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We need better women leaders

Apr 15, 2007 Leadership, Sunday Nation

We had great hopes for our new women leaders in 2003, did we not? For the first time we saw a fresh batch of women, some veterans of the multi-party struggle, others young and zestful, taking meaningful positions in parliament and government. We hoped for a better, more sensitive, more thoughtful type of leadership than 40 years of macho madness and belligerent bumptiousness had brought us.

But we can’t yet say that the women did us proud. It is difficult to point to a concrete and comprehensive set of achievements by any of the new female holders of high office. Some have tried to outdo their male counterparts in testosterone-crazed posturing, arguing their way to silliness. Others have been obviously out of their depth in grappling with the intellectual issues of their office – a fact seized on gleefully by their male detractors. And pretty much all of the new women leaders have revealed themselves to be tribalists first and female second. It’s really very sad.

It’s also very dangerous: in government offices and boardrooms across the land, the ladies are being scoffed at by the brandy-swilling set of male dinosaurs. All the tired old stereotypes about the ladies – that they aren’t clever enough, aren’t decisive enough, and aren’t tough enough for high office – are finding new currency. It suits the dinosaurs very nicely to point out the flaws of femininity.

Yet it is still clear to me that women leaders loom large in our future, and that true advancement in our society will only come when we have enough women in high places making the key decisions. As political leaders, the record of menfolk is not a pretty one. All over the world, grown men behave as though they never left the schoolyard: snatching things from others; ganging up on the weak; comparing the size of their organs; waging brutal wars over territory; and generally behaving more like chimpanzees than enlightened beings.

I look forward to the day when women play at least an equal part in the world’s affairs, for that is when discernment, common sense and compassion will come to the fore. Our need for great Kenyan women leaders is unchanged; they’ve just made a bad start. But it’s a long-distance race and it must be won for the sake of all Kenyans – male and female.

And so I was casting my gaze around the world looking for a woman leader of the correct mettle, from whom to learn some lessons. My eye fell on Michelle Bachelet, the president of Chile, who has been in power for just over a year. She is a prominent leader in a region increasingly characterised by power-crazed populists who are cementing their hold on power by throwing meaningless freebies to the poor. Ms. Bachelet is different: she is committed to free markets, but also recognises the importance of equity and widespread opportunity and has deployed a number of social measures that are gathering interest from around the world.

Michelle Bachelet is a trained surgeon and a military strategist. She served her country as the minister for health as well as for defence, before ascending to the top seat. She was detained and exiled by General Pinochet and is a veteran of the pro-democracy battle. She lacks no credentials in taking up the reins of her country.

So what did this lady do in her first year? She saw the power of Free-Trade Agreements, and thinks in terms of 3 billion consumers, not just the population of her country. The bills her country has passed include those focusing on the protection of children, educational reform and child care. Perhaps only a woman could see this so clearly – that inequality must be fought from the very beginning of people’s lives, and that the conditions for women to ascend to good jobs must be created early.

Ms Bachalet sees education as vital economic agent, and wants to give everyone in her country not just the constitutional guarantee of an education, but an education of great quality. She is also a fan of innovation, and has ensured that Chile’s business leaders get involved with universities and research centres to add value to their products. The benefits have been felt in everything from copper mining to wine-making and tourism, where innovative technological and management practices have revitalised thought and deed.

These priorities mark her out as a visionary. Talking to the McKinsey Quarterly recently, Chile’s president calls herself a strong leader – but one who has had the confidence to retain her womanly attributes. She has just restructured her cabinet and asked for the resignations of several top officials in her government over a flawed mass-transit transportation system. More importantly, she took personal responsibility, admitted her government had botched the issue, and apologised to her people. Now that, boys and girls, is leadership. May a woman demonstrate it within our own borders, sometime soon.

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