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Leadership and Gender: Society, Stereotypes and the Way Forward

By: Solomon Idowu

Image Credit: Boys Without Borders/Ire Ajewole.

As a boy or man, have you ever had situations where you are uncomfortable with a female being your leader? Or have you ever experienced scenarios where females are told to respect their male counterparts for the mere fact that they are male? Or that a woman should listen to a man because she belongs to the kitchen, the other room or other domestic spheres?

Most individuals will relate with at least one of these or more, and it goes to show that in society today, we still have the problem where individuals are accorded respect and have their leadership effectiveness measured based on their genders. It extends the belief that women are not capable of leadership because well; they are women. This belief ignores the fact that leadership is a skill based on qualities individuals can cultivate and is totally independent of gender. While this may not be an issue that is generally widespread, especially in the more developed segments of our own society, it is an issue that occurs far more than you’d like to think.

Image showing societal perceptions about leadership and gender
Image Credit: Eketi Edima Ette on Facebook.

Over this past week, this image above sparked conversations amongst myself and some friends and in discussion, I realized in society today we still have an issue with female leadership. From the scenarios painted in the post above, it’s clear that they saw these mothers as inferior and under their sons in their homes, simply because they are women and the sons are boys. This may be on the extreme end of the spectrum, but this is something that is mirrored in less intense ways in society today.

Multifaceted factors of stereotypes, beliefs, and perceptions influence happenings like these. There are stereotypes positing that men are natural leaders because they are men and women are to play second fiddle. Beliefs that men are to be leaders and women, followers, resigned to handling domestic tasks. Perceptions that society exposes both men and women to throughout their lives that have big influences on how leadership plays out.

How Do Biases Relating to Gender and Leadership Play Out?

Some areas we see these multifaceted factors play out their influence in daily life include: the home, corporate settings, politics, and even general interpersonal relationships to name a few. Here, men are put on a pedestal, believed to be better at leadership, and accorded more respect because of their gender. We see instances where women in positions of leadership are not accorded the same level of respect that will go to their male counterparts because of their gender. Instances where women are not even opportune to get to positions of leadership because of these stereotypes, beliefs and perceptions.

Just like we have in the stories the Facebook post above referenced, in the home, we have cases where parents put males females for leadership roles and benefits. Cases where younger male children are regarded over their older female siblings because of their gender –“Toun why are you sitting in the front seat? It’s your younger brother that should be there, he’s the boy”. We also have cases where the opinions of females are not taken as important as their male counterparts–“This is a serious conversation woman, it is meant for the men alone”.

These factors also have effects in schools. To name a specific example, I recall primary and secondary experiences growing up where we’d have male class captains and females chosen as assistants, where the position of the head boy holds far more weight than that of the head girl.

As for the corporate world, women have challenges as leaders with some men not been comfortable with female bosses.–“How woman go dey command me like that” “She’s a woman, I doubt she will be able to handle that kind of responsibility, let’s give it to the man instead.”

In politics and the government these factors are also very much influential. In Nigeria, according to UN Stats, women occupy only about 6.7% percent in elective and appointive positions and these positions are oftentimes deputizing roles. For more specific context, only 5% of members of the House of Representatives are women. Individuals are not yet entirely comfortable voting women into political posts and you’d hear statements like “I can’t vote for her, she’s a woman.”

What Influences the Multifaceted Factors that Link Leadership and Gender?

These multifaceted factors of stereotypes, beliefs, and perceptions themselves take root in various influences. For one, there are traditional and religious views that individuals have used as extreme justifications for these multifaceted factors. For example, society takes out-of-context stories and verses that promote male leadership and totally ignores cases of amazing women leaders like Moremi in Yoruba traditional culture or Queen Amina in Hausa culture. These people use religious statements such as “the man is the head of the home” to establish absolute, definite, and total male control and dominance. This diminishes the contribution of women leadership and helps these multifaceted factors grow deep roots.

On another hand, we have societal socialization and this also goes a long way in developing and solidifying these factors. Boys and girls grow up influenced by what they see and observe around them. Individuals today hold the views they do in no small part due to the socialization in their societies. We play into these factors without even realizing it. Society influences how individuals define roles and expectations for men and women. Certain roles, activities, and responsibilities are for particular genders. This, in turn, affects how individuals define leadership roles and the people who occupy them. Growing up, boys witness things in their society that diminish female contributions to leadership and imbibe these as worldviews.

This then naturally reinforces itself time and time again and inevitably sets a “standard”. It further creates stereotypes, beliefs, and perceptions that are not necessarily true. Girls influenced by their environment might not see the need to go for leadership as it goes against the “norm”. Boys socialized into this worldview will have difficulty with women in positions of leadership around them as they grow.

How Does this Relate to the Boy Child?

Boys Without Borders is for the boy child, so why are we covering a topic that resonates more with women? Well, we are on the quest to raise functional men for a balanced society. Thus, we cannot have either of that if we have boys and men that hold incorrect worldviews toward female leadership. Boys and men are about half of the world’s population. Hence, it’s important they hold proper worldviews to shape society to be a better place. In essence, boys and men have to hold the right beliefs to have a functional and balanced society. 

What We Can Do to Combat Societal Perceptions of Leadership Roles and Gender Qualification

First, we have to change things in the home as it is the primary hub of socialization. We have to treat and raise boys and girls as the equals that they are. Society needs to stop treating boys as superior to their female siblings simply because they are boys. Furthermore, we should make boys understand that they are equal and not superior to girls. We should raise boys to realize that home-care responsibilities are not beneath them and restricted to the female gender. Also, society needs to desist from encouraging situations like those we saw in the Facebook post in any form.

In the home and in schools, it’s important to expose girls to opportunities to cultivate leadership skills. We should raise our girls with the mindset that leadership is not beyond them. We should also teach them that they have the same rights their male counterparts have to develop leadership skills.

Men also have to develop a healthier perspective toward female leadership. This is because today’s men will very much influence the next generations of men. Men in society are the first role models to young boys. Thus, it’s crucial for men to have healthy perspectives they will pass on to the younger ones.

As a society, we have to accept that differences in leadership styles don’t automatically affect one’s leadership capability. Both men and women, boys and girls can develop the necessary skills to make them quality leaders. We all should make conscious efforts to do away with these factors and the biases they influence.

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