WFC Mag'

We should all learn from (African) Women Leaders!

12 February 2020

The change toolkit series

The fog where it all started

On a gloomy Saturday morning with a thick fog, I was sitting in the back of a car heading from Marrakech to Ben Guerir, a small city in the center of Morocco. Together with my husband and a friend who happens to be a Partner in a leading consulting firm, we were heading to Nabni, a youth-leadership event organized by an association who applies innovative learning methods. While I was busy reviewing the program defined by these young leaders I accompany in their development, I heard my friend say: “I envy my wife, and women in general, to be able to take time off during their maternity leaves. This allows them to step back from their careers and take reflection time…”

I stopped everything I was doing, experiencing an inner fog as thick as the one surrounding us. When questioning this foggy feeling, I realized that this was the first time I was hearing a successful leading African businessman wanting something only women had.


The common discourses and testimonies I used to hear in large corporations were more about the challenges we, women, face in our leadership paths, especially when we become mothers:

  • Even if we equally start our careers, we slow down when we become mothers both because we take maternity leaves and because we are expected to and want to take time with our first child;
  • In between two children, we are back on track but are pulled up in promotions because everybody expects us to stop again for a second child;
  • When we manage to find an acceptable balance between our family lives (with one or more children) and our careers, we have to fight and prove harder that we are willing to make it to the top;
  • Those of us who make it to the top acknowledge that they had the unconditional support of either their partners or families or professional help, enabling them to organize (and delegate) their family lives while completely focusing on their careers in critical moments.

I had understood from these testimonies that women’s journey to the top was full of compromise: we wanted it all, but we couldn’t really have it all!

That foggy day conversation with my friend opened my mind and helped me reframe this whole story. On top of reading articles and books on leadership and gender, I started questioning leading men and women around me to gather their perspectives on what they would like to learn from women leaders.


Here are the three key learnings I have gathered:

We should all develop the leadership skills women uniquely develop and use

According to Women Matter 2 report by McKinsey and Company, women leaders apply 5 out of 9 leadership behaviors that improve organizations more often than men: people development, expectations and rewards, role model, inspiration, and participative decision making.

We can add to that some of the “17 of the 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones” where women outscore men according to HBR study on women leadership: taking initiative, resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, displaying high integrity and honesty.

When asking African men leaders how women could help them develop these skills and improve organizations, they have suggested the following.

First, women can more actively participate in the decision-making process, speaking up and defending their perspectives, and also including more diverse profiles in the process, favoring diversity both in gender and age, but also in academic, cultural and social backgrounds.

Second, women can be role models, explicitly sharing their decision-making processes and their leadership journeys with their teams and colleagues, not only in women leadership or mentoring events.

Third, women can take the lead on inclusive people-centric initiatives, putting them on the top of their organizations’ agendas, for example: strengths-based-development, diversity, well-being at work, etc.

While studies on unique women leadership skills becomes available I hope that women will take responsibility to speak up, empower other men and women, and transform African organizations for the better.


We should all have creative and flexible (vs. straight-forward) career paths to the top

While law and society give permission to women to stop-and-go in their careers when becoming mothers, men are not expected to do so.

In a 2013 report on Maternity and Paternity at work, ILO shows that half of African countries do not grant fathers paid paternity leave while the other half grant less than 10 days (except Kenya). In the majority of the continent, women are granted between 12 and 17 weeks paid maternity leave.

Of course, this is not enough, and we should aspire to reach the best-in-class countries that grant more than 18 weeks paid maternity leave. However, this is a great opportunity for us to take a break from our pre-designed career paths to wonder where we want to go and how we want to go there.

I have asked African women leaders “how they reframed their careers after being mums” and I found out that:

10% took significant time off (6 to 18 months) at important moments of their children and family lives, for example: when they had to move their families to another house, city or country; or when their children reached critical academic phases. After their time off, some decided to go back to their careers in the same companies that allowed this flexibility, others changed companies without compromising on roles.

 40% changed jobs within the same company, taking the opportunity to play on their leadership strengths while taking new roles, for instance in people management, learning, and transversal projects such as well-being at work and gender diversity. A 35-year-old woman told me about her changing track: “When my first son burnt his hand, I took almost a year off to make sure he recovers well. When I came back to work, I changed track to a part-time role as Head of recruiting. This allowed me to learn a new field and take challenges I wouldn’t have taken before.”

 40% created their own businesses, taking the chance to mix their dream and passion with a more flexible lifestyle. As a 40-year-old mum of two children told me about creating her arts-and-craft company after giving up a financial career at Total: “I managed to reconcile my youth passion for crafts and my skills in finance and management to create my own business, while being at home every day when my kids comes back from school.” This choice allows women entrepreneurs to maintain their activities at an acceptable level when their children are young, then accelerate and grow their businesses when appropriate.

I didn’t realize that men envied this opportunity we have until my friend mentioned if on our way from Marrakech to Ben Guerir. Now, I want to make sure that leading women realize it is an opportunity and take advantage of it to create their unique career and life paths.


We should all have the choice

Another mind-breaking conversation with a 55-year-old woman entrepreneur in France helped me realize that we, high potential women, have the choice to have a career or not, to make it to the top or not, while equally talented high potential men do not have this choice.

Indeed, as expressed by best-selling Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her Ted Talk We should all be feminists: “We do a great disservice to boys on how we raise them; we stifle the humanity of boys. Masculinity becomes this hard, small cage, and we put boys inside the cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear. We teach boys to be afraid of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be in Nigerian speak, “hard man!” In secondary school, boys and girls, both of them teenagers, both of them with the same amount of money, would go out, and then the boy would be expected always to pay, to prove his masculinity…”

I have heard similar words in the mouths of African male leaders, especially in hard times of divorce, burn out, promotion or job loss: “we are taught to be afraid of weakness, of vulnerability… We are expected to be hard businessmen… Society expects us to pay, to prove our masculinity…”

This is something I probably didn’t realize until words were put on it. Chimamanda put the accent on the language we use to educate our boys, and I urge leading women and men to change our language when raising the young generation leaders Africa needs to thrive.

Being parents of two future African male leaders (of six and two years old), my partner and I commit to be inspiring role models, showing them that there are multiple ways to be leaders of this world, achieving our destinies in unique ways that reunite our personalities and dreams.


Men want even more…

After writing the first version of this article, I went to celebrate the first baby shower of a 45-year-old friend who had a leading career in private and public sector. Her husband, an entrepreneur in the hospitality sector, told me: “How I envy her to be pregnant and to be able to give birth to our child. I wish we could share this pregnancy.”

Well, dear male partners, this is something nature has given us, and we can’t delegate, but we can definitely find creative ways to share with you this unique experience.

I hope these conversations were mind opening to you as they were to me, and we can continue supporting each other’s in our leadership journeys.

Faithfully yours,

Kenza Barrada

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