Last week, the world celebrated International Women’s Day. This year’s theme was “#ChooseToChallenge”, the choice to empower, and support women (or men) to challenge discrimination based on gender and to achieve equality.

In the past year, in the face of a global health crisis, it has been suggested that nations with women leaders have shown better leadership, which led to better management of the pandemic.

Women leaders, like New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, have become the standard of exemplary leadership during times of crises as seen by how she handled the Christchurch terrorist attack in 2019 and the Covid-19 pandemic last year.

To understand how we can propel women forward and encourage women’s leadership in various sectors, there are many steps to take.

However, the most basic one is to ensure a deep understanding of the value of women’s leadership. This can be done in two ways:

FIRSTLY, the understanding of leadership must first be broken down — it has long been defined and associated with characteristics associated with masculinity. “Good” leadership does not necessarily translate to a “strong” one, which can be said to be a masculine characteristic.

Margaret Thatcher, the first female British prime minister, has proven to be a controversial figure as her leadership style was seen as masculine, which made many question the extent of the glass ceiling she broke.

SECONDLY push-and-pull factors must be recognised and acted upon. To encourage women’s leadership in various sectors, governments, institutions and society need to realise that various factors lead to gradual changes and the responsibility is on everyone, no matter how young or old, to take action.

Push factors include providing words and mechanisms of encouragement and support for girls and young women to have ambitions.

These ambitions are beyond the norm that the community has imposed on them, to allow them to break glass ceilings so that women can take on leadership roles despite there never having been a female leader in a certain country or organisation, or that their voices should be heard even though the room is full of men.

Pull factors come in the form of how institutions encourage and provide space for female leadership. Such campaigns are exemplified by the “30 per cent club”, a global campaign with a presence in Malaysia, that pushes and pulls women to ensure calls for diversity are heard for women to be more involved in senior-level management.

Admittedly, these come with risks as they can lead to cases of tokenism. Bearing that in mind, we cannot ignore the main aim which is the basic need to provide space for women instead of just men in giving input, and diversifying conversations.

While the recommendations set out in this article are straightforward, they are important. There is a need to instil a deep understanding of why women are needed in discussions and why diversity in institutions is required so they can provide valuable input.

While there is a need to impose and showcase efforts of diversity, there is a greater need to ensure that those who make these changes understand why they are needed.

The push for more women’s leadership, after all, will require not just women’s efforts, but everyone’s too.

This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 15 March 2021.

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