Earning a living as a Kenyan woman

It is clear that the job market for women across Kenya is clearly a very different prospect for them than it is for men. I am aware of this, not only through first hand observation, but also from the heat of African debates I have witnessed through media channels tackling the subject. Gender equality in Kenya is rated close to the bottom of the world’s equality scores, with Kenya coming in as the 122nd country out of 152 for gender equality.

One of the key differentiators between working men and working women in Kenya is in what they get paid, just as it has been for years in the UK. According to research presented at the World Economic Forum in 2017, women in Kenya get paid Sh55 for every Sh100 that men get paid for the same work. I’m not sure it is a conscious decision once a woman is employed to make sure she earns less than her male counterpart, although it may be for some, so what is going on?

According to Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, a core driver is the role of the female trait of ‘agreeableness’. Psychologists break down personality traits into five broad areas, across extraversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness to experience, and agreeableness.

Women tend to be far more agreeable than men, globally and universally, say the psychologists. Yet, as Peterson observes, agreeableness is not always a good trait to have when it comes to commercial success. In simple terms, what that means is that highly agreeable people are less pushy about salary raises. They are less likely to be discontent or clamouring for greater reward. In fact, is one of the reasons women are so poorly represented in top jobs, almost everywhere in the world, is because they actually don’t want them? Getting to the top requires drive and a willingness to focus on just one thing, often sacrificing personal relationships along the way. It’s tough, competitive, time consuming and is therefore very difficult alongside childcare and general family life.

Let’s set aside for now the challenges in Kenya of bribes for jobs, both financial and physical, that is a topic for another article. But let's look at the situation with regards to more secure and more qualified jobs in the marketplace. If the female labour force in Kenya want that Sh55 to turn in to the Sh100 that men are getting, if they want to lead, they have to get tougher, and more insistent. It doesn’t mean sacrificing their warmth, tact or compassion, but it does mean learning to ask, learning to push and getting a lot more assertive and competitive. Is it what women want or can get away with in their culture?  Not easily, yet African women I know are very capable, driven, determined and making a real difference in the communities where they live.  They just need to use it now for themselves in the job market.

What  concerns me is what we as a children’s charity can do for our female children as they grow up to equip them to succeed in a job market where they are already at a disadvantage. I am so pleased to see both girls and boys in equal number going off to secondary school from the children's home this year, knowing that if they have the ability, then we can also give them the opportunity of a college or university education. But, even if they leave with vocational skills or a degree, unfortunately, Kisumu just doesn't have the jobs!  Many girls in the community support themselves and their children by “getting a boyfriend.”  These “boyfriends” are rarely monogamous and they rarely use condoms, contributing to the high rate of HIV infection in Kisumu (15%). I pray that our girls will never feel the need to do this but I’m aware that even with their new vocational skills, the girls may still be unemployed and relying upon men for income. Then, if they do get a good job they will be battling to get the pay they deserve.

The challenge is enormous but as part of our nurturing of the girls in our care we know how important it is for us to encourage independence, self-worth, assertiveness, good morals, entrepreneurialism, determination and resilience. Pamela and Winnie certainly teach them to resist the belief that they are worth less than a man doing the same job, or that reliance on a man is ultimately the only way they will feed themselves. If jobs are scarce then setting up in business is a valuable way forward, possibly creating jobs for others as well, and women are very capable business people.  Kisumu is a poor city, yes, so this sounds too simple a solution.  In reality, there are of course many challenges to setting up your own business especially in Kenya.  But with a small loan from the charity and some business coaching, our girls can succeed in business as much as men.  There are many consumer markets still to be exploited in Kisumu and with a monthly spend per head averaging Sh11,827, there is money to be earned.

It's a tough life for a woman earning a living in Kenya, coupled with the pressure on them to reproduce early and have many children. Education, opportunity and understanding of their own self-worth is vital for them and that is what we want for all of the children in our care and which we strive to give them. They will leave us to live in a very challenging economy, social structure and job market and we pray we have equipped them to make good choices.