We have long heard the adage that in the professional world, women have a glass ceiling they have to burst through especially if they want to hold positions of power and significant influence. There’s a big boys club, women are told, and you either have to find a way of being added into that club OR the big boys have to really like you and ‘let you in’. The woman’s competence, intelligence, capabilities and skills are never considered to be the factors that got her to the top. Oh affirmative action is behind the rise of women, females are told, look at the two thirds gender rule, that’s why women are in positions of leadership. The truth is that the glass ceiling is what women in gender progressive parts of the world confront, here in Kenya and Africa in general, woman are confronted with concrete slabs. Concrete slabs made of perceptions of women as intellectually inferior, concrete slabs that say leadership is for men only, concrete slabs that say how DARE a woman even consider the possibility of leading a county or corporation? And the perceptions of which these concrete slabs consist run across a spectrum. On the more ‘progressive’ side are attitudes that say women should be ‘given a chance’ to lead, as though serendipity is what will inform the success of women in leadership. On the bigoted side are attitudes rooted in notions of inherent male opportunity, attitudes that the most women can be are appendages directed by men; that say women cannot and indeed should not lead as women in leadership is unnatural, unwise and even immoral.
As a result of these concrete slabs of these negative attitudes, women face a far greater number of obstacles in their career ambitions presented in the form of bigotry in men but also, sadly, fellow women. The reasons behind this are multifaceted. For example, take the story of an identical CV handed out to two groups made of both men and women. In one group the CV had the name of a man on it and in the other group the name of a woman. Both groups were told to voice their impressions on what the person behind the CV would be like in a professional setting. For those who got the male CV, feedback was generally positive. There was a feeling that the man had good ambition, was decisive and assertive, was in control of his career and would make a good leader. Feedback on the CV with the woman’s name was entirely different. She was perceived to be bitchy, difficult, pushy, too aggressive and bossy. Identical CV, completely opposing perceptions. And this is really at crux of the issue, when women behave in a manner identical to men, they are perceived as more extreme and negative than the man is. Part of this is rooted in the fact that often ‘leadership qualities’ such as decisiveness, direction, confidence, and assertiveness are considered to be ‘male’ attributes. Therefore when women embody these qualities they are viewed as macho and difficult. Whereas the man will be perceived as the BOSS, women will be perceived as BOSSY.
To add complexity to this conundrum is the reality that BOTH men and women are socialised to prefer men in leadership positions. Most women would rather report to a male boss than a female boss. Perhaps a mixture of jealousy and frustration inform the negative attitudes some female leaders face from women. After all, some women may say, why is SHE the boss, I’m just as able and competent as she is! That’s why when there are stories of people ‘sleeping their way to the top’ it refers to women. Surely she can’t be as able as other men with the same level of experience, she must have ‘done something fishy’ to get there…perceptions held by both men and women.
An additional reality that adds thickness to the concrete slabs women in Africa face is the reality that a woman is not perceived to be ‘fully’ female until she gets married…and then has kids; and in that order. Oh yeah be that successful career single woman (even with kids) but no married woman wants you around their husband until you have one of your own. If you have no kids, then there are whispers of ‘what else can she do with all that time…of course she’ll put it all into her job’. In fact some women are told that they should never sacrifice their marriages because of career pressure, it’s better to be married and poor than have a corner office and be a divorcee or single.
And for those women in leadership who are married with children and still career women, the pressures they face to be excellent mothers, excellent wives and excellent leaders is unlike any pressure men face quite frankly. A father and husband can tell his family he has to stay at work late night after night or never be home because of busy travel schedules at work, and that is deemed acceptable. After all, he’s working hard to make a better life for everyone, right? Let the same married mother, wife and career woman utter the same words and she will be slapped with ‘concerned’ friends and relatives asking her why she has abandoned her family. She will be told that she had better be around her kids more otherwise the house maid will be the one raising them. And she better be around for her husband otherwise he will start sleeping with that house maid who is raising her kids.
So what is the woman to do? Avoid accepting promotions so that she is deemed to have embodied the right balance of ambition that still ‘ensure’ others view her as a good mum and wife? Should she avoid taking on demanding roles that would actually allow her to earn more so that she can move her family into a safer neighborhood and take her children to better schools? Finding the work-life balance is sincere struggle working mothers and wives face and quite frankly, often women do not allow their careers to rise to a point where they feel they are sacrificing their family for work. And this is perhaps the most profound concrete slab women face; the self-imposed one.
The sad truth is that the pressures women face is societal bullying. In Kenya and Africa to this day there is no sincere conversation going on about how to better integrate men into taking on the caregiving role. Don’t misunderstand, most women cherish their role as mothers and wives but when women are penalised by society for doing so, then it is unacceptable. If Kenyan women are penalised by attitudes and realities that make society anti-woman when it comes to leadership then how in the world will the country tap into all the abilities women have to give the society and country?
So the next time you see you a woman in leadership remember she has not burst through a glass ceiling, she has lifted and is still is lifting concrete slab after concrete slab into the leadership position she has earned.