The role of women in leadership


Let me begin by thanking the organizers of “The Girls’ Show on Unilag 103.1 FM” for the invitation extended to me to be the Guest Speaker at the Girls’ Revolution (III) event.

What impressed me the most about your organization is your cardinal goal that sets out to seek and bring out the best in young Nigerian females by inspiring them for change and success, thereby grooming them into respectable Nigerians. Also, that you are part of the movement to promote awareness and lifestyle that will benefit our communities, state and nation as a whole. The ultimate destination thus, is to advance the cause of the girl-child education and information. There can be no nobler mission.

I am indeed proud to associate with your noble quest for ways to ameliorate the challenges facing the young women of our time. I am also glad that you know that a dire need exists and are looking for ways of proffering solutions to this age-long issue that has continued to engage various discourse on issues of gender and sexuality globally.

Today, I will make a detour and focus more on the kind and quality of leaders we need as a people rather than try to marshal arguments in favour of why women should be in leadership. Or better still; try to justify the role women play in positions of leadership. Isn’t it true that leadership roles to be played and demands made are blind to gender? The requirements of leadership for men in that position are no different for women in similar positions. Perhaps, what should occupy our minds is an understanding of the concept of leadership. What good leadership entails and what is required of leaders in our world today whether they are men or women.

I must not fail to place on record though that men are given more powers and a greater benefit of the doubt as leaders than women. The premise often is that women are weaklings who lack the courage, stamina, vision and sagacity to play positive roles in leadership or hold down positions of leadership. This prejudice against women places then at a disadvantage. It points to the proverbial glass ceiling against women notwithstanding their educational training and professional skills. But the trend is fast changing in favor of women even though there are still challenges.

Global indices show that women occupy only 20% of leadership positions worldwide. In the United State of America, though women comprise approximately 50% of the workforce, only 20% of positions of corporate authority are occupied by women. Within EU countries, 56% per cent of the work force is women, however less than 10% occupy decision-making positions. Accordingly to the special Eurobarometer 376 Report of March 2012, titled ‘’Women in Decision – Making’’… ‘’Despite the fact that women make up nearly half the workforce … they are still under-represented in decision-making and are concentrated in the lower-paid section of the labour market’’. In India, 70% of the agrarian workforce are women yet only about 2% occupy positions where policy decisions on agriculture are made. This situation is replicated in the areas of business and education.
Here in Nigeria, 36.5% of the labour force is occupied by women (Nigeria Workforce Profile by The Sloan Centre on Aging & Work, July 2010), however only a paltry 2%-8% hold positions on the Board or decision-making positions of authority. As at 2002, only 46 out of the country’s 309 Directors in the Federal Civil Service are women. There has only been a slight variance in these figures till date Reflections on Prospects and Problems of Globalisation on Nigerian Women Workers, M.O Folorunsho, 2008). In the area of governance,  out of 11,881 positions available for elections only 631 women contested out of which 181 or 1.62% won. A woman has never occupied the position of President, Vice President or State Governor in Nigeria. Out of the 36 Deputy Governors in the country, only 4 of them are women.
Well, I am glad to report that for all time, this notion of women playing second fiddle in leadership roles or as weaklings has been smashed. The roll call of female Presidents now calling the shots in Brazil, Australia Germany, Liberia, Malawi and other places is a demonstration of the fact that women are as capable as men only if given the opportunity. The list of Africa’s powerful women includes Ellen Johnson Sir leaf- President of Liberia, Joyce Banda-president of Malawi, Fatou Bensouda- Chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma -head of the African Union Commission, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – Nigeria’s finance minister, failed in her bid to head World Bank and Liberia’s Leymah Gbowee – Nobel Peace prize laureate, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula – South Africa’s defence minister among others.
Also, there are successful female politicians, lawmakers, activists, bankers, lawyers, journalists, doctors, engineers and clergy abound. Increasingly, we see women from different climes- from Monrovia to the shores of Asia shaping our world, playing leading roles, stumping the ground to fight for freedom and liberty and above all not afraid to make their voices heard. The debate has since shifted from whether they have the capacity to play leadership roles. It is now a debate about who has more capacity or who is the better leader between men and women. The competition has been flagged off unofficially and there is keen and healthy rivalry. Our feet as women as been removed from the miry clay and we stand on the solid soil of confidence, excellent scholarship and skilled and disciplined hands.

In banking halls, in newsrooms across the world, in hospitals, manufacturing lines, in the airspace, in courtrooms, presidential palaces and behind the pulpits, we find women playing prominent roles of mentoring, molding lives, designing policies and taking decisions that have affected millions of lives positively.

But while we dwell on the elevated status of women and their shattering of the glass ceiling in various fields, we must halt to ask what leadership really means and what roles are expected to be played.

For a first take at this poser, I turn to Susan J. Herman (1942-2009) who in her keynote speech, “Leadership, the Holocaust, Genocide, and Education,” Hildebrandt Award Presentation, Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies at Keene State College (NH), 20 April 2009 said, “I define leadership as having three parts: first is seeing what needs to be done to make things better or seeing a problem that needs fixing; second is having the vision, the skill, and the wherewithal to change the system; and third is the most important task of mobilizing the energy of others to organize and act in ways to achieve that vision.”

I discovered the journey towards a leadership role in life however begins from a very early stage… the age of Adolescence. The quest for leadership begins from your experiences as a Girl Child.

