With mixed feelings, I keep reading the news that women did not do well in the May 2014 Tripartite Elections, and that we are regressing as a country, as we are falling short of the 50:50 Campaign. CYNTHIA SAKANDA writes:
While the proportion of seats held by women in Parliament was 22 percent in 2013, it came down to 17 percent in 2014 (1994-1999; 5 percent).
My limited understanding of some of the reasons for the regression point to social norms like culture, which play a role in justifying inequality, misogyny, and sexism; lack of support within respective parties and the government and lack of resources to finance campaigns.
While I am neither a feminist nor a politician, I understand that the world continues to be male dominated, so women need a push to “break the glass ceiling” as it were, hence the women empowerment programmes of which the 50:50 Campaign is one. Having said that, despite all the work done, evidently, it is simply not enough to rely on formal empowerment programmes alone; so today I bring a different perspective, one that refocuses the dialogue and proposes different and perhaps contemporary approaches; attitudes that while encouraging government and other players’ intervention, place a reasonable burden on the women themselves.
While doing some research for this write-up, I stumbled upon and particularly liked a July 5 2014 Nation on Sunday piece by Caroline Somanje titled “Women need skills, not favours”. Though not directed at the women themselves, I found her thinking to be progressive and her reporting and the awareness it hopefully created, exactly what women need in the 21st Century.
First, women need to understand that politics is a profession that culminates into a career, and as such, it needs to be managed just like any other career. The major difference between political and other careers is that most politicians must be elected, and to do so requires somewhat different investment than other careers; a reasonable portion of which is financial and is required upfront. This need for capital makes running for office or managing a political career more like starting or managing a business, often entailing uncertainty, risk and sometimes little or no return. To be successful, therefore, women politicians must be business oriented, financially savvy and bold enough to take above average risks (legally of course). This requires investing in business and financial management skills and acquiring the ability to access financing.
Secondly, while there is progress in the 50:50 Campaign in other areas, politics is different, in that it is a no holds barred, cut-throat and extremely competitive vocation. Some men and women alike will do whatever it takes to win including employing misogyny and sexism, sometimes discouraging well-meaning women. This means that without losing their femininity, women have to develop thick skin, and demonstrate confidence even in times of doubt. We have seen time and again how people are willing to give a chance to men who are obviously out of their depth, but present themselves with confidence, over well prepared women who lack confidence, finesse and articulation.
Thirdly, women need to support and push each other to do well. Once you have cracked your confidence code, pass it on. Sometimes what a friend or colleague really needs is a push, so, rather than repeatedly telling your friend she is great, try encouraging her to take action instead. Often, it takes just one suggestion, comment or nudge. “You should consider running for Parliament.” “I’m sure you could make a great President, go for it.” So many have emphasized the need for supporting one another, it now sounds like a cliché, but it remains true. The key here is to build a critical mass, because only then will women give themselves enough odds to compete and win in numbers. If there is one woman in a political race, people will be more inclined to look at her appearance than listen to her positions on issues. Once there are more women, inevitably the debate will quickly move beyond gender and focus on the agenda each candidate, man or woman, brings to the table. And that is exactly the point.
Fourthly, women need to understand that leadership is not about gender, such that playing the “gender card” is not a winning strategy. While most women understand that nobody is going to hand them the positions they seek, so they work hard to get them, a good number also expect a lift and are quick to read “unfair” in situations, especially if things do not go their way. If one believes that they are better than a political opponent, then whether male or female, they have to put in the requisite work to succeed. My point is, while affirmative action is welcome, more important than having more women politicians is having genuinely good people, of whatever gender, to lead, so affirmative action is acceptable, as long as it does not devalue the hard work of others.
Fifth, women need to take time to learn and understand the critical success factors of their political careers and acquire the right skills to achieve them. This means doing their homework to know their constituents, understanding their needs and their issues, knowing what works and doesn’t and why. In addition to financial management skills alluded to above, and among other skills, women in politics need to learn effective communication and negotiation skills so they can influence others; they need consensus building skills so they can effect change through others and add value; networking skills so they can build the relationships they need to succeed and improve their likability and demeanour. These efforts have to be continuous, for doing so at campaign time only may not be enough. While some of these skills can be obtained through one’s own initiative, some may need government’s, parties or other stakeholders’ intervention, but that is a discussion for another day.
Sixth, women in politics need to lead by example, for how they carry themselves can either embolden good perceptions about women leadership, or encourage negative stereotypes. What do I mean by this? We have already established that cultural factors are contributing to the failure of the 50:50 Campaign, but while cultural prejudice is mostly perpetrated by men, women also encourage it. For example, it is difficult for women to earn the respect they deserve within their political parties when the one thing the largest numbers of them do well is dance for their leaders. I fully understand that dancing is part of our tradition and by all means, I support upholding tradition, however, the way it is currently done, does less to promote tradition and more to encourage subservient perceptions about women, (which, by the way, I also support, but only within Christian marriages). Most importantly, it takes away productive time from women.
Think about it, while we as women are practising those dance moves and creating those party songs, the men we compete with politically are working on strategic and bigger picture things, and if a party position comes up, who do we think people are going to look for? The best Chimtali dancer or the one with the innovative idea on how to grow the party’s base? Parties can set aside special functions where women and men alike perform traditional dances. It does not have to be at every function and it does not have to be only or mostly women, and women need to take a lead in discouraging such unnecessary stereotypical activities.
Lastly, women need to remember that winning in politics is not just about beating out some opponents in a political race; true winning is about doing the best to reach one’s potential; delivering on the promises you made during campaign time and staying committed to the cause and your constituents even when things are tough. Most importantly, true winning is doing your work with passion and love, while having fun and feeling that it matters to you, others and your country. It is, therefore, important to remember not to be so engrossed in competition to the point of losing oneself and forgetting why you decided to run in the first place, and to guard against being defined by one’s opponents’ behaviour or lack thereof. True winners stay true to themselves and are guided by their own inner values and internal targets. Such an attitude allows one to win with humility, and lose with dignity. In any case, if you campaigned like a winner, you have already won. I still remember the best advice my mother gave me as a child, she said “Cyndie, in future when you become a leader, you can be cool headed when necessary, but always be warm hearted”.
**Cynthia Sakanda is a Malawian financial expert working as a senior resource management officer at the World Bank in Washington DC, USA. She writes in her personal capacity.