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She Takes A Peep: How and Why First Women Are Often Tokens

  • emma
  • 7th February 2021

On the 15th of February 2021, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became the first woman to serve as Director-General for the World Trade Organization. This was a pretty significant and historic event as not only was she the first woman to be appointed for the role, she was also the first African. Moments like these are generally heartwarming and great to see. Members of the general public ー most especially women ー expressed elation and pride since this sort of event serves not only as a beacon of hope but also an opportunity for women to aspire to be and do more.


Personally, I often view such instances with a guided reluctance as a result of what I have come to understand about such events. While it’s great to both see and hear, in actuality, it does not present much growth or opportunities for other women. The model of this phenomenon is as such that a select group of women are hand-picked and placed in big, visible roles in either companies or public service. Most times, the chosen women likely subscribe to the questionable values of said organization. Placing these women in high positions simply serves the purpose of appeasing the public. Think of handing a shiny object to a child, in order to distract them from the biscuit placed at their back. People are drawn to these select few women, resembling moths to a flame. As they fuss over these women and their high and desirable roles, they generate the automatic assumption that this kind of progress would flow throughout the entirety of whatever workforce is present at the time of their appointment.


What this does for the body of hiring practices in the organization is that it takes their eye off the more important issue, which is the politics present in the internal body or foundation of the organization itself. They are able to get away with unfair hiring practices, distorted wage gaps or underpaying and toxic working conditions for women.


Take for example companies that primarily have interview questions and expectations which is clearly not favourable for women. Telling prospective employees that they are expected to sometimes stay at work past end-of-day. This is exclusionary to working mothers as there is no specified time to arrange for childcare (if they can even afford it). Offering unpaid maternity leave is another subtle way in which organizations show that they don’t necessarily prioritize the well-being of their female employees. When placing such requirements for a position, one can surely expect that women of marrying or childbearing age will avoid such roles because of the inclination to place their married lives and future children even over their own well-being.


As for me, I have no desire to be the first woman to accomplish anything, truly. I envision a world where a few women are not placed in certain positions or given certain platforms simply as a token but instead deliberately woven into the fabric of society at every level. I envision a world where organizations not only place certain women into the forefront of their agencies but instead endeavour to empower women who are not likely to fit the mould of what is considered socially acceptable. I envision myself flourishing while working in a company that is deeply committed to fitting the lives of their women employees into their system or framework rather than limiting women’s expertise by rejecting them for roles on the guise of considering their ‘womanly’ needs or responsibilities.


There are few reasons barring outright exclusion why child-bearing (in the event that women choose to do so) would limit or completely cut off the trajectory of their careers. It is important that society as a whole begins to look past representation politics and starts to look into systems that bring about actual and concrete change.

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