,” says Inonge Mbikusita – Lewanika, a woman lobbyist.

In his Kenyatta Day address at Nairobi’s Nyayo stadium, President Mwai Kibaki ordered that 30 percent of the jobs in the public sector be reserved for women, who make up 52 percent of Kenya’s population. “Women have in the past been sidelined in key positions in government appointments, civil service and other sectors,” he said. 

It is true that women provide a critical mass for economic development.  Their enterprising nature and innovativeness is clearly evident.  But do they need affirmative action?

Affirmative action stigmatizes women because it gives the sanction of law to myths about women which have been so damaging to them.  It denies that women are capable of competing on an equal basis and therefore, they must have an artificial advantage to make up for what they lack.  It focuses on results rather than on the equal right to compete.  It demands that unqualified people be hired if they happen to be women, while highly qualified candidates for jobs are rejected.  It amounts to reverse discrimination. 

Turning to the quick fix of discriminatory legislation is to flirt with totalitarianism.  A society that puts equality in the sense of equality of outcome ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom.  The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests. 

Let merit and competence decide!


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