I came to Ghana with an essential question: How do women perceive and describe cultural expectations of their gender? The question grew out of my converging interests and values in narrative, girls education, and gender equality. Because a lack of gender equality in global education is receiving much international attention, I expected that women would describe the expectations of their gender as “unfair” and for the dialogue to be focused on education.
The women and girls I spoke with generally did not describe or explore expectations in terms of fairness. (Perhaps Americans are more concerned with fairness than many other cultures.) They articulated differences in expectations. Men are expected to earn more for the family, women are expected to do most of the cooking. Women are expected to be primary providers of child care, men are encouraged to have lives outside of the home. The women I encountered were reluctant to use the language of injustice to describe prescribed social roles that I saw as such. The United Nations ranks Ghana 138 on its global gender equality index. The United States is ranked 5. This quantitative discrepancy confirms and captures the difference I perceived between my activist attitude toward gender equality and the indifferent attitudes I perceived and encountered among many Ghanaian women.
I frequently heard from both men and women, that “things are changing” and that men are increasingly helping out at home, and women are increasingly taking careers outside the home. People seemed eager to let me know this. Gender-specific expectations are dissolving, at least in the Cape Coast region of the country, and the women I spoke with described this change as slow and inevitable.
I wonder how Ghanaians would respond to a female champion of gender equality – someone like America’s Sheryl Sandberg. I wonder how willing Ghanaian men and women are to discuss issues of gender equality – when it comes to work place and domestic place. While many Ghanaians are eager to discuss issues of female empowerment within the context of the school systems, I perceived that they were less willing to discuss what these means at home and work.
During my time at Wesley Girls School in Cape Coast, I met many teachers – both male and female. Each day at lunch, the male teachers would leave campus to eat out. As the guest of one male teacher, I ate out too. And I loved it. Hot, delicious red-red, fried plantains and beans became my dreamed-about lunch staple. The female teachers, however, stayed on campus. Before I realized that it was only the men who left for lunch, I asked a female teacher if she would be joining us at the restaurant for a lunch of Red-Red. Her response was matter-of-fact and surprising to my American ears, “oh no, only the male teachers go out for lunch.” When I pressed her, and asked her why and don’t you ever want to go out for lunch, she said, “no, the men go out – that’s ok.”
As a visiting female American, there seemed to be a different set of gender expectations that applied to me. While I was told it was improper for women to be out of the home at night, I enjoyed many evenings out with my fellow teachers and my host. I, as a visitor, was free to play by different rules.
I still have many questions about gender equality in Ghana. To what extent are gender expectations made explicit within Ghanaian communities and to what extent are their quietly assumed? Did the principal of Wesley tell the female teachers to eat out, or do they just know not to? Did they learn the cultural boundaries to their workplace and domestic behavior from their mothers? From their fathers? Are they as at peace with their gendered roles as they seem?