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Why the future lies with women

Mar 22, 2009 Leadership, Sunday Nation

“Behind every successful man is a woman” is the well-known saying. Noted wit Groucho Marx added some words to this: “Behind every successful man is a woman; behind her is his wife.” That certainly rings true in Kenya…

But I would like to disagree with the original statement. I think it should say: “In front of every capable woman is a man taking all the glory.” That happens to be true in my case. Much of what you read in this column on many a Sunday springs from the mind of a woman (who, worry not, is also my wife).

Let me go further. I think that if men continue to dominate the leading discourse of this country, if they continue to straddle the corridors and boardrooms of power – then we are cooked. The dire straits we find ourselves in are largely the result of masculine behaviour. Men, as a rule, do ugly things to others and to the world around them. They compete manically and brutally; they love to give orders; they are terrible at sharing power; they deplete resources; and like simple, unambiguous solutions to everything.

Recent studies reveal that women actually outscore men in most managerial competencies. Does this surprise you? Consider that women (on average) are adept at certain things: they find a collaborative approach much easier than men do; they value and appreciate diversity; they share knowledge freely rather than hide it; they have higher emotional intelligence and sensitivity; and they see the nurturing of talent as a natural goal, rather than a grudging concession. And guess what? Those are precisely the managerial attributes demanded by the new economy.

The problem is that women live in a man’s world, where all the rules are set to favour men. Men call the shots, and structure society to shun and mock the women who ever dream of wearing the trousers. Men may appreciate the fact the women bring certain skills to the workplace, but they want women to know their place. And so they will ensure that they have a woman on their board of directors – and stop there. Or a couple of women in their top executive team – and stop there.

Political leaders? Don’t even go there. Corporate man looks like a shrill feminist in comparison with the dinosaurs who bestride the politics of the land. But do remember what happened to the dinosaurs…

So women are far from breaking through into overall leadership, in politics or in business. But here’s something that I’ve been noticing over the last couple of years in corporate Kenya: women are taking over middle management. Look around: women may be under-represented in the top echelons, but they are beginning to dominate the middle layers of most leading companies. I’ve been counting wherever I go, and I can tell you the numbers are growing fast. There is also no doubt in my mind that better companies are emerging as a result.

Management guru Tom Peters highlighted recently that in America women are starting businesses at a rate seven times higher than men. This has created an eye-popping result: the revenue from women-owned business in America now exceeds the GDP of Germany. Are you paying attention yet? Women of Kenya, are you going to start that business you’ve always wanted to, and run it YOUR way?

I was recently asked to give a motivational talk at a large community centre. The committee that approached me was run entirely by women. They persuaded me to do it within a few minutes of meeting me, and in a few days had designed and delivered all the promotional material. Then they got going on selling the tickets. Within one week, I kid you not, they had sold out the entire auditorium. I know very well that this was less to do with me and more to do with the dedicated, concerted selling performance they put in.

Would a committee of men have achieved the same result? Forgive me for doubting it. Men would have been absorbed in protocols and hierarchies; they would have spent long hours planning rather than doing; and they would have tried to delegate all the hard work (probably to women).

We know that women are biologically given the hardest of jobs: the rearing and nurturing of children. But it is only in a man’s world that that job is trivialised and under-valued, when it is the foundation of talent in the country. And it is only in a man’s world that women are deemed to be good for only the things that come before and after childbirth. But watch this space: it won’t be a man’s world for that much longer.

So what are we going to do with ourselves, men? Go back to the farms? No, because there won’t be any women left there to do all the hard work. Perhaps we can just do the thing we are genuinely good at: watch sports! And ladies, when you do take over, remember I was on your side…

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