LMG Promoting South-to-South Dialogue on Women in Leadership

{Photo credit: Warren Zelman, Ethiopia.}Photo credit: Warren Zelman, Ethiopia.

In January, the Leadership, Management & Governance (LMG) Project hosted a week-long online seminar on LeaderNet, a global online network for health professionals, called “Women in Leadership.” Over the course of three days, 391 men and women from 74 countries joined the internet-only conversation. Participants actively dialogued through a total of 390 conversational postings on topics including the qualities of women’s leadership, obstacles and challenges faced by women leaders, what makes a mentoring program succeed, and more.

Women in Leadership Topics

A specific topic and source article introduced each day’s conversation.

Day one: Women’s Leadership: How is it Different? Who’s a Better Leader?

Discussion on day one centered on the provocative Harvard Business Review article, “Are Women Better Leaders than Men?” Participants shared experiences and observations of leadership styles, and differences in men’s and women’s leadership practices. Many associated women leaders with: the ability to drive compromise, being nurturing, and having good listening skills.

Day two: Obstacles and Challenges Faced by Women Leaders

After reading an excerpt from “An Open Mind and a Hard Back: Conversations with African Women Leaders,” participants reflected on the obstacles and challenges women face in rising to leadership positions, and how their challenges differ from those faced by men as well as how they may vary depending upon the age and generation of the leader. Many participants asserted that cultural issues were the underlying cause of many challenges women face in the workplace.

Day three: How to Support Women in Leadership Positions?  

Day three of the seminar was based on the reading, “Conceptual and Practical Foundations of Gender and Human Resources for Health,” and participants were asked to analyze how they are currently supporting women in leadership positions within their own organization. Participants talked about how leaders can help young women prepare for leadership roles, and many advocated for more mentorship support for young women.


Five main themes emerged from the discussions:

1. Leadership is a journey that starts early in life.

Home life, communities, and schools are important in building confidence in young girls that proves vital later in life. A health leader from Bosnia and Herzegovina said that “that upbringing plays an important part in developing leadership skills.”

There is a difference in how girls are being brought up and how boys are being brought up, especially in developing countries that hold on to tradition. On one hand it develops wonderful leadership qualities such as honesty, compassion, and understanding; but on the other hand it also prevents them from flourishing and reaching the top of political or business careers.

2. Women may face challenges, but if they find support they can succeed.

Some women health leaders utilize a support network:

In Ekiti State, Nigeria, we formed a Forum of Women in Leadership. This is a forum for women in elective and appointive position including female Permanent secretaries. We identify needs and we bring experts to share with the forum. We provide a support network that each member can tap into and we encourage mentoring of younger women coming up in their career.

3. Gender stereotypes can influence our perceptions of leaders.

A health leader in Kenya said:

What will be called assertive in a man will be called abrasive in a woman. When a woman is feminine she is said to be too “soft” and unable to handle issues of greatest influence. When women adopt authoritative masculine style, they are rated lower as leaders, aggressive and ambitious.

4. Mentorship networks can be used to support a new generation of aspiring women leaders, exchanging ideas and experiences, and build confidence.

A Nigerian health leader described the benefits of a leadership network:

As established women in leadership, we can provide support to young women to prepare them for leadership roles. This would be basically through coaching, mentoring and supportive supervision. We can also encourage them to take the lead in delegated tasks while we draw back and allow them to learn their lessons.

5. More research is needed and should be focused on women in low- and middle-income countries.

A Kenyan health leader wants to see more research:

Foremost, develop a research and policy agenda for addressing the subject of women in leadership. The research should identify problematic issues that encumber women’s leadership and what women themselves and other stakeholders propose as intervention measures. For instance, research on the affirmative action measures in countries like Kenya can establish whether it is a best practice that can be paraded for replication elsewhere in the world.

As part of the Women in Leadership seminar, the LMG Project conducted a survey on the mentoring of women health leaders, the findings of which are being used to inform the formation of a women’s mentoring network that will soon be piloted in Kenya.

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