African gender brainteaser or why African women always seem to be smarter than their male counterparts

I’ve been blessed to see quite a number of countries and places on the African continent. Being in contact with so many different cultures and being able to learn from it is a blessing in itself. And getting a deeper insight in the incredibly diverse richness of African cultures, histories, and social interactions, which can impossibly be obtained from the unilateral information that can be distilled from European media, is extremely eye opening. Still today, most Europeans do perceive Africa as a country in which people and cultures are more or less the same. People are really not to blame for this perception, as it is really based on the very limited information about Africa that can be received from the popular media. In 2014, I analysed the media in Germany for what they reported about Africa, and the only news I found were all about Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and Oscar Pistorius, thus, exactly what people in Europe like to hear about in Africa: war, terror, and crime. What was missing at that time were hunger and drought, which are the parameters that typically supplement the picture we like to draw of the “African country” in Europe.

However, the reality is certainly quite different: much more positive, and definitively much more diverse. If you have ever travelled from Dar es Salaam to Accra, you know that Africa is definitively not a country, and cultures, people, ways of living are much more different than between most of the European countries. A few things, however, and despite the incredible diversity that can be observed in Africa, to me always seemed to re-appear no matter whether I was in Central, Eastern, Western or Southern Africa. One was the always extremely positive impression I had of the women I met in academia, researchn and decision making positons.

I was lucky that in most of my projects with African partners I met a few of the most inspiring (often quite young) people of both gender. I met brilliant female and male students, researchers, lecturers and decision makers. However, everytime I flew back and reflected upon my trip, I wondered why I was left with the retrospective feeling that “somehow the women seemed to be smarter than their male counterparts“, despite the fact that the brilliant people I met were equal in number of men and women. In fact, I was puzzled about this perceicved contradiction for a long time, until I tried to look at it from a purely analytical perspective that excludes the idea that there are specific male or female performances.

Indeed, the number of brilliant male and female personalities I met was equal for both gender, but in total I met significantly more men than women. The professional networks in most African societies are heavily male dominated. This means there is a great permeability for men, regardless of their talent. Access to certain positions is rather granted based on family relations, existing networks or personal relations to the employer than based on skill. For women, the access is restricted, and only those whose talent stands out so much that it overcompensates the perceived gender disadvantage can have a chance at all. This means, in a certain position, if you meet a man, he can be really excellent but he could also just be the lazy son of an influencial person. A women in the same position is automatically brilliant with a much higher probability, because if she weren’t she would not be in this position.

In other words, I met very talented men but also a high number of less talented men, but I mostly met only very talented women. And this is not because the less talented women do not exist. They do; in the same percentage as for men, but unlike the men, they are not given a chance to participate. The mathematics behind are explained here. It is also shown, why the inclusion of more women automatically (and purely statistically) causes enhanced performance of men.

It is a simple question of who will be included and who will be excluded in networks. The logic behind is not limited to gender aspects, it is just most visible for women and men. Basically, the exclusion of any group of people in a society causes the same effect, may it be for reasons of religion, age, sexuality, gender or colour of skin. The result of exclusion is that more of the less talented individuals are included in societal activities, while the more talented are not given a voice.

In the light of the climate change, pressing global challenges related to resource depletion, rapid population growth, urbanisation, and societal unrest, no society in the world can afford anymore to exclude their most skilled and innovative talents. These talents are equally distributed among men and women, and people need to understand that the exclusion of talents automatically weakens societies. This, should not be any human’s or society’s future perspective, regardless of the gender, and that is why also every man should fight for the inclusion of women.

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