Post 344.

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Ziya’s class recently concluded a class president election. In the run-up, she practiced her speech, highlighting qualities of kindness and loyalty, and roles such listening, helping, resolving conflicts, and encouraging good behaviour.

I was pleased that she felt confident enough to consider being elected and that her teacher had enthused such a sense of possibility among the students. Many children in the class offered themselves as candidates. It seemed like an excellent lesson in democracy.

“The boys only voted for boys,” Zi later huffed. Why did this matter? From her description, the girls seem to have mostly voted for each other or for themselves. ‘Did a boy give the best speech?’ I asked, but she was noncommittal.

Turns out that there are more boys than girls in the class, and the other girls had eventually concluded their speeches didn’t matter as the boys were never going to vote for a girl. This meant that the girls would never get to be president, and why run if you can’t win?

Why did she think the boys wouldn’t vote for girls? “The boys don’t think girls exist”, she said. As decades of efforts to create gender equality attest, when searching for nominees to appoint to private sector and state boards, an argument is often made that enough qualified women can’t be found.

In the early 2000s, when state boards and companies on the stock exchange couldn’t find women to nominate, the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women found 200 qualified women. Women’s representation went up to 29% that year.  The global numbers tell us that girls remain invisible to boys, in both corporate and political leadership, in the adult world today.

Her second explanation was that “the boys only vote for their friends, and all their friends are the other boys”. She was describing the budding version of the resilient, powerful and informal influence of an ‘old boys’ network’.

There’s significant data on the mentoring and deal-making that occurs on golf courses, football fields and bars or in lodges, where familiarities and friendships among men develop outside of formal spheres. We may all turn to our networks first, nurturing them with respect and reciprocity as part of strengthening their ties, their reach and our place in them.

When those networks also intersect with power over decision-making, and the lower status and greater invisibility of those outside, they are a formula for exclusion. Those in these networks don’t have to be personally bad, and the exclusion doesn’t have to be deliberate. Nonetheless, the outcome is no longer innocent.

Zi’s third explanation was that “the boys think they are smarter than the girls”. Think of how worried society becomes when girls “outperform” boys at SEA, but how the nation celebrates when a boy finally “tops” girls, as if stopping reversal of the natural order from going too far. Think of how women in Obama’s administration had to amplify each other for their ideas to even be heard. Imagine, long-held biases about lesser female competency are still clear enough for her to articulate.

Boys’ implicit gender bias plus social networks plus majority vote created unequal opportunity. I told Zi to talk to her teacher. She couldn’t let an unfair system become entrenched, even if she was afraid of getting in trouble for “complaining”. I told her about quota systems, and that for every boy or girl class president, there could be an alternative vice-president, and that there should be alternating class presidents so girls would have an equal chance.

I gave her everything I got, from Audrey Jeffers to the Suffragettes. Eventually, she ran to her room and came back with a poster titled, THE Election REBELLION. Over her title, she wrote, ‘Vote = Voice of the Electorate”, a reference to nineteen years earlier when Svenn Miki Grant and I handed out a thousand copies of a youth manifesto at a public launch on the promenade. Below she wrote, “the choice is yours to vote for girls”. And, in huge and colourful letters, between a heart and a star, was the message: “THE GIRLS WANT VOTES”.

Next morning, she took her poster to school and went to rouse her friends. Her teacher held a girls’ meeting at lunch and they represented their sense of unfairness. She then met with the whole class so all the children could recognise that being in the voting minority meant it would always be an uphill battle for the girls to secure power through democratic means.

By the end of day, Zi reported the rebellion to be over. Yet, was the electoral system really changed? Zi wasn’t sure what new rules they had secured. She hadn’t confirmed whether there would now be alternating leadership. Until she’s sure and it’s enacted, the struggle continues.

What’s clear is that the unjust political realities of adult women are already reflected in the eyes of eight year old girls. We have a responsibility to address unfair male domination at all ages, levels of power and processes of decision-making. An election rebellion is long overdue. The girls deserve votes.