Leadership is the ability of anyone to influence or provide directions on how groals, objectives and the management of available resources can be achieved. Leaders influence those who are directly or indirectly assigned job descriptions within organizations. It is not new that women at different stages of their careers face challenges that they have learnt to accept as part of their jobs, often without complaint and yet they continue overlooked as leaders. In this article we would highlight just a few of the challenges women face in leadership and this is not restricted to African women alone, but to women the world over. Let me say this, in spite of educational qualifications, experience, and power, there are militating factors that women deal with and this is seen in how they assert themselves, how they are looked upon by subordinates, continuous mentorship and how women deal with emotional intelligence.
The educational qualifications of women determine to a large extent, how they succeed in leadership positions; it is for this very reason that the awareness must remain ripe for girl child and female education. Some people unfortunately hold the open view that leadership development only makes sense for people who have current leadership responsibilities, but that is a lame assertion, as women are already leaders especially in the private sector. It takes a leader to manage meagre family resources in an economy where opportunities constantly elude women. If we accept that leadership development should only be for women who have the potential or who are in current leadership positions, then we diminish the aspirations of other women who could lead. This anomaly leads to situations where women with experience for jobs have been passed over and employment given to men who are inexperienced on the job even with little education. Examples abound everywhere if we look closely, but thankfully many women continue to shatter the glass ceilings these days and put themselves forward for leadership.
But then and unfortunately too, we still have situations were women are lacking believe in themselves. Cultural and traditional perceptions which are deeply embedded in patriarchy, make many women to shy away from leadership positions especially politically. The undercurrent that we as women have to get rid of, is that certain types of leadership positions are not suitable for us because men are available and because we are too emotional, and should therefore busy ourselves with family life. That is a terrible stereotype, as again women are breaking the glass ceilings in this very contentious arena. Theresa May is a woman, Christine Lagarde is a woman, Queen Elizabeth is a woman, Aung sung Kyi is a woman, just like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala , Johnson-Sirleaf, Nkosisana Zuma and several others are women. It is high time women begin to believe in themselves once more, so that they can lay claim to and take up leadership positions; be they political, economic and so on.
Sincerely, time has gone past when as women we will limit ourselves to the background because one erroneous belief that leadership is only for men, sheepishly stares us in the face. It is important, I must state, that we do not take this mind set into the work environment, forgetting that ascension to positions is mostly based on qualification, experience and merit.
We may think that women in leadership lacking a belief in themselves is the only issue women deal with, but there is also the problem of a lack of mentorship for women in general. I am referring at the unfolding scenario where women who hold leadership positions in whatever cadre are reluctant to mentor aspiring women leaders. For instance, whilst most men have other men within the work place to go to for assistance, most women hardly have. The fact is undeniable that there are more men in leadership positions because younger men tend to have mentors within and outside organizations. As they go to the pub/golf club after close of work and new partnerships are formed in the process, we the women usually close from work and head home. For those who are married or have no nannies, they continue with house chores.
But then too, how can we tackle subordinates at work who try to undermine you for the singular reason that you are a woman? Sad enough, while some men may work in most cases to undermine a women’s efforts and leadership capabilities at work, women are far worse than men in doing this. Women can employ all sorts of negatives to undermine other women at work, instead of pulling together to achieve a common goal. It is especially worse when they perceive the leading woman to be more intelligent, assertive, tenacious or more ‘favoured’ than them. Women may experience incidences of disrespect from their subordinates because they are women and young.
Also, having subordinates that are older than the woman can be a challenge to some women. They are even situations where subordinates want tasks commensurate to their age while the lead woman demands professionalism.
Let me point us to African culture and tradition. As we know it, it mostly dictates that women respect men even if those men are their subordinates at the workplace. Most women find that their opinions may not be considered during meetings and most times they are assigned secretarial functions in such engagements. The transfer of culture to the workplace has placed a limitation on women and this must be discouraged going forward. Let me for certain too say that the inability of people within organizations to look past the mistakes women have made often is a challenge to the confidence of these women and their ability to make decisions when they find themselves in difficult workplace situations.
In all of this how do we apply emotional intelligence in what we do? Perhaps that is where our inherent attributes as women come in; we must always use our given ability to perceive emotions, to our greatest advantage. We must be able to turn enemies into friends and frenemies if we like, to achieve our purpose. A smile always goes a long way, a show of concern calms nerves without struggles, conversations must start with showing concern for the other person’s wellbeing and family and so on and forth. All of these techniques are ice breakers that enable us to break barriers, and get people on board our thoughts and aspirations. It is easy to always draw similarities in conversation, “oh I know that too, I saw it also on TV, I read about it, oh how funny, or sad, or stupid or whatever it made us feel”, we can all relate to those treads that bind us and thus build alliances. By doing so, we make our emotions and those of others assets rather than liabilities.In many scenarios older women tend to bring their motherly status to the workplace, interacting with younger staff as they could their children and that has produced great results; ask Hillary Clinton.
As we look forward to another time and day of celebrating International Women’s Day, there are many ways we can turn our fears, concerns and challenges into greater good, so that when opportuned to lead, we can excel at what we do. Women before us, within us, after us, would do just that. Sometimes we may see ourselves leading small groups, perhaps in church, local community groups, neighbourhoods, and even in the work place, we should be able to hold our shoulders high and deliver on what has been asked us, knowing that irrespective of time and place, the ability to lead beyond the home front is inherent in all of us.Note, challenges can be overcome but it does not mean they disappear for women after they reach the top of their careers.
Women need to be adequately prepared for the leadership positions they find themselves in. It will be of immense benefit to women if a mentoring programme is put in place in organizations and in the community to help young women starting out in their careers. This will help them leverage their educational attainments with the experiences of their mentors thereby making it easier for them to aspire to leadership positions. Having formal and informal education will assist women in the development of leadership capabilities and being framed for such times and occasion will facilitate effective handling of situation as they arise. Older women should learn to understand and handle their emotions in the work place.
Traditional and cultural beliefs should not be transferred to the work place. Subordinates and older men should respect their bosses even if they are young and women. Most people have had leadership trust on them and have had successful outputs. Take the case of Joyce Banda who was vice-president of Malawi but had to assume the position of president after the death of Bingu Muntarika in 2012. She successfully finished the tenure from 2012 to 2015. If her party leadership had no trust in her she could have been made to resign or be impeached by the opposition party before completion of her tenure. There is so much that we must work at achieving and the best time to start ideally, is now.
Iyaiya Thomas wrote in from Blantyre, Malawi. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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