By Sindiso Mhlophe
WHILE today’s society is slowly moving away from viewing women through the lenses of barefaced stereotypes, such as that a woman’s place is in the kitchen to seeing them as competent political or business leaders, subtle stereotypes are still finding their way to underscore what women can and cannot do.
Subtle gender stereotypes are seemingly positive compliments and often appear as relatively harmless, but in reality they play a crucial role in reinforcing traditional gender roles and maintaining status inequalities between men and women.
According to research, subtle stereotypes associate men with a greater perceived ability to tackle political issues such as economy and natural resources, whereas women are associated with greater competency in education and childcare.
Women, particularly those in politics, experience subtle stereotypes as they are often portrayed or referred to as emotional, sensitive, motherly, and as a result must maintain a delicate balance between seeming unwomanly or appearing too feminine.
Bulawayo Councillor for Ward 17 Sikhululekile Moyo told The Harare Times that subtle stereotypes play a significant role in discouraging women from pursuing leadership positions in politics.
“Subtle stereotypes such as that women are soft lead to women politicians being denied a chance to lead as presidential candidates or other influential positions. Even in my council now positions such as chairperson for finance, town lands you will not find a woman chairing,” said Moyo, who is also the caretaker for Ward 19 and the chairperson of the Bulawayo City Council’s (BCC) Future Water and Action Committee.
“l remember well last year when l was having a feedback meeting and the hall was packed full, the residents chairperson, after giving opening remarks from nowhere just said to the residents this ward needs a male representative seeing that geographically it’s big and it’s a bit complex unlike other wards.
“Honestly, l got a bit puzzled before l stood up to give my feedback. Residents were just quiet and puzzled as well and I never said anything. I just stood up and gave my feedback,” she said.
Moyo added that due to women politicians being viewed as soft, women leaders often experience insubordination as they are not taken seriously.
“I am talking about men who sometimes organise meetings behind my back or without my knowledge. The good thing is that I challenge such actions openly during meetings so that they understand my position. People must also understand that they contested and lost,” she said.
Moyo said the key drivers behind subtle stereotypes included the lack of acceptance by society and male counterparts that women can occupy strong political positions.
“People don’t want to let go of old traditional and religious beliefs that place a woman in subordinate positions only. Even where gender does not apply, they just want to believe that only men should occupy the leadership position, even if you have the same qualifications, same exposure and influence,” she said.
Bulawayo Ward 10 Councillor Sinikiwe Matanda said subtle stereotypes such as that women are motherly reduce confidence and limit what they can or cannot do as political leaders.
“When people come for assistance, they say they are looking for ubaba u councillor (a male councillor). They say most women politicians are not married, adding that most women get into power through having affairs or sex with senior leaders. This reduces self-esteem and confidence in women resulting in women not being able to lead and run their offices well. They are always questioning if a decision is the correct one or not,” Matanda said.
She added that another source of subtle stereotypes was the media which covers women in a sensationalist and judgemental manner, placing major focus on personal issues.
“Media coverage is given to male candidates during and after the campaign period. For example, during the 2018 campaign male candidates were the most covered in the media.
“Little respect is given to female leaders and they are subjected to name calling and the media looks for unnecessary information. We are not exposed, and people are not aware of our manifestos and what we are capable of doing or the work that we have done,” she said.
According to United Nation (UN) Women, women are currently serving as heads of state or government in only 21 countries and 119 countries have never had a woman leader.
“At the current rate, parity in the highest decisions of power will not be reached for another 130 years. Only four countries have 50 percent or more women in parliament in single or lower houses: Rwanda with 61 percent, Cuba with 53 percent, Bolivia with 53 percent, and the United Arab Emirates with 50 percent.
“Data from 133 countries shows that women constitute 2.18 million (36 percent) of elected members in local deliberative bodies. Only two countries have reached 50 percent, and an additional 18 countries have more than 40 percent women in local government,” UN Women said.
In Zimbabwe, statics demonstrate the skewed balance in national political leadership where in 2018 elections, out of 210 parliamentary seats, 26 were taken by women.
At local level, there has been a decline in women councillors from 16 percent to 14 percent in the July 2018 elections.
This is despite Zimbabwe’s Constitution and commitment to various protocols including the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number five which seeks to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls in all spheres by 2030.
Women’s Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence (Walpe) programmes manager Batanayi Gwangwawa told the Harare Times that there is a general belief that politics is tough and portraying women as caring, emotional and motherly disqualifies their ability to handle leadership positions effectively.
“These subtle stereotypes make the electorate shun women who express interest in politics, they are labelled as rebels and social misfits and therefore they lose the leadership battle before it even starts.
“Leadership positions have male stereotypes connotations. For example, cell or branch political leadership is called chairman not chairperson, that is already exclusionary of women and so makes women aspire for lower leadership positions in politics,” Gwangwawa said.
She said while subtle stereotypes were mostly emanating from the patriarchal social beliefs, the media had a huge role to play in debunking subtle stereotypes by portraying women as equally competent leaders.
“The media I would say plays the greatest role because it reinforces and perpetuates discriminatory narratives set by how our society organizes itself. It does so through gender insensitive communication skills and techniques.
“This means that even the images that they showcase can in a subtle manner, reinforce these stereotypes. Female politicians are shown at soft ceremonies presiding over soft projects such as sewing or gardening while their male counterparts commission dams and bridges,” Gwangwawa said.
“The media can actively profile women leaders and their achievements in leadership. So far, what we see in the media is that women are emotional, cause confusion and of loose morals. There is nothing on the good stewardship and this has to change. Media needs to report more positively on women leaders and to use language that is inclusive of women,” she added.
Media and political analyst Rashwet Mukundu also weighed in saying the portrayal of women as motherly and soft domesticates and dissuades them from occupying other spaces.
“If you are stereotyped as emotional the opposite side is that you are not logical. I would argue that for a long period the media has used these stereotypes based on where women’s voices are captured. Women are allocated soft issues such as health, cookery and care. There is a need for a balance to bring out women’ voices in the hard beat such as politics or business.
“This is an issue that is based on the socialisation of the girl child and boy child, so it’s not a media issue alone. You find that it has become common sense for women to accept those labels as much as it is normal for men to use them on women,” Mukundu said.
He added that the reorientation of the media must also be linked to the reorientation of society in terms of how the boy and girl child are raised.
“Sometimes women as powerful and successful as they are in their own right are always spoken of in relation to their husbands. We now need women to be identified in their own capacity. When covering women don’t say someone’s wife just identify them in their own personhood.
“So there are certain routines and practices that the media can incorporate in its work which can push back on these stereotypes. It is also a consciousness issue.
“Both men and women accept these stereotypes, so we need both sexes to break this negative awareness on the use of these stereotypes so that there can be an understanding that we are all emotional we can all be caring as much as we can all do business and politics,” Mukundu said.
Emthonjeni Women’s Forum’s executive director Sikhathele Mathambo said the media was at the centre of stereotyping women as the weaker sex while using to the moral trump card to discredit them.
“The media as an agenda setter needs to play a central role towards promoting women’s political participation in all spheres of life according to the Constitution of Zimbabwe. The media has a central role in dismantling patriarchy, misogyny and harmful social norms that perpetuate the exclusion of women in leadership positions.
“As the fourth estate, media should play a central role in holding duty bearers to account for the lack of implementation of constitutional provisions under section 17,56 and 80.
“The media can also play an advocacy role toward debunking stereotypes concerning women in political parties and pushing for women’s political participation in more influential roles,” Mathambo said.
By Sindiso Mhlophe