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Women, resilience and the will to lead

Women, resilience and the will to lead

With a woman’s ambition to lead comes the risk of being undermined, maligned, side-lined or even physically attacked, simply because women are still viewed as the weaker sex. This year, I was elected as the first female President of the Law Association of Zambia in the 53-year history of the organisation and its predecessor the Law Society of Zambia. Having been in office since May this year, I now concur with the late, great “philosopher” David Bowie who jokingly said, “Don’t be the first, be the second”. On a serious note, being a relatively young female leader in a patriarchal society is fraught with challenges; the first of which is actually getting into office.  


I had made deliberate steps towards becoming the President of LAZ over a period of seven years. During that time, I had been a keen student of leadership and politics. I knew for example that, in this cyber age, women leaders are often perceived as being less competent, less likable and are far more likely to be the subject of verbal abuse on social media than men are. I was no exception.

During the LAZ election campaign period, Thandiwe, a friend of mine, sent me a text message saying that she had just finished reading ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. In the book ‘Lean In’, Sandberg urges women to come forward and “sit at the table of influence”. As she was reading it, Thandiwe had thought of me because in the book Sandberg writes about a Harvard study that shows that the higher up women go, the less they are liked by men and women. She asked me how people were receiving the news of my candidacy. I told her that it is true that I have experienced some bias on account of being a woman and I gave her some examples:


1.    I am a named partner at the law firm where I work and someone said, “She’s too ambitious, why couldn’t she just be satisfied with being a partner, why did she also have to ask to have her name on the door?”
2.    In a motivational talk I gave to some university students as Vice-President of LAZ, the position I had held previously, one male student stood up and prefaced his remarks by telling me that I had only been put in office because of my gender and not because I had earned it.
3.    And my personal favourite, “Does Linda read the Bible? Doesn’t she know that men are supposed to be in charge?”

In ‘Lean In’, Sheryl Sandberg challenges women to become influential in whatever they do. According to her, as successful as she is, she still has a lot of the insecurities other women have about taking up leadership positions. Many women do not take up leadership roles because they do not think they are good enough.  As Sandberg points out, men will put their hand up to do a job that a woman with twice the ability will hesitate over.  It is true that risking failure can have devastating and sometimes very public consequences but what about the potential rewards of trying? There were two other male candidates for the position of LAZ President during the election and I beat them both on an issue-based campaign and without having to “bribe” a single voter.

There was a lot of fanfare soon after I was elected into office but, having taken a few positions contrary to the government line, I was quickly perceived as being a member of the opposition. Bear in mind that two years earlier, just after having been elected as Vice-President, the Executive of LAZ had been labelled pro-government. On my election into office, the Republican President and the leaders of the two main opposition parties had issued statements in the media congratulating me on my achievement and expressing confidence in my competence. How quickly things changed. However, as a leader - irrespective of your gender - always remember one thing: “Don’t believe the hype is a sequel”. Those of you who are my contemporaries will recall that line from an 80’s rap song by Public Enemy, which was very aptly named. It is another way of reminding us that Palm Sunday came a week before the crucifixion. We live in a world where false humility, particularly for women, is praised and genuine self-confidence is denigrated; where being average is viewed as a virtue and being ambitious, even for selfless purposes, is seen as a vice. Simply put, you will never please everybody so do not go into leadership because you want to be popular. Regardless of whether the work is paid or voluntary, leadership is a privilege and should always be about service. If you want to be liked all the time you are likely to be extremely ineffective and/or compromise your beliefs or values.

The Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) has a statutory mandate to promote and protect the rule of law, constitutionalism, good governance and social justice as well as to regulate the profession. Whilst there are many things that LAZ does outside our role as a watchdog on governance and rule of law issues, those are the issues that attract the most public attention. Often it means coming into conflict with the government. If like me, you are unfortunate enough to be in office during a national election period, it requires taking a few calculated risks and a little audacity. Taking risks requires courage and having courage makes the difference between achieving greatness and losing hope.

