Is this PhD a curse or a blessing?
In the four years I have been studying for my PhD, I have been amazed at the expressions of respect and vigorous handshakes I receive from numerous men. One notable aspect about the men is that they are 55 and above.
For them, a PhD means higher status and intellectual ferocity. What’s even more interesting about their expressions and handshakes is that they are almost always followed by negative statements about their sons and young Kenyan men in general, “Siku hizi wasichana ndio wanasoma na bidii, vijana ni bure kabisa!” Nowadays, girls are more hardworking than these useless boys, they say.
I have heard the same criticism in different words across the socio-economic classes. From a carpenter to upper-class corporate heads and government elites.
I appreciate that my years of social and psychological sacrifice have not gone unnoticed. However, I am not excited at the prospect of being compared with “young useless men and boys” who have refused to go to graduate school.
However, friends who lecture at various local universities observe that there are more women than men who are enrolled here. In fact, one lecturer praised the scenario as an “outpouring of women.”
A good society is one that gives both men and women chances to achieve their goals and dreams, while a good home is one that provides equal opportunities to both boys and girls.
However, in the process of providing those equal opportunities, there is a question that is not often addressed. When the young woman scales the academic and corporate ladder, whom does she couple up with if she has outperformed her male peers? Furthermore, if she has been educated and raised on a feminist diet, which preaches that men are her equals, whom on earth will she marry, if at all she attracts someone in the first place?
The reason I ask these questions is that in the course of my PhD studies, I have interacted with many young women between 23 and 35 from here, as well as other parts of the world, who are confused as to what social role they are to play in the home and in the greater society. This confusion is never displayed overtly because PhDs must wear a face of unwavering confidence.
ARE WE REALLY THAT PRIVILEGED
Instead, we congregate on the sidelines of international conferences as the aroma of coffee, tea and sandwiches wafts in the air. Once we ensure that the older married PhDs are out of earshot, we huddle together and discuss our relationship status or rather the lack of men to date or marry.
Are we really that privileged? When will we have children if our best childbearing years are spent in the halls of the ivory tower of academia?
And then we unpack the infamous word: feminism. Some are quick to support the core feminist agenda that there should be no distinction between men and women, that we must share all the roles and responsibilities in a home, in a society.
Others like me are recovering feminists who support a society where men and women complement each other as opposed to compete with each other. Others are in between, they want the benefits of being equal with a man in terms of how much they earn, but they would prefer if he could pay all the bills, cook, change the baby’s diaper and clean the house.
In the urban Kenyan context, a majority of the feminist dictum originates from the baby boomer generation. Mothers and fathers from that generation have a genuine and great desire for their young girls to succeed academically and career wise.
This is because they grew up at a time when advanced education and a full-time career were the preserve of a few. Some of them grew up in homes where they underwent FGM and were married off young. Many women I have spoken to from that generation claim that they were discouraged from getting too much education because they risked scaring away potential suitors.
Teaching or secretarial jobs were considered more feminine than scientific fields such as engineering, or the pursuit of PhDs. Societal norms were firmly shaped to encourage marriage first and career later for women. Therefore, their desire to give their children more career options than they had is understandable and very admirable. However, their desire is one that is slowly inching to what I describe as the special princess syndrome.
The Special Princess Syndrome, as a direct result of feminist ideals, describes a condition where a young woman is raised as a special princess whose only responsibility is to get straight A’s in school, eat, sleep and dress up smartly. Her greatest assets are her top grades, physical looks and the successful career she will eventually forge. She must strive for engineering, medicine, law or a PhD in her field of choice.
This is a sharp contrast from the mukimo, chapati and omushenye cooking and other home-making skills her mother strived to acquire. She grows up under a cloud of constant praise in school while her brother is often in trouble for aggressive play and a lack of focus in school. She is sweet, sensitive and docile, while he is rough, cheeky and untidy.
When girls in her class score the highest marks, the school is rated as a high-performing one, but when the boys dominate the class, something must be urgently done to help the poor girls catch up. The A student girl grows up and goes to university. Her brother struggles to score a B and also makes it into university.
