At the end of February, the Aga Khan Foundation Canada invited all the people on their mailing list to "... a public conversation: Women Leading Change - Perspectives from Canada and the World" at the The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat on Sussex Drive. A decent number of men were present, despite the subject matter.
Chaired by the high profile journalist and human rights activist Sally Armstrong, the ambitious theme of the discussion was how women leaders around the world are hoping "to achieve women's equality at the deepest level in societies, resulting in enduring peace and prosperity for all." Appearing with her were Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, President of the Native Women's Association of Canada ("the toughest job in Canada today!"), Linda Jones, Director of the Coady Institute's International Centre for Women's Leadership, Josephine Ndambuki (who impressed me with her presence and articulate way of speaking)––a founder of the League of Young Professionals of Kenya, and Shruti Upadhyay of Christian Aid, India, the latter two ladies also being involved in the Coady "Igniting Leadership" programme, which was launched last year with funding from CIDA. It seems there is a great "hunger" for this course. For 16 places at the institute, 420 applications were received, mostly from Africa.
Sally A. opened the conversation. She has been sensing for the last 18 months that something is happening in the world: where women's issues are concerned, we're at a tipping point, she told us. For thousands of years women have had to survive oppression and trickery (often in the name of religion) and now a seismic change is occurring. She used the phrases "end game," "dawning of revolution," "clarion call." She quoted Jeffrey Sachs' claim that the status of women in a country is directly related to the economy of that country. "Where one is flourishing so is the other."
Here on the podium were some examples of female leadership. What (in their opinion) made a successful leader?
The answers they gave: having a vision, having a sense of responsibility and purpose and identity, dogged persistence, equality with the men, being rooted in and supported by one's community. The network, collective leadership, was more worthwhile than a focus on any one, individual "hero[ine]." You need information, you need confidence, you need pride in your team.
Sally A. said, women are generally more interested in peace than in owning a piece of turf.
Linda J. said, people must be drivers of their own development. Hitherto, aid agencies have been too patronising. Systemic change is more important than handouts.
Josephine N. said that one's cultural heritage can be challenged. In Kenya, she forces people to see traditional practices harmful to women from a health perspective, challenging the old superstitions with hard facts. If we follow the witchcraft, she says, we all perish! But it takes time to change people's minds. Josephine seems to have co-opted the Kenyan National Rugby Team to help with her campaign to change entrenched attitudes in her country. The rugby players have become her ambassadors, she said, role models, showing that it's possible to be a "real man" without indulging in violence against women.
Dr. Simar of Afghanistan was quoted: what makes you think that if you share your rights you lose your rights? (This was a question aimed at Afghan men.)
Shruti U. reminded us that there are male leaders in some countries "acting in the name of God" to oppress the womenfolk. In the established Indian religions there is no equal status between men and women, she said. Working women in developing countries tend to hide their income from their husbands. In many countries, rape within marriage is not recognised as a violation or crime. The same applies to child abuse.
Another question was about high expectations. Women in high places suffer from an "imposter syndrome," a fear of being found out as inadequate. They should cultivate more self confidence and take the occasional failure in their stride.
A gentleman from Pakistan (he had talked to me earlier and introduced me to his daughter) got up in the audience and told the assembled company that you cannot lead people unless you love them (I liked hearing that) and that "women have a greater capacity for love." We had heard examples of good leadership and he wanted to know, what makes a good follower? This question was not really answered and nor was the Work-Life Balance question posed by someone else. Sally A. said with a shudder that she didn't want to talk about that. Shruti U. commented that, for a working woman, the most difficult negotiations of all are the negotiations one carries out with one's family.