The First Woman plays the role of planting the most critical seed among women: to help reimagine the lens we use to look at ourselves
Why do we celebrate when women are appointed to leadership roles? Take the appointment of Tsakani Maluleke as the first woman to head the Auditor-General of South Africa, the story of Maria Ramos who was the first woman CEO of a Top 40 JSE-listed company, or Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who became the first woman to lead the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The headlines are usually the same: ‘First woman leads …’. The announcements are met with enthusiasm, signalling an emerging status quo that will have a domino effect with more women appointed to leadership positions and spaces of influence. The First Woman seems to represent the notion that business is increasingly committed to gender equality. The narrative of the First Woman can basically be interpreted as ‘once one is in, many are sure to follow soon’. That is why we celebrate and why the headlines never miss a beat in trumpeting this ‘turning point’.
The reality check
Does the story of the First Woman really signal a turning point? Malcolm Gladwell tackles this topic in an episode of his Revisionist History podcast – ‘The Lady Vanishes’. In the podcast, he concludes that after a deviation of what is regarded as normal in terms of appointments or recognition, the status quo typically reverts to the norm, in other words male. In the podcast, Gladwell echoes the sentiments of Huda Sha’arawi from her famous quote: ‘Men have singled out women of outstanding merit and put them on a pedestal to avoid recognising the capabilities of all women.’
The statistics also support this conclusion. A 2019 report by PwC reported that 96,6% of JSE CEOs are male and 100% of JSE Top 40 CEOs are male. 87,2% of CFOs are male and 91% of executive directors are male in the JSE-listed companies across all sectors. This is a shocking reality, even after we had a woman CEO who successfully led a JSE Top 40 company for over 10 years. Domino theory debunked. Contrary to our collective perception, the appointment of the First Woman does not automatically create a domino of more appointments to roles of top leadership and meaningful impact.
What then is the role of the First Woman?
Tina Kiefer, a professor at the University of Warwick, conducted an interesting study on organisational behaviour a few years ago. She requested a group of executives to draw an image that represents a leader. Most people drew an image that was male or with male characteristics. This study has been repeated several times around the world and the results are consistent, regardless of the gender of the research participant. The problem with the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles is that it perpetuates an unconscious bias that both men and women hold about what a leader looks like; the image typically being male. This bias is reinforced every time we are exposed to male rather than female leaders.
A ray of hope
The more First Women we see in different sectors of society, the more we challenge the status quo and our biases, particularly for ambitious young women. Aspiring female leaders are encouraged and become even more confident, more urgent and more aggressive in raising their hand for leadership roles because of that First Woman. This is supported by a KPMG study on women leadership in which 88% of the women noted that when they see women in leadership, they themselves are encouraged to get there.
In closing: as women and inspiring leaders, we can finally move from asking ‘why should I be a leader?’ to the much more liberating question ‘why should I, Woman, not be a leader?’
Author: Asavela Lumkwana is an associate at Agile Capital