Social norms and gender inequality in the workplace


As Nigerians, our culture(s) – which cuts across over 250 ethnic groupings and over 500 different languages – is ingrained in us. This influences our values, attitudes and behavioural norms. We are blessed with a rich, dynamic and vibrant cultural heritage that is celebrated and distinct anywhere in the world. However, some of our beliefs are outdated and traditional and continue to limit us as people and as a Country.

Gender Equality is not just a fundamental human right but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. As we strive to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (SDG5), we must consider the role that culture plays in reaching our goals. There are clear societal norms that dictate the type of behaviors considered acceptable and appropriate for both sexes. One of such norms common across ethnic groupings (albeit in different capacities) is gender roles.

There are multiple layers to the reason for gender inequality in the workplace but for the purposes of this article, I will focus on the traditional perception of gender roles and how this subconsciously affects women. For example, In Nigeria, women are mostly perceived to be ‘home-makers’ and men ‘bread-winners’ or ‘providers’. This is ingrained in an unconscious bias that inadvertently affects conditions such as equal pay. This social bias can be seen in simple statements made such as “It’s too late, shouldn’t you go home to your husband and family” which gives the notion that women are more focused on their roles at home than the workplace or do not need the money as much as “The head of the house” does. According to Bloomberg’s Women, Business and the Law (2020), Nigeria scores 50% (compared to 59% globally) in the 2020 index score for pay equity.

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Socialisation has also caused women to limit themselves by not asking for what they want. However, most of the biases are formed in societal networks way before employees are old enough to work. This is why within a company structure, measures have to be set in place to drive organisational culture that transcends and breaks down cultural gender roles.

One way to set the tone on organisational culture is through gender mainstreaming. Gender mainstreaming is a strategy towards realising gender equality. It involves the integration of a gender perspective into the preparation, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and regulatory measures.

At the core of managing stereotypes within an organisation is learning and unlearning these stereotypes and driving the re-orientation of employee mindsets. This can be done by setting the tone at the top and raising awareness across the organisation through targeted training and communication that strategically highlights biases that would ordinarily be overlooked. Other ways include driving equal representation of women and men through monitoring and quotas, and ensuring gender perspectives are embedded in the context of policies.

When these are taken into consideration, organisations will see a more effective and inclusive culture.

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