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Opinionista

A Modest Proposal: Make the next Minister of Women a man

Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.

South Africa’s approach to its gender issues needs a radical shake-up. Here’s one idea: put a man at the helm of the Department of Women in the Presidency. The move could send some imperative messages about gender roles and the need for men to take responsibility for many of the issues currently making life hard for South African women.

The idea that a man should be Minister of Women sounds counterintuitive. Men are already over-represented in leadership roles; why give them one more? Specifically, why give a man a job which has the name “women” right there in the title? Aren’t feminists always complaining about men trying to speak on behalf of women?

These points are valid, and in normal contexts require serious consideration. But this is not a normal context. We live in a country where the war on women’s bodies shows no signs of ceasing. New ways of thinking about how to raise the status of women in our society are urgently needed, and this is one: give a man that job.

There is a deeply rooted perception that the issues affecting women are the business of women and the problem of women to solve. We see this in the fact that rape protests are overwhelmingly staged and attended by women; that NGOs dealing with women’s issues are predominantly staffed by women, and that most researchers and commentators raising women’s issues are women.

This is despite the fact that most of the barriers to women’s daily safety and advancement are not created by women. It’s so simple that it sounds stupid, but it’s true. Women almost never rape women, for instance, so why – and how – should they be made responsible for solving the problem of rape?

Putting a man at the helm of the Department of Women would send an important message: fixing the mess that is gender relations in South Africa requires men, more than women, to step up.

Here’s an example. Last weekend, the story broke about Minister Jeff Radebe’s sexting history with a junior staffer. In the press briefing given by the Minister of Women on Wednesday, a journalist asked for Minister Shabangu’s view on this. It fell to her, obviously, to condemn Radebe’s actions. Winnie Mandela had already taken Radebe to task in public. Not a single male colleague of Radebe’s has stepped forward to say they disagree with his behaviour, and it’s likely that no journalist has expected them to do so.

When questioned on the matter, Shabangu had to fall in line with an age-old custom: men behave badly towards women, and women have the job of scolding them for it. Acceptance of a kind of “bro code” inoculates other men from taking on the task – that, and doubtless fear of skeletons in their own cupboards.

If a competent man had Shabangu’s job, though, he would be duty-bound to publically condemn Radebe. The reality is that that condemnation would carry more force from a fellow man, because it is easy to dismiss women in such situations as killjoys, nags and scolds – as has happened throughout history. A man as Minister of Women would have to stand up and say: “This is part of the problem. We are part of the problem.”

Appointing a man to such a position would also disrupt traditional notions of gender roles within government.

Gendered division of government roles happens all over the world. Women are often more likely to be given portfolios like social development, or education, at least partly because of the sexist assumption that as women, the fate of society’s most vulnerable – the poor, the sick, children – are closer to their hearts. Men are more likely to get portfolios like police, or defence, because of the idea that you need a tough guy in those roles.

To the ANC’s credit, democratic South Africa has been far better about this than many countries. Women have served as South Africa’s ministers of defence and police. But a gendered aspect to Cabinet portfolio allocation remains. Since Sport was made a stand-alone ministry, for instance, South Africa has never had a female minister of sport.

If we agree that one of the damaging myths of patriarchy is the notion that certain roles are for men and certain roles are for women, it would be good practice in any case to shake that thinking up. Let the next Minister of Women be a man, and the next Minister of Sport be a woman. For one thing, the latter appointment might be an interesting experiment to see if it would have any impact on the funding and profile of neglected women’s sports.

Another reason to make a man Minister of Women would be the possibility that he might have more success penetrating the enclaves of sexism most in need of gender transformation. The top level of corporate South Africa; religious bodies; initiation schools, all-male institutions. These are all spaces where a man’s voice, regrettably, is likely to be taken more seriously than a woman’s.

One likely objection to the idea of having a male Minister of Women is the notion that women simply understand women’s issues better. This is a line that the incumbent minister, Susan Shabangu, advances as a defence to criticism. “I am a woman. I am a black woman. I understand the pride and pain of women,” Shabangu said in Wednesday’s press briefing in response to one difficult question. It is hard to argue against this reasoning, but it is also possible that simply bearing membership of a particular identity category may actually serve to shut you off from a spirit of inquiry – because you think you instinctively understand issues without needing to dig deeper.

On some level you might also be more likely to accept the status quo. Women know through bitter experience that there are some spaces it’s better not to enter; some things it’s better not to do. They find ways to work around those obstacles. Perhaps a man trying to truly grapple with women’s challenges would be more likely to say: “Wait, why is this like this? Does it have to be this way?”

On a less abstract level, we don’t expect other government ministers to have personal expertise in their portfolios. We don’t require the minister of sports to be fit; we don’t expect the minister of social development to be poor; we don’t even ask that the minister of finance has a basic accounting background. Why should women’s issues be the one area in which we demand lived experience?

One counterargument is that there is some international research to suggest that female lawmakers are more likely than their male counterparts to pursue certain important policies on the basis of experience: issues to do with maternity leave and childcare, for instance, and also matters of urban design and safety. Even the best-intentioned man may have blind spots about such matters because he has simply never had to consider them.

Is this a reason not to give a man a portfolio of women’s issues? No: ministers don’t work in a vacuum. We know that most of the important work of government is done by officials, with turnarounds of several ailing departments implemented and run by talented and hard-working directors-general. Surround a hypothetical male Minister of Women with brilliant female advisers and bureaucrats, and let’s see what happens.

The man to make a success of such a role would have to be truly engaged, open to listening, and willing to shelve defensiveness at the door. He would have to be exceptional – but what should be a hugely important government department demands exceptional leadership anyway. DM

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