Can Women Lead?
I recently wrote a piece for the fabulous UP Nairobi magazine about women’s leadership where I argue that we need to move to a more sophisticated conversation about gender and leadership.
In the piece I identify two fundamental questions we must grapple with: How do we define ‘leadership’? And how does that definition lead to continued waste of one of the country’s most valuable resource: women’s capacity for transformative leadership?
I’m posting my full text below but will be taking it down once its posted on the UP Nairobi website. In the meanwhile be sure to check out the brand new UP Nairobi website.
To ask whether women are capable of leadership is to begin by asking the wrong question. Indeed the question of whether Kenyan women can lead was answered generations ago. YES WE CAN (and we have been)!
Indeed its time we Kenyans moved on to a more sophisticated conversation about gender and leadership. To do this we must address two fundamental questions: How do we define ‘leadership’? And why does Kenyan society insist on continued waste of one of the country’s most valuable resource: Kenyan women’s capacity for transformative leadership?
Leadership with a Capital P
For too long now leadership in Kenya has been understood as merely political kupayuka. Ask most Kenyans to identify a leader and they will point to a myriad of politicians and wannabe politicians. As a society we have failed to appreciate the ways in which leadership transcends the political sphere and includes valuable contributions in the social, education, industry, arts and culture among other sectors.
Our continued obsession with politics as the only venue where one can serve the community and transform society has led us to a race to the bottom. While we certainly have some qualified politicians, there are increasing numbers who, though they might actually be talented to serve in the private, civil society, civil service or other sectors, still shoehorn themselves into politics with disastrous results. So often our politicians live in realm of mediocrity to the country’s detriment.
On the other hand, an expanded perspective on leadership allows us to begin to make the necessary investments in sectors of our society that are indeed transformative. For example, our education system has for long failed to capture the real value that that the arts and culture generate in a society. Paraphrase an example recently offered by Vision 2030 Director General Mr. Mugo Kibati in a speech to Kenya’s emerging researchers, when most people think of America they can rattle off the names of various musical artists, actors, and sporting professionals. Beyond the President, very few people around the world can name as many U.S. members of Congress as they can artists.
While the contributions of some of these American artists might be dubious in terms of social progress, it is safe to say that they generate tremendous social and economic value for their country. Why is it then, that Kenyans have chosen to focus on our political leaders to the marginalization of the tremendous artists, academics, scientists, writers and other producers of knowledge and culture? What are we missing out by failing to recognize these innovative individuals as leaders who are transforming society?
Kenyan society pays a high price for our narrow perspective of leadership. We are failing to see the many ways that women are already contributing to the leadership of the country and doing so in earthshattering ways. For example, it is our narrow perspective on leadership that caused us to fail to recognize the tremendously transformative work of Prof. Wangari Maathai. Why did it take Kenyans so long to recognize and celebrate what the rest of the world already saw of our heroine’s work? What more could she have contributed to society had we embraced her early and deeply and given her the space to freely give of her all gifts to Kenya? We are failing to recognize the leadership of women like Ory Okolloh, one of the co-founders of the internationally recognized Ushahidi platform who now heads policy and government relations for Google in Africa. There are the Weaving Women, the collection of women artists, academics, writers and thinkers behind an exploration of the cultural image of ‘Wanjiku’ in representing the ‘average’ Kenyan citizen. This group of women is generating valuable new knowledge, indigenous knowledge, on the political and social systems of gender power in Kenya. Sadly, in our obsession with politicians, we are failing to see the ways these multidisciplinary women are innovative leaders. How many other Okollohs and Prof. Maathais remain untapped. Which other human resources, talented and dedicated Kenyan women of substance, is the country not benefiting from? Why do we continue with this wanton waste of potential?
In my own work with Akili Dada I am exposed daily to talented young women who, despite their family backgrounds of deep poverty, are passionate about social change. Akili Dada’s young women leaders are, in their teens, already driving projects with deeply transformative impact on their communities. They are not in front of microphones spouting ethnic hatespeech like some of our politicians. They are working diligently under everyone’s radar, imagining new a Kenya and doing the work that it takes to build and transform our societies from the ground. That is leadership. Yes, Kenyan women can lead. The fundamental question is, how can we as a country better tap into the tremendous resource that is Kenyan women’s capacity for transformative leadership?