“I gave you something, now you give me something” he said, grinning suggestively. Before I could move, he stepped past me to block the space between myself and the door. My mind raced thinking of how to get out of that dark, pungent office. “Take a seat” I spoke, projecting calm. Convinced that I had succumbed to his proposition, he gleefully waddled to his desk. I calmly walked out of the office and shut the door.
Unfortunately, that experience characterizes a lot of my early career. As a college freshman, I founded a nonprofit in Nigeria and spent all my summers there raising money and building partnerships. I was trying to create change, but I wasn’t aware that the going rate was my dignity; a price I was not willing to pay.
I told a man that I respected about these unwarranted advances and he told me to be flattered and to use my femininity to get what I wanted. Qualities associated with femininity are sensitivity, empathy and gentleness. Masculinity, however, is associated with strength, boldness, independence and assertiveness. So it seemed I was expected to throw on a tight dress, bat my eyelashes and coo, gently not assertively of course, to push my business forward. Needless to say, I lost respect for the ‘gentleman’ that gave me this advice. This conversation did leave me questioning what it meant to be a successful woman in Nigeria. I don’t have the answers — if I did I would have written the Nigerian edition of ‘Lean In’ by now and Sheryl Sandberg and I would be BFF. I do however have a myriad of experiences that continue to shape my perspective.
At 19, it seemed that my success would be linked to my ability to use my sexuality, and my reaction to this notion was rebellion. I swapped my heels for flats, my pencil skirts for trousers, and my beloved blouses for material that resembled more tent than clothing. There I was, dressed for success. This phase didn’t last long. For one, I missed my heels, and, more importantly, I wasn’t going to give the men I had encountered that kind of control over me. My success would not be hinged on shedding one social construct for another. I am naturally assertive, I like my heels at least 4 inches high, and I have freakishly long eyelashes, but I don’t have to bat them to get what I want. Whether that makes me too ‘feminine’ or too ‘masculine’ is not really a topic of consideration anymore.
At 23, I moved back to Nigeria to work full time. As a university graduate, it seemed that success had less to do with my sexuality but everything to do with finding a husband. In Nigeria, this word ‘career woman’ is conflicted. Embedded in it is respect for what the Nigerian woman has achieved laced with fear and concern that we will become like our ‘western counterparts’ and shun marriage till our ‘decrepit thirties’. I’ve seen talented women turn down promotions for fear of being perceived “too successful’. Many Nigerian women do forge ahead with their careers but still have to fight off family and colleagues only concerned with when they’ll finally marry.
This summer was my first time working in Nigeria with a ring on my finger. I was intrigued by how concerned people were about my husband’s thoughts on my career. My husband’s friends, worldly and well-educated men, asked him things like ‘how can you let her go to business school? How can you let her work in Lagos while you are in Abuja?’ Those gracious enough to direct their questions to me would also take time to educate me that my marriage is the most important thing in my life, and, despite the small fortune invested in my education, I should ‘sit in Abuja’ after graduation to take care of my husband. It seems my career is not dependent on what I want or what my husband and I jointly decide, but solely on my husband’s will and his permission to let me shine. After all, the husband is the head of the household, and I am merely the neck.
In just seven years as a career woman, my takeaway is that society is fickle. The ‘definition’ of a woman’s success is a moving target and I’ve given up the chase. At Wharton and beyond, I’m committed to defining and achieving my own goals, regardless of any gender standard.