Young women in leadership and politics

Largely masculine social constructs continue to prevail, but it is possible for women to assert themselves without getting uncomfortable under the skin

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Participants of a Young Women in Leadership Forum.
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By Lanji Ouko

What a time to be alive! Not only is real estate mogul, Donald Trump running for US president, but also Kim Kardashian has been named as the most influential woman of our time! Such is the irony of our time.

What happened to strong, diligent, charismatic leaders who were looked up to and referred to as role models, not based on appearance but based on the positive impact they had on the community or society?

The era of reality shows and constant scrutiny of celebrities has been a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.Today, we are a generation fixated on an illusion of fame and money; a generation unable to discern what is staged and what is real.

The traditional way of life had a number of beneficial aspects, especially the process of learning through apprenticeship. Female relatives taught girls everything they needed to learn as women – the ‘what’, ‘why’, ’when’, ’where’, ‘how’ and ‘who’, and even the answers to those questions “Cosmopolitan Magazine” ever so graciously answers today because parents are too shy to engage their children on certain matters.

Emphasis on passing down traditions and cultural values is the main reason the older generations had a stronger foundation of discipline and cultural values. Today, girls rely on the mainstream media for guidance on everything, from careers to relationships, which explains why parents are breeding a generation of confused youth.

It is important for the youth to grow up being mindful of how much power lies within them. By understanding that magnitude of power within them, they grow up fully comprehending the responsibilities ahead of them. Guidance and mentorship is a fundamental aspect in nurturing the youth.

A group of young ladies in Boston and Nairobi partnered to form the Young Women in Leadership and Politics (YWLP) organisation. The main objective is to create a generation of female leaders generations in the future can look up to for guidance. The organisation is committed to bringing the leadership development experience to women at all stages of their careers. This is actively achieved through seminars, training and coaching and a wide range of other training programmes.

YWLP looks forward to working closely with the government to lead labour market projects through studies on the attraction, recruitment and retention of women. The programmes provide a learning platform to build on core skills and confidence that women need for transformation, growth and success in their careers.

Indeed, our nation has had a number of respectable women to regard as role models.  But the bitter truth is that these leaders are either dead or retired –Wangari Maathai and Grace Ogot are examples. There is confusing irony in all this. As we cry about government officials and the absence of role models, and vow to never follow in their example of impunity, tribalism and corruption, those in the same generation look at our generation and shake their heads in disapproval and silently lament about the future.

Sharon Nyakundi, co-founder and president of YWLP says the nature and structure of some of our political organisations and society have caused Kenyan women to have trouble establishing legitimacy, as well as getting buy-in from various players. The Harvard Law student and former Yale an alumnus has narrowed down the question that plagues women who enter politics and leadership to this: “Can I be both a woman and a leader?”

Women who assert themselves are likened to men. We see it all the time in Kenyan politics – if it’s not the toughness of the woman being questioned, it’s her emotional control. If she’s not likeable then she’s not competent. If she’s competent, she’s probably not likeable. Women in politics come under much more scrutiny than men and it can take a serious toll on both their professional and personal lives – a risk many women are not willing to take.

Their mistakes are highlighted and their successes are rarely recognised. A woman who truly takes on the reins of political leadership and challenges the structures in place is in for a rough journey – one that may very well end her professional life. Many women would rather remain in the shadows of their male political counterparts and provide supporting roles, having witnessed the challenges that women who put themselves in the spotlight or are in powerful positions face.

Sharon lists three different strategies that women can actively apply in order to be taken seriously without seeming “odd”. One of the major issues facing female leaders is the way they approach negotiations, not just with men but also with their careers and personal life.
Navigating complex male-dominated organisations requires a combination of strategy and an appreciation of the unique role a woman in that situation will find herself in. This speaks to the question of how and where women position themselves in organisations.

It is critical for women to not be afraid to take in what might typically be seen as “male roles.” A lot of women’s accomplishments fly under the radar because of the positions they occupy.

Second are the moves that women employ to achieve their goals and in order to be taken seriously. Women have to be just as tactical as men in their approach to leadership. This means understanding and employing the tactical leverage we have.

Third is the way we understand and incorporate other key parties, such as our peers and other leaders, into our vision. “Women need to view their leadership as a collective enterprise. The goal of women in challenging leadership positions such as in politics should be to use their positions not just to get through their policies, but to also create opportunities for other women to enter the fold,” concludes Sharon.

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