Africa: The journey to effective women’s leadership

African women face unique challenges when it comes to training, education, and career development. Award-winning businesswoman Michelle Austin looks at how they can turn these challenges into opportunities for personal and professional growth. Opinion by Michelle Austin

In a marketplace defined by complexity and change, the most successful organisations seek to bring diverse perspectives to new challenges. While numerous women have led corporations, governments, and organisations to success, they represent a small percentage of leaders overall.

Today’s female executives are redefining what leadership means, overcoming obstacles, and promoting diversity in the workplace. By turning challenges into opportunities for personal and professional growth, women are adopting groundbreaking approaches to professional advancement, self-improvement, and work-life balance. To ensure a sustainable and transformative pipeline of female leaders, it’s imperative for organisations to develop initiatives to provide opportunities for their growth and advancement.

Unique hurdles for women in Africa

While women face barriers worldwide, in Africa, there are unique challenges regarding the training, education, and development of female leaders. A multitude of different races, cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and religions are placed ahead of women’s identities. This is particularly prevalent in South Africa, where there is a two-pronged struggle between the racial divides in the country and the women themselves. According to a December 2020 article by The Borgen Project, “Women’s leadership in Africa underscores persistent barriers and systemic challenges such as early socialization, gender stereotyping, limited educational attainment, and discriminatory policies and procedures. Gender norms in Africa emphasize the primary role of women as mothers and wives, which discourages them from joining the workplace and ascending to higher positions.”

These barriers are visible in the lack of training and development for women and the absence of supportive environments in our higher education institutions and workplaces. Consequently, although women want to be seen and represented in all industries, they tend to be more competitive than nurturing, mentoring, and supportive, precisely because they have never been presented with these opportunities.

Despite these obstacles, women have excellent skill sets that make them prime candidates for leadership roles. They excel in emotional intelligence, which incorporates empathy, self-awareness, and interpersonal skills. Women also lead collaboratively, valuing teamwork, open communication, and inclusivity, creating a less stressful work environment. Bringing these differing perspectives and opinions into the workplace drives innovation and leads to better decision-making.

The power of mentorship

While the goal is a perfectly balanced gender equality workplace, gender stereotypes will always be prevalent. It is essential that women leaders learn how to navigate a successful work/life balance. Including women leaders in mentorships is one way to foster these skills. A July 2021 survey by Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA) revealed that “the greatest barrier to women leadership across all sectors is socio-cultural expectations, as indicated by the majority of respondents (32%). This is followed by lack of mentorship opportunities (28%).”

Implementing mentorship programmes can include an emphasis on self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and a growth mindset in leadership. Mentees should be taught goal planning and how to make those goals specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timebound (SMART).

Fostering diversity and inclusion for women

Diversity and inclusion are critical in leadership roles. McKinsey Global Institute’s 2019 report, The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in Africa, found that among the barriers women face are unconscious bias, lack of sponsorships, absence of family-friendly policies, and discrimination. This is why valuing women within company culture requires time, a strategic effort, and a dedicated person or committee to ensure this happens within organisations. Leadership by example is needed by those at the top demonstrating inclusive behaviors and respect for diverse opinions while creating an environment where team members feel safe to voice their views.

Companies benefit when they include diversity as part of their culture and their recruitment and hiring practices. The more diverse a company is, the more it will attract the right women with the appropriate talent and allow them to feel welcome and appreciated.

Beyond recruitment, our companies also need to ensure they retain female leaders by providing equal pay and creating leadership development programmes that prepare and promote women in leadership roles. Organisations can accomplish this via external partnerships with an educational institution or a women’s organisation or network.

How women can help themselves and each other

Navigating the path to leadership and thriving in leadership roles is a rewarding yet challenging journey. With external support, guidance, and mentorship, women can take several steps to establish their future as industry leaders. These include:

  • Establish short and long-term career objectives. Set clear, achievable goals and have a clear career path vision.
  • Stay technologically savvy. Keep up to date with industry advancements.
  • Take risks. Don’t be afraid to step outside comfort zones and seize opportunities that align with career goals.
  • Remain positive and inspire others. Embrace shared visions and celebrate collective achievements.
  • Maintain ethical standards. Holding oneself accountable helps individuals become and be recognised as reliable and trustworthy leaders.
  • Embrace lifelong learning. Continue to enhance education through formal and informal training and professional development programmes.  
  • Lead authentically. Remain true to values and principles to foster trust and respect.
  • Build a strong network. Cultivate relationships with mentors, peers, and other industry professionals.
  • Be open to constructive feedback. Welcome input and advice as an opportunity for growth.
  • Communicate effectively. Articulate ideas clearly, build rapport, and resolve conflicts constructively.
  • Practice self-advocacy. Don’t shy away from negotiating for fair compensation and opportunities.

Although there are still many challenges ahead, the journey toward effective leadership for women in Africa is a rich tapestry of personal growth, resilience, and a deep-seated commitment to effecting positive change. Central to navigating this journey is the exploration of individual purpose and values as the cornerstone of authentic leadership, cultivating a growth mindset, and setting SMART goals. With a clear-cut holistic approach that encompasses personal aspirations, work-life balance, and a commitment to continuous learning, our women in leadership are poised to soar in their careers, inspire and empower others, and usher in a wave of transformative change within their organisations and communities.


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