Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

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Subjects of Interest

  • Fiscal Policy
  • Geopolitical Analysis
  • Governance
  • Politics

Nigeria’s gendered social media spaces 17 Jan 2024

WhatsApp groups are virtual windows into Nigerian society. Beyond the surface-level banter, news updates, and diverse opinions in Nigerian spaces on social media platforms, the digital hubs serve as microcosms of the larger social dynamics among Nigerians.

WhatsApp groups are dynamic digital spaces that bring people together for various purposes. They provide a sense of community, whereby individuals with something that ties them together can converge in a virtual setting. Whether for families, members of professional networks, village groups, alumni associations, or casual gatherings of friends, WhatsApp groups foster a shared sense of belonging. They have made it easier for people to converge, eliminating transportation costs, which is significant in today’s Nigeria, where transportation costs have gone up while real wages are down.

However, many Nigerian societal ills are present in the WhatsApp groups. One of the social maladies is our dismissive behaviour towards women. I was recently told of two incidents in two WhatsApp alumni groups whose members are middle-aged people. In one of the groups, an accomplished female executive of the executive committee (Exco) presented evidence against a male member entrusted with the group's funds. He had embezzled the money and failed to deliver a project for their alma mater. But the accused haughtily dismissed her claims “with his chest”, using the Pidgin expression. Even more disconcerting, other group members were muted in their response. As of the time of writing, the man who misappropriated the fund has seemingly done so with characteristic Nigerian impunity.

In the second group, however, there were contrasts to a similar incident that occurred there. When a female Exco member levelled accusations of embezzlement against two members, one male and one female, members expressed readiness to escalate the matter beyond the digital space. The accused female member took time to respond to the accusations and cleared her name. But the accused male member was uninterested. He only addressed the issue when other male members took him to task.  

The shadows of patriarchy still loom large in our society. Concerns raised by women are often ignored or scantily paid attention to. Anecdotal evidence I am privy to suggests that online patriarchal behaviours are more pronounced in platforms frequented by older demographics. In these spaces, men cut more authoritative figures as their voices carry more weight, while women's concerns are trivialised. Typically, when women voice their disapproval of certain comments or behaviours, responses from the men tend to be dismissive, downplaying the concerns of the women. It could be suggested – or downright impolitely said – that they are overreacting. This reflects power imbalance, which amplifies the voices of men while stifling those of women.

There is a need to address the issue of discrimination against women in Nigeria broadly. In the sphere of public governance, the case for affirmative action on women's representation in government should continue to be made despite the retrogressive trends in gender inclusion since 2011. Citing data on the election server of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) after the 2023 general election, a report by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the number of women in Nigeria’s National Assembly has fallen by 19 percent compared to the last assembly, with women now occupying 3 percent of seats in the Senate and 4 percent in the House of Representatives. After seven general elections since 1999, the country is still waiting for its first elected female president, vice president or state governor. This has discouraged women's leadership at the National Assembly, where we are still waiting for the first female Senate President or female Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Inclusion of women at the highest levels of political leadership can enhance understanding of the country's development challenges, given the parity of the genders in Nigeria’s population compared to the acute lopsidedness in gender representation in governance. This will likely foster improved accountability as policymaking would be more participatory.

Much progress has been made in the private sector about women's representation in the leadership of businesses. Women have chaired the Boards of tier-1 banks, and they have led the management of several banks as CEOs. While the numbers are improving, it is important to learn if the women leaders are being circumscribed by the more powerful men in the leadership. The current holding structure for the banks has seen a woman leading a tier-1 bank while the erstwhile CEO is leading the holding company, to which the banking arm is a subsidiary. Even at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), which has championed women's inclusion in the banking sector, a female governor has yet to emerge.

More women in leadership positions in private sector institutions will promote diverse perspectives and more innovative ideas. Studies have shown that women bring unique perspectives to the table. They tend to be more empathetic. According to a 2018 survey report by Pew Research, the majority of Americans see little difference between men and women in a range of specific qualities and competencies that may be required for effective leadership. However, most do see a gender difference when it comes to being compassionate and empathetic, and about half make a distinction between men and women in their ability to work out compromises. The report shows that 59% of adults say female business leaders do better at being compassionate and empathetic, compared to 4% who hold the same view in favour of men who lead in the corporate realm.

Because the potentials of women in leadership are relegated, opportunities for broader talent development and retention are missed. This negatively impacts the long-term success and effectiveness of businesses and, ultimately, the economy.

The events in the two WhatsApp groups smack of gender powerplay. Women often find themselves disadvantaged in the power dynamics due to social, financial, physical, and political limitations. This leaves them feeling vulnerable and unable to assert themselves. Their plight is not helped by the fact that the dominant use of power in Nigeria’s public life is by the threat, or actual use, of force. This increases the risk of engagement, leading to silence and voiced acquiescence. But everyone, irrespective of gender, should have a voice in a progressive society. Public education and societal re-orientation should also be carried out to dissuade acts that threaten people when they speak up on issues concerning them or within their purview.

There needs to be an increased level of awareness about the impact of gender stereotypes. With respect to the use of social media like WhatsApp, Telegram, and others, group administrators must create and enforce clear guidelines promoting inclusion and addressing gender bias. They should implement strict policies against discrimination and harassment and provide clear reporting mechanisms and support systems for those who experience such behaviours.

Fostering community dialogue promotes cooperation, understanding, and collective problem-solving. Social media groups provide opportunities to harness the benefits. But social media platforms should not be a new avenue for serving up old prejudices. Creating inclusive and equitable online spaces is useful and can contribute to societal progress.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.