At university, she consistently tops the class and all the lecturers love her. Her brother chooses to work as he studies and eventually moves into full-time entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, she graduates and decides to enrol in graduate school for another degree while her brother gets married to a much younger woman with no university education. When she graduates, her parents spend more money on her graduation party than they did on her brother’s wedding. At all family events, she is labelled the young successful doctor while her brother rarely gets a mention.
It then hits her that she is 35 and not even in a relationship, and starts giving men more attention. However, she wonders why the men she dates do not shower her with praise because of her high level of education. Instead, the first question they ask on most dates is whether she loves to cook.
Such questions irritate her, and she gives up dating men she dismissingly describes as young and immature. She decides to spend her weekends at fancy spas and hotels with her equally successful and single girlfriends where they heartily discuss why there are no marriageable men.
In the past, Kenyan men were raised to be alpha and high-achieving men who would provide consistent financial support and leadership in their homes. These days, they are encouraged to seek out graduate partners with well-paying jobs and high ambition.
Additionally, they grow up in homes where there is no distinction between the male and female child. This is an action that Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie advocates in her famous Ted talk “We Should All Be Feminists”. Her argument is that both boys and girls should be raised with no distinction in the roles and tasks they perform at home. She is adamant it is not fair to box children up in fixed roles and, therefore, boys should be encouraged to be active in the kitchen just the same way girls are.
Her argument is very popular in society, one that most educated women support when they are in public forums. However, in these four years I have been a PhD student, it has been amusing to watch the hardest of feminists (after too much wine or too many relationship splits) admit that they miss the days when men would pay the bill without asking the waiter to neatly split it.
In psychology, the act of selecting a partner who is similar to us on variables such as socio-economic status, ethnic origin, and intellectual and cognitive variables has been described by scholars such as David M. Buss as “assortative mating”, a nonrandom mating, calculated selection if you may.
NO ELIGIBLE MEN
However, when women outperform men in school and the workplace, it is very difficult for them to couple up with their preferred match. There is no easy solution to the lack of eligible men to couple up with, and some argue that men need to rise to the occasion and work as hard as the women. Others would say that women need to tone it down and occupy more feminine positions in society.
Within the PhD student halls, there are those who are fortunate enough to meet someone who shares their cognitive abilities and socio-economic status, however, there are also many who give up on dating altogether. Instead, they focus on their careers and go on to become highly successful.
In the United States context, there has been a lot of writing on the subject of professional women balancing a social life and a career. Particularly influential is Susan Patton, or Princeton Mom, as she has branded herself. She is the author of Marry Smart, and encourages young women to get a man on campus as they pursue their first degree.
Ms Patton explains that never again will they be surrounded by such a large pool of intelligent and marriageable men. She also urges women not to delude themselves that they will be happy to retire to a box of files every evening. She encourages women to focus on relational happiness first and career advancement later.
Her advice is very similar to that of the parents of the Kenyan baby boomer generation who shaped their careers around the family. Author Helen Smith argues in Men on Strike that men in the United States are pulling back from marriage and fatherhood responsibilities because institutions such as universities, marriages and most workplaces are extremely friendly to female advancement and rights while men are constantly under the threat of domineering women, false rape charges and biased divorce court systems.
The controversial views of both women have been influential in revitalising the highly polarised global feminist debates.
From their writings and my academic experiences with high-achieving PhD women, I am beginning to think that African traditions were not so oppressive to demand that women devote more time to marriage and family than men.
The clear distinction between the male and female roles is something that contests with the popular blurred roles of urban Kenya. I think it would be prudent if Kenyan society were careful not to race down the perilous road of feminism so fast.
A road that is often cloaked by promises of happiness, freedom of choice and equal opportunity. We should be wise enough to strike a balance between equal opportunity and the subjugation of men. So do spare a thought for the “young and useless” men because a balanced society cannot function in the absence of men.
THE WRITER’S BIO:
Faith Njeri Kibere is a 29-year-old fourth-year Media and Communication PhD candidate at the University of Leicester, UK. She holds a Master of Arts in International Design and Communication Management from the University of Warwick, UK, a Bachelor of Arts in Communication (Cum Laude) from Daystar University and a diploma in communication from the same university.