Opening the discourse on female leadership

In this February 1985 photo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is applauded by Vice President George Bush, left, as House Speaker Thomas P O'Neill, Jnr looks on just before she addressed a joint meeting of the US Congress, in Washington. (File
In this February 1985 photo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is applauded by Vice President George Bush, left, as House Speaker Thomas P O'Neill, Jnr looks on just before she addressed a joint meeting of the US Congress, in Washington. (File

The public discourse leading up to the ANC’s 105th birthday celebrations heralded a clarion call for the first female to be elected president of the party at the year-end national conference, and to lead the country in 2019.

Opposing voices made a call for the ANC to stick to the convention of having the deputy president succeed the president – in this case, Cyril Ramaphosa.

With our democracy being the dynamic and robust touchstone that it is, further opinions were proferred. These were punctuated by names of candidates being put forward – to the consternation of the governing party, which is trying its utmost to quell debate on the subject.

These developments open opportunities for discussion.

For its part, the Progressive Women’s Movement of SA sees the developments as a chance to talk openly and honestly about the stereotypes and myths that need to be overcome by women who wish to break the glass ceiling and stand for presidential elections – be it in their respective countries or within an organisation.

The movement has a point. Not only can these developments enable us to engage in robust debate over whether female leaders achieve different outcomes from their male counterparts, they also offer us the chance to strive for female inclusion at all levels and throughout all sectors of society.

First and foremost, though, we need to define equality. Failure to do so properly could result in us risking having a female president who is seen by many as being a negative game changer in all our struggles.

She may come to be stereotyped as the wrong representative of the female challenges of poverty, low education levels, exclusion from the economy and exposure to sexual abuse.

We have to broaden our conversations about women – not only at national level, but at all levels – to better understand the female experience within democracies and how women cope in the face of power imbalances, economic exploitation and their objectification.

However, this debate about pushing for a female president can backfire by giving free reign for sexist members of society to air their backward views. The dominant discourse among these nonprogressives centres on how women in top positions fail other women. Reference is often made to the shortcomings of female heads such as former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

It is all well and good to point out certain weaknesses – political hopefuls are fair game for this – but female strength and resilience must also be part of the public discourse.

In the spirit of unity and cohesiveness within the ANC and the country, we have been given an opportunity to probe inequality and empowerment as pro-female – but certainly not anti-male – issues. Let us take it up in a dignified manner.

Mkhize is deputy minister of telecommunications and postal services, and national convener of the Progressive Women’s Movement of SA

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