In January this year, the Zambian Government made substantial amendments to the nation's Constitution, including the provisions on how and when a Minister has to vacate office. The Government took the view that, following the amendments, the new position of the law was that the Ministers could stay in office even after the dissolution of Parliament. LAZ took the considered view that, even under the amended Constitution, it was still a requirement for Ministers to be members of Parliament to qualify to hold the office of a Minister and to remain in office. Subsequently, when Parliament was dissolved the Ministers were required to vacate their offices as had always been the position. LAZ took the matter to the newly-created Constitutional Court to determine the matter conclusively. As the President of the Association, I was not hugely popular with the government and was vilified in the media. We stood our ground and just a few days before the general elections, the Constitutional Court pronounced a judgement in our favour, not only affirming that the Ministers should have vacated office upon the dissolution of Parliament, but in addition ordering that the former Ministers pay back their salary and emoluments for the period that they had illegally held office. It was a huge landmark decision. The point I am trying to make is that leadership comes with many challenges. Doing it right and for the right reasons is not for the faint-hearted. To put it crudely, sometimes you do need to be an “Iron Lady”.

Another thing I would say to women, who seem to be particularly averse to looking a little foolish, is: "do not be afraid of failure". As Denzel Washington put it in his 2011 commencement speech to the University of Pennsylvania, “fail forward” with the faith that you can get up, dust yourself off and keep going. I have recently come across a great article in the New York Times about the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. At the time she entered law school in the autumn of 1956, women made up less than 3% of the legal profession in America. She got married and had two children whilst pursuing her graduate and post-graduate university degrees. As you can imagine, it must have been extremely difficult for her to reach the positions that she has achieved having lived through times where sexism and sexual harassment were commonplace and even accepted. She is now eighty-three years old and says she applies one piece of advice that her mother-in-law gave to her when she was getting married to almost everything she does, “In every good marriage, it helps to be a little deaf”.  And when trouble comes - and it will inevitably come - using the recently-deceased U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s favourite expression, she says, “Get over it”! Easier said than done, as there are parts of your leadership journey when you will have to walk alone; standing firm with the belt of truth buckled around your waist and with the breastplate of righteousness in place as the Good Book tells us.  During that time, you must be the calm in the storm. Zambian wordsmith Chanda Mfula once said, “Character isn’t built across the entire race, but during the that extra mile you discovered you must run just when you thought the race was over”.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that I would not have achieved the level of success that I have without the support and encouragement of many male friends and colleagues. Because of them I have risen up to become the first female-named partner in a top-ranked law firm. I think that my success at the law firm greatly helped increase my profile in the Law Association. The truth of the matter is we cannot empower women as leaders without male champions. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said, “there’s plenty of room in the world for mediocre men, but there’s no room for mediocre women…You have to work exceptionally hard and you have to know what you’re talking about”.

What I would like men to know about the challenges of being a female leader is that, because there are so few of us out there, it is considerably harder to be considered a good leader. Being a female leader requires you to put up with a lot of extremely personal and unwarranted criticism and/or abuse; to work twice as hard to be considered even equally competent as a man; to know what you are talking about all the time because your competence is often questioned; and to always look photo-ready because, apparently, our physical appearance is a distraction. I think that the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump clearly exemplifies this point.

Relatively speaking, there are only a handful of women leaders in the world. We need more of them because the more of us that there are, the less likely we are to be judged on issues outside of our intelligence or competence. Having appreciable numbers of women in leadership, a critical mass, needs to be the new normal. By virtue of our different experiences due to our gender, we bring a different perspective to the table. In my view, courage, perseverance and a good dose of self-belief are the key to being successful. For me, my faith plays an important part in everything that I do. On your own, you are too small to think that you can win a battle with Goliath or escape the lions’ den unscathed. Ultimately, as the very clever Chanda Mfula put it, “At the conclusion of every story of public service, only integrity survives”.

The author of this article represents her own personal views.

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Tuesday, 16 August 2022

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