Women and Leadership Positions: Social and Cultural Barriers to Success

By Kiamba, Josephine M. | Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Women and Leadership Positions: Social and Cultural Barriers to Success


Kiamba, Josephine M., Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies


Abstract

Women continue to aspire for leadership positions in all spheres of governance in both the public and private sector. However it has not been easy. The paper will examine the many challenges women still face in taking leadership positions with specific reference to African women. Included in the paper are the barriers related to culture and cultural expectations, the choice and/or balance between work and family, and women's own fear of success.

Women continue to aspire to leadership positions in all spheres of governance both in the public and private sectors. Great strides have been made in the political realm, and women's participation in both the freedom struggles and democratic processes of many African countries have been notable. However, this participation has not always translated into equal representation in political leadership positions. Once elections are conducted, and positions are assigned, one realizes that women are no longer visible.

Some countries like South Africa have made much progress within a short space of time in their efforts toward a gender-neutral society, but for others the pace has been much slower. It should also be noted that attaining positions of power and leadership is one thing, but could it be that women pay a higher price than men? Gwendolyn Mikell (1997) captured the dilemma for women in her statement that "Contemporary African women sometimes think of themselves as walking a political/gender tightrope" (p.1), in that African women are concerned about the large number of economic and political problems facing their communities, but at the same time they are "grappling with how to affirm their own identities while transforming societal notions of gender and familial roles" (Mikell, 1997, p.1). The paper examines the many challenges women still face in taking leadership positions, including the barriers related to culture and cultural expectations; the choice and/or balance between work and family; and the stress that accompanies positions of leadership as experienced differently by men and women. However, there is no doubt that there are success stories. Of interest are the efforts women have made to rise above such circumstances and fight for recognition, despite the risks involved: of being "labeled," and the risk of breaking family ties. A section of the paper is specifically devoted to political activism as one notable area of success in the women's movement. Successes in educational and academic leadership are also highlighted and the strategies taken by various agencies in both government and private sectors to develop and promote women leaders are explored. While women gain certain freedoms by facing social and cultural challenges, other freedoms may be lost. These situations should be investigated.

The Concept of Leadership

Historically, leadership has carried the notion of masculinity and the belief that men make better leaders than women is still common today. Although the number of female leaders has increased, they are often named as an afterthought. According to Højgaard (2002), the societal conventions regarding gender and leadership traditionally exclude women, and top leadership is viewed as a masculine domain. The same author further argues that the cultural construction of leadership in itself instigates difference and this is only now being transformed or contested as women gain access to leadership positions. In African societies, it is believed that men lead and women follow (Ngcongo, 1993, in Grant, 2005). It is not uncommon in rural villages in Africa to find the man literally walking ahead of the woman. Different reasons may be advanced for this but ultimately it illustrates the deeply held notion of leadership as masculine.

There was a time that it was believed that leaders were born with certain leadership traits. However, current thinking on leadership assumes that leadership can be taught and learned, hence the many leadership-training programs (de la Rey, 2005). …

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