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Op-eds

Inclusive leadership is natural for women

  • DebbieEdelstein1
It’s tempting to talk about how far women’s leadership has come over the past few decades. After all, a record breaking six women are running for president in the United States. More women are running organisations and governments around the world, and the #MeToo campaign has highlighted the reality and scale of sexual harassment for every woman.
by DEBBY EDELSTEIN | Aug 08, 2019

However as Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the director of UN Women, reminded us at the recent G7 ministerial meeting on gender equality and women’s empowerment, “No country in the world has achieved gender equality. No country. And this is nearly 25 years after the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action [an agenda for female empowerment].”

Progress aside, the fight for gender equality still has to be won on many fronts. Women’s leadership is important because it’s only when there is more equality in who leads that gender issues like educational injustice, weaponised rape, and child marriage will receive the attention they deserve.

Feminism (still a surprisingly fraught and misunderstood term) simply means that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. One of the best ways we can accelerate this process is to get more women into positions of power.

Not surprisingly, as late Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai noted, “The higher you go, the fewer women there are.”

Some advocates of change like Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, believe in what has been referred to as the “DIY model of empowerment”. Women should “lean in” more, be more assertive in order to increase their leadership potential.

Sandberg’s critics include Anne-Marie Slaughter, political scientist and the author of Unfinished Business, who believes that much broader social, political, and cultural change is necessary to change the system.

I believe both. The broader system, and the values it represents, certainly needs to change but for many of us who aren’t able to influence change on a structural level, we still need to find a way to make changes where we can. I’d like to suggest two strategies for making a difference that are accessible to most of us.

The first is that we broaden our definition of what leadership is. The second is that we focus on some of the skills that come naturally to many women.

Even though there is more recognition of different kinds and styles of leaders, we still tend to default to the style of leadership which is more traditional and patriarchal. (I lead, and you all follow.)

After all, which names come to mind when we think of who is at the helm of countries and organisations, and even who we should invite to give the keynote address at a conference? It’s still easier to give lists of high-profile male leaders.

Years of being socialised into a way of being in the world means that many of us are more comfortable to be in the wings than to take centre stage. It’s not that there’s a shortage of talented women. Rather it’s a sign of how reluctant women are about taking a seat at the table.

However, when we use a different, more inclusive definition of leadership, it’s easier to think of more women who fall into this category. We are more inclined to include ourselves as legitimate candidates for leadership. And most important of all, we can become more ambitious about what leadership is able to achieve in the world.

Leadership author Margaret Wheatley’s definition is helpful. “A leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change, and takes the first steps to influence that situation.”

When this is our definition of leadership, a leader might be a parent who intervenes in her child’s school, a colleague who refuses to allow the mistreatment of others in her workplace, or a neighbour who rallies others to save trees in the suburb.

When we expand our notion of what leadership is, we encourage people to step forward and make a small difference in their communities. It’s also the kind of definition that is naturally more appealing to a wider range of women leaders.

In the same way that research into the world of micro-financing reveals how women who accept loans are more inclined to invest back into their families and communities, women are more inclined to expose themselves to the risk of leadership when there is a greater cause at stake.

When we think of leadership as a call to make a contribution rather than a more individualistic instinct to put ourselves in charge, we tap into a feminine ease with supporting others, speaking up for the voiceless, and making a difference to many.

The second strategy is to harness a set of skills which comes especially easily to women. This is the cluster of skills which I and others in leadership describe as the art of conversation.

The dark side of this ability is when girls exclude others socially. Most women have at least a memory of what it feels like to be an outsider. Often, it’s as a result of these social scars that women reinforce the narrative that women are inclined to bring other women down rather than build them up.

But the flipside is the natural ability women have to create conversations, safe spaces, and make others feel welcome. Like good listening skills, the idea of inclusion is becoming core to good leadership. Inclusion simply means making sure that an organisation is welcoming at every level to every individual. Inclusion is about diversity of thought and individuality regardless of race, heritage, or gender. It’s becoming the new normal, and at its heart is a skill that is second nature to little girls all over the world.

Teaching the art of hosting conversations, practical listening skills, and allowing everyone to have a voice can be surprisingly effective when it comes to creating the kind of psychologically safe spaces which Google has made famous. It’s no coincidence that these are also the kinds of environments where innovation flourishes, and meetings are most effective.

Women from different countries, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds have been raised to welcome others into their homes, make them feel comfortable, introduce them to people they might not have met before, and offer them food and drink. The limitation is that we have been raised to think of these skills as the skills of home economics rather than as the elements of leadership. These are skills that we don’t need to go to business school to finesse. They are abilities that have been relegated to the catering committee of our communities rather than in the boardrooms – or peace talks – where they belong.

In an age where we have too many connections but feel less connected than ever before, we crave meaningful conversation, human connection, closer bonds with our inner circle, and meeting diverse voices who expand our worlds.

These are the kinds of feminine leadership skills that the world needs now. Not because they come naturally to women, but because they create and encourage essential human values.

It’s time we took them out of the domestic realm, and put them into the world.

  • Debby Edelstein founded WeLead Circles, a women’s leadership programme which was nominated for the 2019 Accenture Global Greater Than Awards. She is on the Advisory Board for TuksRes Women’s Leadership Academy at Pretoria University.

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