Accelerate the elevation of women leaders to grow the economy

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in Voices 360 on 26 October 2020.

Two weeks ago, it emerged that New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern led the Labour party to its best performance in 70 years. Furthermore, she soared to a landslide victory in the elections, in the process attaining the first overall parliamentary majority for any party since proportional representation was adopted in 1996. In May, CNN ran a segment on women in leadership, centred around Ardern. This year has been a rather watershed moment for women leaders. As the global community became confronted with a pandemic and the economic and social challenges it presents, leadership took centre stage.

As it turned out, qualities such as empathy, compassion and an ability to show support, which women exhibit more than men, were particularly effective in the formulation of national responses to the pandemic. The annals of history demonstrate this. Interestingly, this time has prompted me to write quite a bit about leadership and the lessons we can learn from formidable African women leaders. I have drawn on examples such as the Rain Queen Modjadji and Charlotte Maxeke. There are many lessons to be gleaned from these formidable leaders. The world is in flux because a pandemic has disrupted the world order while digital transformation presents a fundamental paradigm shift.

How are leaders going to respond? It is in these tumultuous times that we can draw inspiration from our liberation icons, particularly the women who shaped our history. But it goes beyond this – not only do we need to draw on these lessons, but leaders need to be technologically savvy, well educated, globally-connected, locally grounded, and hungry for the success of future generations.

Yet disparity continues to linger. Just this week, a UN report published on 20 October 2020 indicates that no country has reached gender equality thus far and that less than 50% of working-age women are in the labour market, a number that has hardly changed over the last 25 years. As of October 2019, the Inter-Parliamentary Union estimated that the global participation rate of women in national-level parliaments is 24.5%, a slow increase from 11.3% in 1995. We are, of course, outliers in the governmental sphere. We now boast a cabinet that is made up of 50% women. Yet if we zone into corporate South Africa, the picture is quite grim. According to Polity, only one of the top 40 listed JSE companies has a female CEO, while about 68% of all senior management positions are held by men, while women hold only 32% of executive positions.

We need to develop tangible programmes to reverse the wrongs of not just the last 26 years of democracy but centuries of women’s rights being eroded. We should commit to equity and transformation as intrinsic to South Africa’s agenda and transform it in terms of race, gender and class. One of the leading proponents of change advocates is that there have to be the following components in order for leaders to become active agents of change. These include ensuring urgency, creating powerful networks, clear direction in terms of vision, enabling others to act, identifying quick or short term wins and continuous improvements with a view to bedding down these approaches. As Maya Angelou once said, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

In South Africa, the triad of race, class and gender requires what one would call adept mountain climbing on rugged terrains. The question is, do we wear or shed the shackles? If one looks at the history of South Africa, the marginalisation of the role of women is apparent. History imitates society in characterising women as nurturers, providers and supporters. While these are admirable qualities, the absolute courage and valour demonstrated are drowned out by a collage of male heroes who saved the day.

The names of Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and Adelaide Tambo were often remembered in conjunction with their men. Yet, they were leaders in their own right. The male-presence permeates through our stories, often leaving out much of the reality. Thus, we see similar churning on women’s day, women’s month, those 16 days of violence against women in December. These are meaningless tropes, sayings and symbolic actions unless they are accompanied by direct and firm actions. In a country battling a scourge of violence against women, higher female unemployment rates and skewed inequality, we have an obligation to combat this systemic erasure and the ongoing push to the periphery of women.

In Cape Town, for instance, there is a sterling example of women’s leadership in the form of the Callas Foundation, directed at supporting not just women but communities through the provision of counselling services, training of lay councillors and the provision of a safe space for women and now during Covid-19, a feeding scheme that reaches more than 3,000 each day in the Cape Flats. This is an organisation run by women, understanding the complexities of poverty, violence and other forms of abuse that prevail in the areas that it serves. There are many such examples of leadership by women that are often hidden from society.

It is from these real-life leaders that we need to distil and understand the traits and characteristics that create excellent leadership. As the retelling of history will often have you believe, women were not mere accomplices or junior partners by any means, these protagonists acted of their own volition and in line with the dictates of the pursuit of justice and equality.

Traditional views of leadership often characterise leaders as being at the helm of corporations, Fortune 500 companies, management or academia. Just in our own country, we have examples of subdued leadership that do not always make the headlines. An example of this is the study by A.M. Masoga and A.L. Shokane in the Ga-Sekororo community in Maruleng District in Limpopo, where self-help networks led by women resulted in social, economic and political developments. As the authors of this study put it, “It is argued that the informal associations meet the needs of poor households headed by women to build self-reliance and safety nets which work to the benefit of all the members. … As such, they can be seen to represent an alternative form of empowerment and exercise of power by women, by placing their energies in collective resourcefulness, thrift and an ethic of community care”.

While not enough research has been done as yet on the effects on the pandemic on women in society, it stands to reason that the multifaceted roles of women would have necessitated tradeoffs. In conclusion, let us affirm women leadership to grow the economy. In the words of the Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, “Achieving gender equality is about disrupting the status quo – not negotiating it.”

Professor Marwala is the author of the book: Closing the Gap: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa. Follow him on Twitter at @txm1971.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

prof tshilidzi marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala
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