The earliest and clearest memory I have of male people feeling superior to me or expressing same just because they are male happened when I was 8. After a double promotion from Primary 4 to 6, I was in a class with 19 kids, 4 other girls and 15 boys. A couple of months into the school year, I was challenged by some boys: there was no way I, a girl, could be smarter — could do better — than them. Especially not at Math.
There’s a confidence that men have. The sort of confidence that comes with the knowledge of being a man in a world that does not respect women. A world where a man is automatically placed higher and revered just because he is.
Growing up, there were many examples of this: men who thought themselves to be better, men who assumed they had a right to my space, my time, my body, me. Of course then, I didn’t understand it feminism, and misogyny, and patriarchy. I just knew that it was hella weird.
I rarely ever had to think about the spaces I occupied from a gendered perspective: boys do this and girls do that. My parents, my mum especially, raised their three children — boy, girl, then girl — to believe that they could (and should) do anything; nothing was only for boys or only for girls (except, of course, for biological/physiological limitations).
So, I grew up in a house where my older brother learnt to cook before I did; he was a better cook than I was. I changed light bulbs, fixed minor electrical issues, washed cars, hammered nails into walls to hang pictures, awards and decorations. We rotated chores — no chore was girls only or boy only. Also, everybody was expected to do well in school; brilliance wasn’t for boys alone.
I do not remember if the boys communicated their discontent about my apparent smartness to the teacher or if he heard us muttering about it, but somehow, he found out. And so, we had a class competition. It was all the interested boys versus me.
The rules were simple: there’d be a 5 question test that we had to complete within a specified time period — I forget how much time — and all the boys who scored lower than I did would be labelled class monkeys — I still don’t know why my teacher chose monkeys — and their names would be written on a cardboard and displayed right in front of the class. I don’t remember the exact questions, but they covered concepts we were yet to learn.
I, smart ass that I was, was unperturbed by this test. I’d always been top of my class before then, and I scored highly on the random mental Math tests that we had without warning in this new class.
When I think back to this story, I wonder: what made these boys so self-assured? I think about the reasons the girls didn’t feel (or express) that they could compete with me, and why the boys believed that they were inherently better than me just because I was a girl. What do we teach boys and girls that make them see the world differently. Is it in telling boys: “how can you let a girl win you in that contest?” from as early as primary school? Is this why boys feel entitled to the best things while girls feel that they should settle?
Sometime in late 2017, a picture was circulating on social media. The photo was allegedly of a classroom in Northern Nigeria. In it, the girls were sitting on the floor and the boys on chairs. Are we inadvertently (or even purposely) teaching girls that they are worth less than boys? Telling boys that they are better than girls just because they are boys?
During the convocation ceremony for the Class of 2016 at my university, a discussion started on my class Whatsapp group chat — I was in my third year then. Someone guy commented that it was “a sign of the end times that ladies are top of the class”, and that “it’s not proper for ladies to top the class except in a situation where there are no guys”. This was because the two best graduating students in the school were women, and all the first class graduates from my department were also women.
I read, a few years ago, in a widely circulated HBR article, about how men are more confident than women even when they are less competent. What is it about the messages we’re exposed to that makes women and men so widely different in the ways that we approach things. Why are women more likely to feel like they do not deserve the things they have worked for. Why are women more likely to feel like imposters? Why are women less likely to take credit for the work that they do, while men are less likely to share credit? Why are ambitious women mistrusted?
In Chimamanda’s Dear Ijeawele, she retells a story she’s been told by an acquaintance who took her son to a baby playgroup: “mothers of baby girls were very restraining, constantly telling the girls ‘don’t touch’ or ‘stop and be nice,’ and she noticed that the baby boys were encouraged to explore more and were not restrained as much and were almost never told to ‘be nice.’’’ In this way, boys are raised to be more confident, to speak up more, while girls are raised to be perfect, nice, sweet. Not that there’s anything wrong with being nice and sweet.
Women consistently have to shrink themselves and their accomplishments. They have to let men “allow” them to do things. I have heard many stories of women being told not to get that new degree, not to buy that new car, not to make that career move, not to take that promotion, so as not to scare men away. Because somehow, the only thing that women should look forward to is marriage. For the man that will come and lift her and bring her glory.
Boys grow up to believe that they are entitled to things: success, wealth, women (yes women, because women aren’t respected as people, but as property to be owned and protected by men). It is why 10 year old boys can assert themselves as being smarter even without proof, and 20-something year old men can argue that women can (or should) only lead when men are absent.
I’ve been facilitating #IamRemarkable workshops for 2 years now and it’s interesting to see how women struggle with embracing their success and accomplishments. They assume that some of these things aren’t actually achievements or they’re not important enough to be celebrated. More often than not I hear things like it’s not important who gets credit as long as the work gets done. But we know this isn’t true. When it’s time for promotions and rewards, it’s the people who get the credit that are celebrated. But women experience another bind: when we self promote, when we’re ambitious, when we speak up for ourselves, we’re often penalized for it, even by other women.
It is telling that even in writing this piece, there is some level of discomfort I have in describing myself as smart, in claiming ownership of my brilliance. Does this make me seem proud? Will this turn people off and away? In a culture where we are taught to demure and not take ownership for any of our successes (it’s all the grace of God of course), it is easy to let accolades pass, to turn down praise, to wait for everyone else to toot your own horn. Especially when you’re a woman.
A version of this article first appeared in YNaija in 2018