The time between the age of 10 and 14 years has been described as the ‘’critical period of life when a girl is expected to transition from childhood to adulthood’’ in the 2011 CARE project report, The Power to Lead: A Leadership Model for Adolescent Girls, by Stephanie Baric. I believe this period is the time frame when pertinent psychological elements that form the core of leadership potential can be recognized and developed or even engrained and stimulated. In other words this is the period when the ‘’Can Do Spirit’’ which strives for a foremost position is birthed. Adolescent girls ordinarily may have the ‘’Can Do Spirit’’ but may not recognize their capacity to strive for the topmost position in any area of endeavour. In developing nations where early marriage and child labour is the norm, when the girl child reaches puberty ‘’they may be torn between pressure to conform to a dominant culture ideal of femininity… and as a result, adolescent girls often lose their voices.’’ (Marcia Kopf of Girls Incorporation).

Claire Naylor is the co-founder of a Leadership Development Organization for Young Women in Nepal called LEAD. In Nepal, gender inequality is widespread and 60% of the women are illiterate and a third of the girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years are married. Statistics from her extensive leadership programmes training young girls on leadership, reveal that at the onset of the training, an average of only 21% of the girls believed they could ever be leaders. After training, an average of 82% of the participants recognised their own potential for leadership, showing the beginning of major behavioural change and attitudes. Here are some of their comments: “I never thought I could lead anything. I never thought it was possible.” “I have realised I am a leader, not a follower.” “I had always believed men were supposed to lead women … I would like to strive to lead someday…”

As young aspiring leaders, I want our young women to be very realistic about facing and overcoming serious challenges that discourage many from realizing their full potentials. Power is never offered on a silver platter, you have to work and fight for it. Within the very broad range of self-limiting perceptions and the long-perpetuated gender stereotypes, including those that still say that a woman’s place is in the kitchen; there are challenges that you must overcome.

Nigeria remains grossly underdeveloped state, perhaps because it has not given its women enough opportunity to contribute towards molding the fate of the nation. I agree with those who assert that a lot can be achieved by a nation that taps the resourcefulness of its womenfolk. Henry Longfellow once said that the heights that great people reached are not attained by sudden flight but by consistent toiling. I urge you all to continue to hone your skills, identify with progressive change in our society and imbibe the attributes of focus and self-discipline.

I must return to the Nigerian situation.  I am sure that most of you are aware that out of the 109 seats in the Nigerian Senate today, women occupy only eight seats.  The trend whereby women are discriminated against because of gender or relegated to the background and made to play second fiddle is visible at all levels of governance.  Newsweek magazine’s 2011 Global Women Progress Report revealed that in the developing world, women lag behind in pay and political power.  The report gives Nigeria an overall score of 29.9% after taking into consideration issues like access to justice for women, share of women in politics, access to education and health and percentage of women in the labour force.  It is clear that Nigeria still has quite some way to go in empowering women.

Equally, from all indications there is cause for all of us irrespective of gender differences, classes and creed, to embrace an attitude that fosters fairness and the possibilities of seeing qualified females in positions they truly deserve in the workplace. While some professional bodies like those in the Nigerian Council of Registered Insurance Brokers have now demonstrated a genuine eagerness to embrace capability without gender discrimination by electing Barrister Nike Osijo, FCIB, as its first female President in fifty years, young women in various career fields need to rise to the occasion.

My advice is that women, who are fortunate to rise to positions of power, influence or wealth must invest such in the commonwealth of women.  Rather than join the “men’s club”, they must reach out and pull other women along.  From the girl-child to that young struggling graduate, that lady professional in between jobs, that woman who has to joggle domestic and professional duties and the woman out there who badly needs just one opportunity to prove that she is capable, truly need our help.  In little or big doses, it does not matter, just do it.  Because out there are women who can and will succeed on merit if given the chance.

Capabilities notwithstanding, observations in our society as well as objective studies in developed economies indicate that women who succeed in male-dominated careers have some peculiar challenges that we all need to help address.  As people who have succeeded in changing and overcoming some stereotyped norms, they are often seen negatively.  A review of studies published in the journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 89, No. 3) affirms that women in traditionally male-dominated field face a difficult hurdle; if they succeed, their co-workers, both male and female, may unfairly see them as unsociable and difficult people to work with.

Yet in the 21st century, women are gaining grounds in every profession.  Even though women still hold relatively smaller percentage of jobs and positions than their male counterparts in certain fields, there are indications that more and more women are proving that in spite of individual and societal challenges, career success in a male-dominated field is possible.

There is need to drop the mental limitations based on one’s perception of his or her gender.  Indeed, you have to be great at what you do as a professional and let those around you know that you are sincere.  Know your own worth; do not compromise intimacy and self-respect while proving yourself and remain focused on your goals.  Be honest, trustworthy and confident; your colleagues and superior will treat you with the respect you give yourself and prove that you deserve.

In offering tips for women who want to prove their own mettle as leaders, the most important point is about the need to be truly professional.  Also, while it may sometimes be tempting, avoid office gossip.

Let me end my remarks today with these parting words from Kofo Annan, former UN Secretary General, who said, “There is no tool for development more effective than empowerment of women’’. That is where our future starts.

I thank you for listening and again, for the invitation to be the Guest Speaker at this event.