When womxn lead

When I think about leadership, I always start by thinking about how leadership has always been defined. Visually, it’s the pictures of men in sharp suits and womxn who are power-dressing, standing with arms crossed and no smiles, because, how else would we know they are serious and mean business?

Thinking of it in terms of language, words and phrases such as aggressive; uncompromising; authority; expert; work first, everything else after have become synonymous with leadership and power. And all they do is result in workplaces that are inflexible, unhappiness, disengaged staff, high staff turnovers and immeasurable stress.

The belief that leadership can only look one particular way, the masculine way, means that workplaces neither recognise nor create space for the value womxn bring to organisations when they simply come as they are.

Power, influence and impact have been – and continue to be – measured according to their proximity to men. You see this reflected in gender pay gaps. You see it on the JSE where only 4.7% of the listed companies are led by womxn (this number drops when you consider about Black womxn specifically). You see it in the prescribed dress codes and how people react when womxn don’t assimilate to that prescription. And all of this happens in the context of a country where womxn are in the majority.

We live and work in a world where being yourself is often frowned upon, and what we’ve ended up with is societies where violence continues to hit crisis levels and depression being predicted to become the leading health condition. According to a World Health Organisation 2018 report, approximately 800,000 people die by suicide every year, and suicide is already the second leading cause of death amongst 15 – 29 year olds.

All of this should remind us that we have a leadership crisis, in public and private sectors, and that we need to reengineer our ideas of business, leadership, power and success. We need to create environments that empower people (especially womxn) to show up as themselves and be given the space to embrace, display and communicate all of their humanity. But, that requires kindness, empathy, compassion, flexibility and soft power, traits that have been considered “weak” and “inefficient”.

We need to have organisations that actively seek to create space for womxn to lead and trust our abilities and intuition. We cannot still have organisations that view promoting or hiring womxn as a risk because

  • “Womxn are emotional”
  • “Womxn will get pregnant and take maternity leave”
  • “Womxn will mess up our boys’ club”
  • “We’re afraid of sexual harassment claims”.

Ironically, these leaders don’t even realise that if they are intentional about protecting womxn and their rights in the workplace, they would have nothing to worry about.

It cannot be that we continue to have conversations about toxic masculinity and not speak about how it manifests itself in the workplace. We need to demasculate power and influence because the lack of softness and compassion, combined with the suppression of people’s multi-facetedness, in organisations is exacerbating stress and mental health concerns.

University of Cape Town’s Vice Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, is an example I draw on when I think about leaders who have the ability to embrace and encourage both productivity and humanity. She is able to use both hard and soft power successfully because she has not defined her success in a linear pattern. It’s not either or. It’s both. It’s all. It’s whatever each individual situation requires and she does it unapologetically. And none of it requires her to become less of a womxn.

Just as we cannot ignore racism and the effects and trauma of apartheid, we cannot ignore sexism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, discrimination against people with disabilities and gender inequality in the workplace.

Responsible leadership requires making responsible decisions. Ethical leadership requires operating ethically at all times (focusing only on legalities is simply not good enough). Compassionate leadership requires leading with compassion. And none of these can exist on their own or without intention

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