OPINION | Why women executives must shape the next generation of fearless female trailblazers and world shapers

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I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass….Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim,” Maya Angelou, the late American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist, once said.

I agree with Maya. It is always magnificent to see women everywhere making auspicious moves where ever they are. They are taking more risks and reskilling themselves to take on more challenging roles, despite the many obstacles they face as they make their way to the top.

The advice is often to take the bull by the horns, know what you want and be relentless in reaching your purpose.

As we celebrate the month-long 64th anniversary of the 20 000 women who marched on the Union Buildings in 1956 to protest against the pass laws and demand equal rights, it is heartening that our country is a beacon of hope for women's rights the world over and as local women, we are resolute to be the authors and heroines of our lives, not the victims.

In most sectors, from government, big corporations listed on the Johannesburg Stocks Exchange down to parliament, local municipalities and various boards, women are a force to be reckoned with.

 However, there's much work to be done. We still have some distance to go before women are impartially afforded the opportunities which would maximise their potential.

It's concerning that women are still significantly underrepresented and under-remunerated in the upper echelons of the workforce. Although most organisations say they support diversity and the development of future leaders, women in top leadership roles seem to still be the exception, not the rule.


What do women achievers do when they are at the top?

How can women leaders propel more women to the boardroom chair? Where have all the business role models gone? And why don't young female corporate executives seek out role models?

As much as I agree with Maya Angelou’s sentiments, the solution lies with Charlotte Maxeke’s call for action. 

More than 140 years after her birth and 82 years after her death, Maxeke’s legacy, pioneering and trendsetting spirit and torchbearer status, are still being felt across the Rainbow Nation.

At the second conference of the National Council of African Women in 1938 in Bloemfontein, a year before her death, she said: “The work is not for oneself. Kill the spirit of ‘self’ and do not live above your people, but with them.  If you rise above them, take somebody with you. 

Maxeke was clear about what we as women leaders should do to propel more women into the top leadership positions - take others along by being role models and mentors.


Statistics to back this are galore. The World Bank has said that about 1 billion women are unable to achieve their full economic potential due to barriers such as unequal access to opportunities and credit, a lack of sufficient education and training, and a lack of help from communities and governments in entering the workforce and the economy.

The same studies by the World Bank and other think tanks have concluded that women's participation in the workforce and in income generation boosts economic growth and has an impact on society as a whole.

Research cited in the Harvard Business Review found that Fortune 500 firms with the highest percentage of female executives significantly outperformed most within their respective industries.


This is only logical, as fostering diversity in management leads to improved efficiency, effectiveness and performance of the entire team, coupled with the fact that women bring valuable skills to leadership roles that are complementary to those of their male colleagues.

Therefore, nothing is considered more relevant than action to promote women as drivers of inclusive growth. Empowering women is one of the most effective and positive forces for reshaping the globe and eradicating poverty and inequalities.

There is no doubt that young female executives would benefit tremendously from being exposed to smart, articulate, independent and stable women who have achieved success. It should be our purpose to provision for this beneficiation.


The International Women’s Forum South Africa (IWFSA), in line with its mission to develop the next generation of women leaders, has launched Young Leaders Connect to build and encourage future, effective and efficient women leaders by providing a holistic approach to mentorship, incorporating workshops that focus on building a leadership toolkit for each mentee.

The IWFSA is passionately working hard to identify and further develop aspiring young women leaders aged between 25-40 years with between one and ten years working experience.


Our aim is to inspire young women and help them to develop personal leadership skills to enable them to take a leading role in whatever future career or profession they have chosen, as well as to challenge gender inequality across industry.

Recruitment is being done through various women organisations with similar ethos and objectives, website, social media, word of mouth and IWFSA members.

I believe that allowing women to be more honest about their career paths, including the skills they lack and have to develop, as well as the help and mentoring they seek, has the potential to show many more women that the route to success is available to all, not just some super women.


Throughout my career in more than one sector, I have realised and appreciated the power of sisterhood. When women come together in a healthy, supportive way, we can genuinely elevate each other to new heights.  After all, we face similar challenges in the workplace and in society. It is about being stronger together and supporting each other and each other's businesses.

Therefore, every woman must ponder more seriously about how society is progressing in protecting and promoting rights, opportunities, empowerment and freedom for women and girls.

Of course, significant progress has been made in women empowerment, but the stark reality is that our business community is falling well short, and must be investing concentrated energy and pooling deeper resources into advancing genuine solutions that foster healthier, more equal and safer conditions for women and girls.


Let female executives and business women help shape the next generation of female leaders, trailblazers and fearless world shapers.

Let the status of empowered women in our country receive greater focus and attention. Humanity needs women of conviction and knowledge leading the charge.

Above all, let us make our young women and girls believe there are no limits to what they can pursue and achieve.

Irene Charnley is a successful businesswoman and President of the International Women’s Forum of South Africa, a powerful organisation of 7,000 accomplished women from 33 nations on six continents

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