Connected Career Women Series

Unity And Diversity: An Impossible Mix?

Often treated as a minority or disadvantaged group, women as a group represent the second largest economy in the world on combined income vs GDP. This might seem normal as they make up roughly half of the world population, but considering the gender pay gap, the heavy burden of unpaid care work with women (globally at 76% of the total burden) and the fact that only half of the world’s women participate in the formal economy, the economic potential of empowering women is incredible – $160 trillion in additional global wealth to be precise. So what is holding us back?

For millennia men have been the dominant sex, and the different myths around why this is the case were all laid to rest in the books of Prof. Yuval Noah Harari from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. According to him:

Probably the greatest political and social revolution of the last century is the feminist revolution. It altered the dynamics between men and women which had not changed for thousands of years.”

Although we are reaping the benefits of this revolution from the last century, full gender parity will take another 108 years to achieve, but Africa can lead the game, and in particularly Rwanda, ranked 6th globally in closing the gender gap. The 2018 Global Gender Gap report reads, “Remarkably, gender parity in Western countries has slightly reduced, while the progress is ongoing, on average, elsewhere.” 

A bad word?

So one would wonder why women have in most societies today, a lower position than men when it comes to their political, economic or legal situation.

There are many pub-wisdoms one may revert to, like the myth of the man as a hunter and the woman as a gatherer, the child-caring role which in certain animal groups (Bonobo monkeys for example) gives females more political domination than males instead of the other way around.

One reason that feminism is of late becoming a more mainstream phenomenon and less and less of a “bad word” as before, is that we have understood the importance of intersectionality.

In fact, today you do not have to be a bra-burning, unmarried, man-hating woman with hair under your armpits to identify as a feminist. You can even be a cool man, like Barack Obama or Justin Trudeau, and proudly identify with the ‘feminist’ label. Not because you are a fanatic activist, but because you understand that in the words of Hillary Clinton, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.”

Divided by differences

Women were always divided by socio-economic class differences, by ideological differences, by national, ethnic or racial differences, by religious differences, and so on. There are many differences among women that these have often overshadowed the common experiences we face as women.

In a world were differences are feared and we gravitate towards people who look like us, who sound like us, who like the same things as we do, difference is threatening.

Yet as a woman, no matter where you are in the world, maternity will have an impact on your career. As a woman you’re likely to be affected by intimate partner violence which touches 1 in 3 women worldwide. As a woman you’re likely to earn less for the exact same work and with the same expertise than your male colleagues do. There is only one country in the world where it is illegal to pay women less than men for the same work.

These are just some examples of how women across the globe have similar experiences regardless of their specific culture, nationality, religion, etc.

This is without even speaking about subtler issues such as gender bias and its effect on salary negotiations, performance appraisals, salary growth, hiring and firing decisions, and even on the amount of time you get to speak without interruptions at meetings or on panels.

Ubuntu: a precursor of ‘diversity and inclusion’

While it is tempting to stay in our safe haven of judgement and fear, sticking to female friends who look like us and sound like us, it is not going to get us anywhere. If we want to tap into the power of unity, we need to acknowledge and accept the diversity underlying this unity.

Unity is not sameness.

It does not predicate that everyone involved is the same. Not only is that very difficult to achieve, it would also be rather bland. We do not have to look far to understand this unity in diversity.

While diversity and inclusion is only a recent trend in corporate cultures in many North American and European countries, this aspect is an intrinsic part of the African philosophical tradition called Ubuntu. The essence of the philosophy, otherwise known as ubumuntu in Kinyarwanda, is coined by the phrase “I am because we are”.

It indicates that rather than the community being a source of threat to the individuality of each member of a given society – the member is different from, while at the same time belonging to, the greater whole. Each person is unique thanks to others around her or him who are different. 

Therefore, any single person needs the others to exist as him – or herself. To be part of that community while also being different from the others in that community.

In short, we owe our uniqueness to each other.

Being white in Africa, I had the luxury to discover my race while living in Africa. Prior to that time, that part of my identity was not so determinant being in a community where others looked like me. My national and racial identities, were things that I became consciously aware of when I started to engage with people who were different from me and especially, when I ventured beyond geographical borders.

But the beautiful thing that happens when you do venture beyond, is that you realize that while you are different from the people you meet, there is a fundamental commonality of the human and the feminine experience.

Only by focusing on the commonalities rather than the differences on the one hand, and by celebrating differences as expressions of the rich diversity of humankind on the other hand, can we truly discover the beauty of being at home in the world.

Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable

Kenyan proverb
Unity in Diversity

Can one die of loneliness? The answer is ‘yes’, and if we see the most common causes of death in the West (heart disease, stroke, etc.), many of these can be directly related to the effects of loneliness.

According to Douglas Nemecek, MD, chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna, “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”

While it is tempting and self-indulging to prevent vulnerability in the secure confines of judgement and isolation, the truth of the matter is that we humans are not made to be alone and isolated. Humans need each other to thrive. Longevity has been directly correlated to healthy, long-lasting relationships – be they at home, at work or with good friends.

We also need those larger, diverse social networks to thrive and to feel fulfilled. We need warm human interactions even of the casual kind, as you go about your daily trip to the corner shop or as you get a glass of water from the water cooler.

So, can there be unity in diversity? The answer is ‘yes’.

What my personal experience in Sub-Saharan African countries has taught me is that unity and diversity are two sides of the same Ubuntu coin, like yin and yang with both aspects existing through the other, like night and day, ebb and flow, you and me – different and the same, all at once.

Lucy Schalkwijk is a women’s empowerment champion, a connector and a skills development enthusiast. She is passionate about connecting and empowering women in the workplace and writes about careers, networking, women’s empowerment, and leadership.

Want to join a tribe of successful women who have your back? Contact the Career Women’s Network Kigali: info@careerwomensnetwork-kigali.com and +250783719431.

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