In celebration of International Women’s Day, I dedicate this post to all strong women.
May we know them,
May we be them,
May we raise them.
While listening to the local LBC station one morning, the radio presenter introduced the topic- Are women better leaders than men? In the wake of David Cameron’s resignation as PM and the candidacy announcements of Theresa May and Angela Eagle as PM hopefuls, the radio waves were buzzing with varied opinions on the issue. Some people thought that women make better leaders than men, while others disagreed. One caller, in particular, said that he thought women make better leaders than men because most men spend much of their day thinking about sex. I found his rationale quite weak and sexist, to say the least. But nonetheless, in his opinion, it was a valid enough reason. I think what the caller tried to articulate was that women make better leaders because women tend to be more nurturing, compassionate and caring than men. But using this argument can also work against us because it is often used to disqualify women from positions of leadership.
Be this as it may, the question made me wonder about women who had held important political positions in recent history and to assess their successes and failures. But just then, I hit a brick wall. I immediately came to the realisation that few women occupy important positions of public office to arrive at a balanced assessment. Whatever assessment I arrive at will undoubtedly over-represent the actions of a few strong, educated, determined, ambitious and enigmatic women who have had the privileged opportunity to hold the highest public office in the land; an opportunity that few will ever get.
Nevertheless, the debate made me think if there was any truth to the statement. Do women really make better leaders than men? Well, I immediately thought of Margaret Thatcher (former British Prime Minister during the late 1970s) who stands out as a strong pillar of strength. Thatcher was appointed during a very difficult economic time in British history. Yet she was able to successfully manoeuvre her country through an austere financial climate. Her tough and uncompromising nature earned her the nickname “iron lady” and while she was generally considered a strong, focused and determined leader, many blame her for some of the social welfare problems that the UK faces today.
Angela Merkel, German Chancellor since 2005 is an enigmatic woman known to have adopted a Mandela leadership style; also known as leading from “behind”. Her style of leadership has made her very popular among the German people but at the same time has attracted some criticisms. Merkel has been praised for presiding over Germany’s economic resurgence and repairing German post-war genocidal image. The Forbes Woman of the Year for 2015, is also credited for adopting a tough, yet pragmatic policy during the Greek financial crisis, which helped avert a Eurozone financial meltdown. However, critiques disagree with her stance on the refugee crisis and the open-door policy adopted towards those seeking refuge in Germany. While little is known about her ideological predisposition and what informs her enigmatic persona, she is widely recognised as one of the most powerful and influential women of modern times.
Another prolific female leader is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia; the first democratically elected female president of an African country. Ellen Johnson was elected in 2006, during a fragile time in Liberia’s history; the country was recovering from years of protracted civil war and attempting to establish peace between warring factions (however fragile the peace seemed to be). Johnson was faced with the insurmountable task of ensuring peace, rebuilding a war-torn state, and reviving an economy that had virtually dissipated, due to years of government looting, economic mismanagement and a protracted civil war. Lauded for negotiating peace settlements, rebuilding infrastructure and lifting of sanctions, Johnson is also credited for being a proponent of equal rights for women, and in 2006 she earned a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. However, allegations of cronyism and corruption have been widespread in her administration. And she has been widely criticised for her handling of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia. As Johnson wraps up her 10-year presidency; with general elections scheduled to hold in 2017, commentators argue that she will be remembered for achieving “fragile gains”.
Joyce Banda of Malawi was appointed to the highest seat in the land, with the sudden death of the then sitting President; Bingu wa Mutharika in 2012. Banda who only served two years in power, from 2012 to 2014 has a complex political legacy. Critiques have accused her of being authoritarian in nature, with attempts to limit media freedoms and silence political opposition. During her rule, Malawi also experienced the biggest financial scandal in country’s history; the Cashgate affair, which did irreparable damage to Banda’s political reputation and cost the country millions in donor aid. However, supporters look beyond the woman and focus on what she represents for women in politics on the African continent. Being the first woman to hold the position in southern Africa, Banda represents hope for female equality in a region that sometimes adopts a patriarchal and paternalistic system of politics. Banda has accused her detractors of misogyny and name-calling all in a bid to taint her legacy. She argues that her biggest critiques have always been women who questioned her suitability for the role.
I recently started reading a book entitled “Lean in for Graduates”. The book which is authored by Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Facebook, details the many obstacles that she faced as a female in the workplace. She details that the higher up she went in the Corporate world, the fewer women she saw at the table. As a professional woman, who climbed her way up the corporate ladder, she is frank about the many difficulties that women face in the workplace from issues of equal pay to workplace recognition and promotion. Sanders argues that women often lag behind male counterparts, due to institutional barriers that inhibit career advancement and make it near impossible for women to rise above. No matter how hard we work, we are seldom considered half as competent as our male counterparts.While she does acknowledge that the state of affairs, for women particularly in the workplace has improved since the era of the 1990’s, she decries the level of progress that has been achieved and believes that a lot more can be done to empower women in all works of life. Her answer to achieving this is for us, women to empower ourselves and each other. She urges women to set boundaries and abandon the myth that we can’t have it all.
Sometimes I really believe that as women, we are our biggest detractors, not men. Right from birth, we are often told (by women might I add) that our place is in the home and that should be our number one priority, which in many cultures comes at the cost of education and career advancement of the girl child. Women who choose career over homemaking and child-rearing are often frowned upon by society and labelled as cold, head-strong and having no maternal instincts. While women who choose the latter, are sometimes seen as lazy, unmotivated and uninspiring. No matter what we choose as women, we seem to be at a tug-of-war with ourselves and society at large for our choices.