Thoughts on women and power

At the beginning of this week I sat in Washington DC, in a room with 25 emerging women leaders between the ages of 25 and 45, from countries all across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, who are participating in the Vital Voices Global Partnership.

I gloried in the glow of 25 different stories of growth and achievement and listened to expressions of intent to accomplish even more.

I was struck by the clarity with which each woman recognised the need to take action to support and enable women in their communities to achieve financial freedom and self-determination.

Without exception each woman appeared in some way to be a change agent, often going where others had not gone before, and taking risks that required courage and commitment to achieve uncommon goals.

Vital Voices Global Partnership is an NGO that identifies, trains and empowers emerging women leaders and social entrepreneurs around the globe, enabling them to make use of their potential to transform lives and accelerate peace and prosperity in their communities.

By equipping women with management, business development, marketing and communication skills, the partnership helps women to expand their enterprises, provide for their families and create jobs in their communities.

Thinking about it later, I realised that the leadership potential, the resolve and the intelligence and education I witnessed in that room were not unique to this space and this time.

In each of the countries represented by these women, there are 25 others, 250 others, 2 500 others and many more who, while they may not be in one room at the same time, are still as capable and effective as the ones congregated in Washington.

They too are agents of change, pioneers, trailblazers and icons of empowerment. What do all of these women have in common?

When I posed this question to the women sitting around the table I was sitting at, there was no shortage of input.

The first observation was that it doesn’t matter how developed or big or rich a country is, all its women generally have similar challenges, mostly related to how to take charge of their own lives. I am not sure how true this is, but I do concede that there are many commonalities.

There were issues about juggling multiple responsibilities, concerns about getting recognition and remuneration for the same work as their menfolk, worries that the ability to multi-task might lead to being exploited in the workplace.

Women from China, Brazil, South Africa, India, Jamaica and other countries all echoed one another’s sentiments. They all worried about the increasing demands on their social and emotional reserves.

Many of these women are single mothers, single or divorced, or raised by single mothers.

This is a statistic that is often held up by critics of women’s empowerment as an indication that empowering women leads to a breakdown of traditional family values. But I wonder whether this is in fact true.

Might it not be possible that it demonstrates instead that in order for women to realise their full potential, they need a measure of social freedom, and that such freedom is often difficult to achieve within the traditional family structure?

The hypothesis would be that behind a successful woman there is the absence of a man who might have stood in her way!

Of course, this is not true for every woman leader. There are many women whose husbands, partners and families nurture their dreams and support their fruition.

They achieve success within such structures and are uniquely fortunate to be surrounded by communities that create an enabling environment for their accomplishments.

Later in the week I attended a dinner hosted by Fortune’s Most Powerful Women network. This network includes women leaders such as the president of DuPont, the MD of Goldman Sachs, the executive vice-president of Time Inc, the worldwide managing partner of Young and Rubicam, the vice-president of Google Inc and many others.

Here I sat in a room with about 250 of America’s most accomplished, most celebrated and most respected women leaders, and the things they had in common were surprising.

They came across as being very warm. Far from being the tough, brutally ambitious characters we see on TV, these women were kind, affectionate even, and radiated all the qualities we normally associate with womanhood, nurturing, involved, interested, unassuming, accessible and very down-to-earth.

Not what you would expect, right? Of course, they were not without a healthy measure of quiet self-assurance and the kind of relaxed contentment that says one has arrived.

But for all their extraordinary accomplishments these women were in many ways perfectly ordinary.

Their conversation included stories of triumph and tragedy, exhilaration and exploitation, responsibility and reward, and their stories and insights were mostly very similar to the women I encounter in Zimbabwe every day.

They worried about their children and their communities and applauded the achievements of others, they complimented each other on perfume and shoes and talked about the quest for romance and the need for respect.

The only real difference between the women who have “made it” and the rest of us I think, seemed to be that the powerful ones have long since stopped apologising, have weaned themselves off the diet of guilt and over-giving that is the staple food of modern womanhood, and have just got on with doing what they love, with pursuing their passions and with maximising the potential of whatever situation faces them.

Most of all, they do it with joy, and with the determination to pass it all on to the next generation of leaders.

Thembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments : localdrummer@newsday.co.zw

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