On Becoming a Gender Advocate in Jamaica

Perhaps this happens all over the world.  Perhaps the situation I find myself in here in Jamaica is not unique, but I believe it is still worth a conversation.  More than a decade ago, I noticed that one’s gender mattered, I noticed that being a man or being a woman, mattered in more ways than the assignment of chores from my childhood days.  It came home forcefully to me when I became a student at UWI Mona.  Even then I had no context to locate action and so my activism as a student was more centred on Afro-Centrism, Garveyism and and the idea of the African Renaissance.   I remember when I began investigating the issue of gender and the experience of the Caribbean woman a friend of mine from the Garvey Movement told me to leave that alone because the ‘oman ting likely fi do more harm than good to the struggles against racism and discrimination.’  I was taken aback by the comment but I never investigated further I left it alone.

When I began my work at Mary Seacole Hall, I could not escape ‘di oman ting’ the need for me to incorporate a feminist/womanist agenda in my work screamed at me at every turn and in the first two years I was hesitant to fully embrace the idea.  I was very much afraid of being labelled a ‘feminist’.  As I began to do my work, to speak up for the young women I was asked to care for and lead at Mary Seacole Hall, I began to recognize that I would be labelled a ‘feminist’ this was and still is not a nice label at UWI.   I have found that the easiest way to silence a woman here and make her work and impact irrelevant is to label her a feminist, the moment this is done she becomes ‘sidelinable’, she is sold as being unreasonable, she ‘has an agenda’ and she has ‘an attitude problem.’  So I am now all of those, I am in many ways an ‘untouchable’ and not in a good way.  Being a feminist means that you can only lead women, you cannot lead men, so the only role available for you is to head an all woman space. I have seen that so many times here, when a woman speaks about discrimination or unequal access to opportunity, send her to the place where they talk about women and be done with it.

This is dangerous in so many ways, firstly women are not the only ones who should speak against gender inequality.  Men have to also speak out against inequality and discrimination.  Secondly, in order for us to make progress towards gender equality men and women have to recognize that women asking for an equal share of the pie does not mean that men are going to now become recipients of women’s discrimination.  Asking for a seat at the table, does not mean you have to get up, I see the need for a bigger table or more seats, but it could also mean ‘you small up yuhself’ so I can sit beside you.  I like the idea of men ‘smalling up’ themselves at the table to allow women to be present, because I have found that unless men do the necessary work, unless they learn to compromise, to speak less and for so long, women will never get the opportunity to sit at the table much more speak.

Women will have to do work too, women have agency, they too have power over the process. I have worked with three women principals, three male directors, two female directors.  Some women are not good leaders, that is okay, because women should be allowed  to be fully humans and human beings make mistakes.  I know that women and men lead differently, women tend to get up front and personal and men tend to lead from a distance. When a woman comes to leadership and she is not fully owning who she is and her power she can be devastating. I have endured that with a powerful woman as my director, she was so unaware of the power she wielded,  her insecurities were devastating.  She needed to be validated every hour of the day and saw any disagreement with her views and perspectives as a signal to war.  At the same time I had one male director who had no clue what he wanted to do, he just felt that he could devolve his responsibilities to the women, his incompetence was glaring.   Women benefit as well when a man is in leadership who does not know his job this scenario can be  as devastating because then leadership is practised in cognito.

Organizations always operate with a gendered sub-text, those who insist that it is non-existent or that it is not important, are either ignorant or they prefer to ignore the elephant in the room.


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