Despite South Africa’s efforts in addressing women’s empowerment, they still remain under-represented in the formal economy, and more so in formal leadership positions. It should also be acknowledged that in the last 20 years of our democratic dispensation, there has been marked change in women representation in formal structures and this is an undisputed fact and the statistics continue to improve.
Leadership can be described as a process of influence which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task. John Maxwell describes, “a leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way” and many women continue to play their role in ensuring that we improve our approaches and practices.
Whilst genuine strides have been made the sad reality of our society still pertains. Whilst women occupy these formal positions there still exists gender stereotypes. Engaging in the boardroom and leading change and organisations is still not seen as a woman’s role. INSEAD (business school) identifies the existence of ‘second generation’ of gender bias. They describe this as the powerful and yet often invisible barriers to women’s advancement that arise from societal stereotypes and sometime cultural practices.
Whilst women occupy these positions there are built in barriers that work against them and whose source is the gender stereotypes. In some cases, this can lead to underrepresentation and lack of confidence in some women leaders. Gender stereotypes can become a powerful yet invisible threat to women leaders and the organisations in which they work or lead. Companies focus more on increasing the number of women in their workforce to meet the gender quotas set by governments but they fail to recognize the business imperative, i.e. the potential contribution of women leaders to the improvements of the organizational performance and profitability. When women eventually make it to the top, their performance goes through additional scrutiny and is more likely to be criticized than men. The impact of this is that women have to work extra harder to prove their competence.
One prevalent second generation gender bias is that those women who happen to rise to leadership positions in spite of these challenges are often thought to be either too aggressive or not aggressive enough, and what appears to be assertive, self – confident, or entrepreneurial in a man often looks abrasive, arrogant, or self-promoting in a woman. Research also shows that both women and men tend to express more positive attributes toward their man supervisors than toward their women supervisors and this causes difficulty for women leaders to be appreciated for their leadership style. Women need to work together, support and encourage each other. They should not view other women as adversaries and hinder the advancement of each other.
There is a need to develop a new developmental agenda that is grounded in theories of gender and leadership and seeks to tackle the challenges and address the basic stereotypes whilst building a new ethos.
Women should be at the forefront of their destiny and the upcoming Zenande’s women in leadership event offers an opportunity for this engagement to happen. Central to the theme of the event is networking and sharing ideas. I look forward to working with a whole range of women leaders whilst we celebrate the journey to date, recognize and inspire more women to take up leadership positions and also map out ways of improving the status quo. See further details at www.zenandeleadership.com – see upcoming events