African Women in Leadership

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Women in leadership face great challenges and to overcome them there are a few things that both men and women need to know about themselves. This article was prompted by one of the Kenyan Governors, who went on air stating that women who were unmarried should not be elected to leadership. He supported his remarks by adding that women who were unable to run a home should be considered unfit to run an office. The uproar that followed forced him to give a public apology which was half-hearted. He did not seem in the least bit remorseful and at first had outright refused to give an apology. However, I digress; this article is about how we think about women in leadership.

We think of leaders as strong, decisive, focused and able to keep a team together to reach a common goal. Surprisingly these attributes are usually assigned to men and not women. Women in the same space are considered manly, rigid and uncaring – and surprisingly over competitive and over ambitious as they work too hard to realize their dreams. A woman who decides to defer marriage or having children for the sake of her career is ridiculed, especially in the African society. A man in the same circumstance is purposeful and determined.

However, women are different from men. Women are emotional beings; this does not mean that they think irrationally however it means that their decisions are made with the aspect of society in mind. Women tend to make decisions where as many people as possible win, men though tend to make decisions which help them stay on top. They might not think about who is losing and why. These are generalizations of course and when it comes down to it different people make decisions as per their personality, preferences and experiences. Another observation I have made is that men will use whatever they can to get ahead, women however, will at some point back down and give up the fight for a greater good. For example, a woman knows that if she exposes an affair that a certain man in the office is having, she will be next in line for the job. However, she also knows that this will hurt the man’s family and children, so she may choose to find another tactic rather than hurt others.  Once again this is a generalization but reveals how women tend to make choices.

Last year in Kenya, several outspoken women were in the political scene. Martha Karua was vying for presidency. She weathered all manner of comments including rumours that she slept with all manner of men and the default comment “…the problem with these women in power is that they need a man”. Rachael Shebesh, the Nairobi Women’s representative had pictures of her circulated online, alleging her infidelity with the current Nairobi Senator and painted her as a woman who was out of control. Interestingly, her partner in crime, Nairobi Senator Mike Sonko, was not vilified in all this. All fingers were pointed at Shebesh. In Kenyan society infidelity in men is acceptable but in women it intolerable.

It is clear from the societal reactions that women have a long way to go when it comes to leadership. That does not mean that we have not had great leaders. I really admire the late Wangari Maathai who saw it all as a Kenyan woman in leadership. She still came out strong despite all that she went through. I believe that women make exceptional leaders in the society because of their ability to make decisions that benefit everyone rather than the elite few. However, I also know that the leadership has been dominated by men and some of the leadership concepts that women have may not fit the needs of women leaders. Below I outline some of the thoughts I have on what can help African women survive the leadership space especially in Africa.

Women must ignore the noise around them. Decide what is relevant to your leadership and ignore the insignificant stuff. Men are really good at this but as women we tend to be bogged down by rumours and what people out there are saying. Consider it a compliment that people have time to talk about you, it means you are going somewhere. Don’t let them make you lose focus.

The concept of a woman as a helper in the home has not been erased from many people’s minds, especially in African. Women should be ready to weather the storm when their leadership is criticized because they do not fit the descri of the perfect housewife. This does not mean women should go on the defensive when others point out that they cannot cook, clean, have no children and do not have a husband at home. Women have great achievements which do not necessarily fit into the shape of the dutiful housewife; this does not mean that women have failed.

Women are a different breed of leaders, many women leaders run a home, take care of children, lead multinational organizations and still are a friend, sister and wife. This means that women have an unusual ability of being in various roles concurrently. Therefore, women should not expect to copy exactly what men in leadership do, but rather to learn and adapt the leadership concepts to fit into the context of women’s leadership. This is very important, because a lot of the books on leadership were written with men in mind, not until recently did the script start to include women.

Some of the greatest leaders in the world are women. They overcome adversity and still came out strong despite all the challenges they faced. These women should serve as a reminder to all women in leadership. Oprah Winfrey is the first woman to own her television network. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the first elected female head of state in Africa. She opened doors for African women to continue seeking political office in Africa. Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to win a Noble Peace prize in 2004. Her story is a testament of how women should ignore the noise around them and focus on the goal at hand. We can glean pearls of wisdom from the lives of these women, they show the world that despite the challenges that women face in society, when they lead, they leave a mark in society that can be felt for generations to come.  I welcome further examples on how conventional concepts of leadership do into necessarily fit into women’s leadership and how women can adapt to these.

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