By Liza van Wyk
For many years there has been an urban legend which describes an African woman which goes like this: Leave a home to a twelve year-old girl as the leader, you will find everything in place. Leave a home with a boy of the same age, on your return you will find your home in tatters, in a disastrous condition. The moral of the story: leadership responsibility.
Across the world, when companies choose leaders to take them to new heights, they are always looking for responsibility. A leader has to be responsible, lead by example, and must be honest and hard-working.
As we celebrate August as Women’s Month, we are always prompted to ask: Why then are South African women and women around the world still lagging behind in terms of national, international and corporate leadership? The answer lies in us, the women.
Why do I say this? Many governments, including our own have done well in terms of putting in place legal and administrative measures to curb discrimination against women. Most constitutions are no longer discriminatory, international treaties protecting and promoting the civil and political rights of women are in place.
For example, on the political front, the representation of women has increased from 27.8% in 1994 to 49.3% in 2010, putting South Africa amongst the leading countries in the world in terms of the number of women in important leadership positions.
Women represent an important economic group in the changing composition of the marketplace and the global economy. In fact, women are a dominate force in the marketplace. In South Africa, women represent the overwhelming majority of consumers and a growing segment of women-owned or women-controlled businesses, generating billions of rands in sales and employing millions of people.
In the world of work, there is a scarcity of women in top leadership. Despite the documented progress of women, there remains a scarcity of women in executive roles and on corporate boards of directors.
Women must take the prevailing political environment as an opportunity to take up leadership, it is not easy but we must work hard, ignore the intimidation and insults we encounter. This intimidation should not stop our fight for equality but should give us strength to move on.
However even though women representation in senior management in the public service has improved, representation of women in the corporate boardrooms in the private sector remains a big challenge.
Researchers have suggested that women's traditional roles as family caregivers and nurturers have created a dilemma based on a complex blend of some real and some perceived differences between male and female managers.
This dilemma based on gender stereotypes puts women in a position where they are unassociated with management effectiveness because that label is associated with male characteristic and they are associated with nurturing communal roles .The issue is not whether women are one or the other but that variation exists and women can be either or both.
That is why the gender differences in management and leadership styles have been the topic of much research demonstrating that the problems of gender stereotypes impact the leadership styles of men and women.
Several studies have identified women's leadership styles to be more interactive and transformational whereas men's style has been identified as more directive.
Other studies have shown that the leadership and management styles of female leaders are more effective and more humane because of women managers' emphasis on communication, coordination, good interpersonal relationship, and collective success.
So why are women finding it difficult to reach the upper echelons of leadership and power. The answer may lie in cultural traits. A woman is socialised and made to believe that she cannot be a leader outside the traditional setting of a home and made to believe that she must always work twice as hard to be recognised as a leader either as a corporate executive or political leader.
No one doubts the ability of women to assume any kind of leadership. As we all know that cultural beliefs can prevent women from assuming leadership positions without a struggle, enhancing African women's leadership must start at the household level, where the biggest hindrance is always located.
So how can women reach the top? Look for strategies for building confidence, risk-taking and improving their professional personas, including learning to be assertive.
Many women tend to shy away from assertiveness and self-promotion, and when they do promote themselves, they do it poorly. Women tend not to do it well, and they're often perceived to be aggressive when they do it.
Sometimes the women are so focused on breaking down doors that they do not know how to act when they actually get through the door. As a result, many women need help developing business and leadership skills.
That is not difficult at all. After all, women are natural networkers. It's easier, to some degree, for women to promote themselves in a group with other women. Women also tend to connect on a more personal level, sharing experience and advice, not only about business, but also about the ever-elusive goal of work-life balance.
The importance of networking for most of us most of the time ... is to meet people who can help us do our current jobs better and, on a more personal level, to feel a sense of connection and camaraderie.
I am always fascinated by other women's personal stories and the different paths they've taken to their careers. Learning of similarities in our backgrounds or in the challenges we face personally or at work can be comforting encouraging and helpful, and learning about our differences can be downright inspirational.
Once women start to develop their voices and confidence at networking events, though, they face the challenge of putting what they've learned into practice. And although many organisations have gender-equity policies in place, the salary and leadership numbers show that, clearly, those policies are not always put into practice.
Women need to learn how to work successfully within the systems in which they find themselves, rather than rail against them. That means being flexible and finding consensus in their leadership style, rather than adopting an aggressive, unyielding "my way or the highway" approach.
For women especially, if you're seen as a top-down leader, or if that really is your leadership style, you're likely to fail. Moreover, women leaders should cultivate loyalty, rather than act in a merciless cutthroat manner to get ahead.
It's also critical that women have a big-picture understanding of the way their entire organization works, including the organization's financial aspects.
In many cases, the longer women are in the workforce, the more the gender differences between men and women's work and leadership styles begin to disappear, proving that women are not fundamentally different from men, they are just socialized differently.
As we celebrate women’s month, let us remember Margaret Thatcher, who once said: "If you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman." And yet the late first woman British Prime Minister will be remembered--for better or for worse--as one of the greatest visionary leaders in history.
Liza van Wyk is CEO of AstroTech Training who offers leadership development training. Visit www.astrotech.co.za or call 0861 AstroTech.