Is Leadership a Natural Gift or is it learned; Either way why are so few women in leadership?

This is the question that panellists at the recently launched POWA Forum sought to unravel. POWA is the Progressive Organisation for Women’s Advancement. The theme for the maiden POWA Forum as outlined its founder and CEO, Ms. Victoria Lakshmi Hamah was ‘Why are there fewer women in politics?’ It was held at the British Council in Accra on 31st October 2017. On this occasion POWA was partnered by the Centre for Social Policy Studies (CSPS) at the University of Ghana. The Director of the Centre explained that teaching and research in social inclusion to highlight issues relating to the voiceless was critical to the objectives of CSPS.

POWA appears to be sympathetic to the view that leaders are made not born, hence the advocacy to challenge society to create space to include more women in political leadership. Two critical questions were floated by the moderator – why have women been historically side-lined in political leadership and what can be done to reverse this enduring trend? A team of five panellists from different backgrounds led the discussion with quite diverse views on what the main barriers to women’s inclusion in political leadership are. Interestingly their views were strikingly mutually reinforcing, suggesting that the issue is really well known and often revisited. The discussion opened with a focus on the antecedents to women’s subordinate status in political office, resulting from no encouragement from families, schools, communities and political parties for girls and women to compete to lead.  But how does that help us to understand how some girls and women from quite modest or conservative backgrounds- who are traditionally passed over for boys and men- rise to the top to become office holders at the unit committee level in their communities or even become MPs and Cabinet Ministers? Perhaps this is reason to acknowledge that some leaders are born and will rise to the top against all odds. In the case of women, some will endure insults and threats once they are convinced that they can provide leadership. The example of Yaa Asantewa who led the Asante to fight the British in the 19th Century provided a compelling illustration of how women have risen to the occasion in dire circumstances to outperform men in leadership.

Yet, the argument was made that women cannot become leaders without male support as men are more experienced in this process and command more resources. Besides, getting men involved in solving this challenge is necessary to arrive at a balanced solution. The problem in this case is that we are confronted with a partner who is very much an interested party! So what will it take to convince men to throw their weight behind women who wish to replace them? Or are these bottlenecks holding women back structural after all as was suggested? Are our institutions fiercely gender neutral thus closing doors in the face of those without resources and clout?

We need to take a second look at the Constitution, and revisit issues of law reform to be certain that structural bottlenecks to women’s advancement are removed. Indeed as pointed out, some of this has begun already and has happened in phases over the years. Currently there is an Affirmative Action Bill going through the approval process, which is expected to introduce quotas for women to hold public office. Though not everyone in the room was enthused about quotas, there was general agreement that they helped to get off to a good start. As for the ‘how’ the invisibility of women in politics can be overcome, if we knew the answer we would not have been at the Forum! Suffice it to say that a reformed and more gender sensitive education system, social education to make socialization at home more women empowering and an effective quota system for now may offer good entry points to scale up our response to the challenge of why in 2017 out of 275 Parliamentarians only 35 are women!