From 2007 to 2010 I had the opportunity to work in an international aid organization called Skillshare International. Working in an organization whose vision was “a world without poverty, injustice and inequality where people, regardless of cultural, social and political divides come together for mutual benefit, living in peaceful co-existence” a significant element of our work was to address the barriers to access that women across the developing world faced, from attaining basic human rights such as access to health care and education to having their voices heard in the decision making arena. One of the cross cutting themes that ran across all of our program development goals was gender. The Labyrinth metaphor was developed by Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli to tell a new story about the reasons women are not well represented in leadership today. Working with Skillshare International gave me a unique opportunity to examine the complexities of the labyrinth metaphor in an international context, to get to know some phenomenal women who were dedicating their lives to empowering women to ascend into leadership roles, and to think critically about the way I would like support leadership culture to change in order to “level the playing field”.
We use the labyrinth metaphor to talk about barriers and challenges facing women rising to greater levels of leadership in the United States; in Mali, I had to take that equation and multiply it by 50, in order to truly see the situation for what it was. Women in West Africa face huge human capital, gender difference and prejudice barriers in achieving equal opportunity in the workplace, let alone leadership roles. The three elements of the labyrinth metaphor (human capital, gender differences, and prejudice)[i] seem more intrinsically linked to each other in Mali as well. Due to significant stereotypes and cultural norms, many families do not see any reason to send their girls to school, choosing instead, to keep them home to care for their younger siblings do the housework, or send them into cities to work as maids and housecleaners. According to UNICEF, the literacy rate for young women in Mali is currently 37%. Even if girls have families that support them in attending school, few make it through secondary school, with a net attendance ratio of 24% among women (UNICEF, 2010)[ii] One of the reasons this ratio is so low, is due to high rates of young women getting married (often becoming a second, third, or fourth wife to an older man) and having babies in their teens, or needing to fill in with extra help to support their families. The lack of education leads to lower opportunities for work experiences, development opportunities, and an evident work-home conflict, where both families and communities consider the woman’s place more valuable in the home than in an academic or professional setting. This contributes to a population of women who tend who have low commitment towards greater leadership roles, and lower motivation to achieve something more than is expected of them. It is a cycle that perpetuates itself and is still supported by cultural and religious beliefs (more dangerously now, as Sharia law is becoming the norm in the lawless, Islamic extremist controlled north) as well as the extreme poverty of the country. When looked at through a bigger lens, we could make a case that the people from Mali (both men and women) face human capital, cultural differences, and prejudices in navigating the labyrinth towards any significant leadership roles, even those inside their own country.
Though the picture I paint for Mali is a stark and sad reality, there are glimmers of light, and opportunities for growth. I have had the great fortune to get to know and love several powerful women in Mali, and across Africa. There is a fierce, fearless, and independent spirit that pervades some of the women in West Africa. Women who have managed to attain a certain level of education, and have a foot in the professional domain tend to have this innate sense leadership inside of them that permeates all realms of their lives. I have seen one woman with intelligence, confidence, and compassion override the power of ten men in all sorts of situations. They carry themselves with a regal bearing that equates itself, to me, as the West African version of “senior being”. These are not women who let go of their “duties” as keepers of the hearth; rather they use these as tools to increase their influence in their families and communities. The great matriarchs accomplish a great deal, even if there official roles are not those with the title. Additionally, many of the country and program directors for Southern Africa are women. In South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Swaziland, where the economic situation is not quite so dire, and where the primary religion is not Islam, I have met great networks of women championing for change, and approaching it in a methodical, evaluated, structured, yet also passionate way.
I believe that the situation facing women in West Africa needs to change, and that it will take years of cultural growth, and a certain level of economic stability as well as a strong cadre of educated, empowered, compassionate women to support that shift. I believe these women exist, and I would like to be a part of the process, removing barriers to leadership opportunities across the world. I believe that as a MiM student I am acquiring the tools I need in order to help more women grow into leadership roles in ways that embrace and honor their culture, as well as acknowledge where culture and tradition need to cede way for movement into the future.
Carli, A. H. (2007, September). Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership. Retrieved November 5, 2012, from Harvard Business Review: http://hbr.org/2007/09/women-and-the-labyrinth-of-leadership/ar/1
[ii] UNICEF. (2010, Feb). UNICEF Mali Statistics. Retrieved Oct 24, 2012, from http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/mali_statistics.html#93