Are women programmed to think less and do more?

June 20, 2023

This is the second blog post of the AI Research and COVID: Journeys to Gender Equality and Inclusion series. This blog series emerged from the “writeshop” organized by Gender at Work as part of the Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Research Program to Combat COVID-19, also known as AI4COVID, financed by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). The initiative was part of the final Gender Action Learning workshop held in Nairobi, Kenya in February 2023.  

In this blog post, Meghan Malaatjie reflects on the gender norms she learned in childhood, her personal experiences with these norms, and the impact on her career, and aspirations to address gender inequalities as a public health professional.

The gender norms I learned in childhood

As early as the year 2000, being a young impressionable child, I learned that in a world of men and women bias always exists. I learned there was no impartiality or fairness, merely what is normal. The gender norms taught to our parents, grandparents and great grandparents were still drilled into the minds of little girls at an early age, whereas boys learned at a much later stage what is expected of them.

For example, at the age of 10, I realized that modesty refers only to the actions or behaviour of women, not men. Here are some phrases my grandmother used to show me how modesty only related to girls:

  • You can’t wear that. It’s too short.
  • Don’t boast about what it is you’re good at.
  • Girls don’t sit with their legs open like that.
  • Don’t show too much skin.

My grandmother also taught me that a young girl doesn’t stay out past sunset, yet she greeted my brother at midnight with a warm plate of food. Here’s another eye-opening example: the boys in our family could recklessly ride their bikes and play in the mud or climb trees, but the girls could only justify being unkempt if the reason they looked that way was due to cooking or cleaning for the family.

From these observations, I learned at a very young age that being male only required that you remain alive, whereas being female required you to be smart, kind, helpful, soft spoken and have no interests outside of making sure that the men in the family are happy.

These observations later influenced how I perceived the actions of other girls and even women within my immediate environment, while never paying attention to the actions of any of the boys or males around me. While I was hyper aware of what was considered to be proper or improper female behaviour, male behaviour norms weren’t even on my radar. Those issues seemed insignificant, perhaps because nothing seemed to be expected of men.

I realized that women are the backbone of our world and, because the role they play is so significant, everything we do comes under scrutiny. 

© Wirestock via Freepik

Questions I ask myself

The gender norms I picked up on as a child followed me into adulthood. Whether conscious or subconscious, these norms have strongly influenced my relationships, my choice of career and how confidently I am able to perform my roles within my career. As I grew older, became an adult and slowly began to enter the world of work as a young epidemiologist, I began to experience more of these gender norms in different ways and with that I began to ask questions:

Why do I suffer from imposter syndrome in a boardroom full of men? Is it because I’m young and not as experienced? No! Surely, my imposter syndrome exists because society has taught me that a woman can never think as well as a man.

Why do I feel pressured to become successful? Is it because my goal in life is to be successful? Or, could the pressure be because society has taught me that being a young woman from a minority group, I now have access to more opportunities and therefore cannot fail?

Why do I feel programmed to be inherently considerate? When I say women are ’inherently considerate,’ I mean they have a natural instinct to give careful thought to something/someone. But this should not be the justification for watching women lose themselves and become completely burned out while taking care of everyone but themselves. One could argue that for some women being inherently considerate has been a choice, something they enjoy doing. To those I pose the question: What choice do we have if we’ve been programmed to enjoy it?

The more thought I gave to these questions, I found myself asking more complex questions: 

  1. I am the end-product of my mother and grandmother’s teachings; do I also want this for my future daughter, and if so, at what cost? 
  2. Now that I understand gender norms and where they stem from, has my mind been reprogrammed?

The flawed response I’ve come up with tends to make sense in a room full of people; however, later it generates more questions in the absence of my peers validating these answers. My response is simply that I am constantly growing and as a result will continue to see these norms from a different perspective, as I hope my future daughter would continuously grow and evolve. 

In some sense, becoming an adult is closely linked to the conscious decision to learn more about these social norms, where they stem from, which parts you are comfortable with and which parts don’t align with who you hope to become. One’s growth and evolution into adulthood therefore requires unlearning what you are taught to believe and deciding which norms work for you, while rejecting the norms that aren’t aligned with your values. Perhaps the world would be a better place if the process of learning and unlearning was that simple. 

I’m sure to some extent I’ve unlearned many of these norms and opt not to argue with those who believe these societal norms are how things ought to be done. It seems, however, I’m yet to be fully liberated.

Next Steps: Working to improve health care while battling my own programming

Looking at gender and the public health lens, I have now begun to have these conversations. As a young researcher, how do I solve broader and more significant health issues if I’m still battling with my own programming? How do I balance growing as a professional and owning up to my shortcomings while still feeling qualified to contribute to the necessary conversations needed to address gender and intersectionality?

Being a public health professional has broadened my perception on issues of gender inequality and how closely these are linked to the overall health of the population. I am currently finalizing my Master of Science Epidemiology degree, and through my research have been able to look at gender differentials in COVID-19 hospitalization data within the Gauteng province of South Africa. Through the results of this research, I have now been drawn to take a more in-depth look at gender intersectionality.  

Since participating in the AI4COVID workshops while pursuing my master’s degree, I have been fortunate enough to engage with various researchers from many different backgrounds. Among these researchers there have been data scientists who have been tasked with tracking national trends in COVID-19 infections to help inform policy for the provincial government. Through this collaborative work I have been able to identify gender differentials while using sex-disaggregated data. Within the differentials of co-morbidity, the largest gender differences arose for diabetes, hypertension and HIV, with one sex having more severe cases of the respective diseases. Many questions arose from the results, such as ‘why was there a spike in hospital admissions for young women during the fourth wave?’ This shift in comparison to the previous three waves raised more questions about the reasons behind these results and how exactly gender norms contribute to them. 

The privilege of working in AI health driven research has cemented my passion and shown me the need for women within health research, as well as the need for more conversations about gender among researchers from all disciplines. 

There are many diverse issues that arise from discussions around gender and what I’ve learned over the past year is that public health is a shared problem, and therefore any solutions can only come about through constant engagement and conversations regarding gender. Through interaction with other researchers and conversation around gender inequalities, I was able to ask myself more complex questions and look into how I was able to answer these on an individual level, before attempting to address them within my professional capacity.  

Moving forward, I hope to play a more significant role in addressing gender inequalities. The conversations I’ve had thanks to the AI4COVID workshops have now fuelled my interest in gender and intersectionality, both in my personal capacity and as a young epidemiologist.

This blog post was written by Meghan Malaatjie, a Masters in Science, Epidemiology, Candidate, Faculty of Health Science, School of Public Health, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and junior researcher with the ACADIC project under AI4COVID, @LinkedIn, and is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2023 Meghan Malaatjie.

Curious to read more reflections that explore individual level experiences of gender and inclusion from childhood to a professional life in health research? Read the other blog posts from this series here: Amelia Taylor’s Can AI have its cake and eat it too? & Michelle Mbuthia’s Cook, Clean, Plan: A case for more gender-responsive policymaking.