By Dr Tessie Herbst and Prof Vinessa Naidoo
In November 2019, the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) launched its first female-specific leadership programme with 52 delegates. The impetus for the programme was twofold:
- Firstly, because women are still underrepresented at senior management levels.
- Secondly, our ALIS data – our 360-degree feedback intervention which we conduct annually – revealed that although women leaders were rated as equally effective as their male counterparts, they significantly underrated themselves compared to how their subordinates, peers and colleagues rated them. On the other hand, men overrated themselves.
So, from a purely institutional perspective, the justification for the programme was simple: We have a problem and we need to fix it! Women only leadership development programmes are only a small part of the solution – but they are a vitally important part.
The question of whether there should be female-only leadership programmes always has a divided opinion. Some people argue that they reinforce barriers rather than bringing them down, or that they stigmatize women or do women a disservice by singling them out. In addition, there is a concern that they fail to engage men in the challenges women face.
However, over the past two years of delivering the programme, we have learnt that there is a strong case to create a space for women to meet and work together. We have seen this translate into a strong return on investment that dually benefits both the women at TUT and the university itself.
The world of work is changing, but the environment is still a challenging one for women leaders. It is important to affirm these challenges and provide assistance. Most universities are still very male-dominated in terms of design and structure; and most men do not find themselves in situations where they are in the minority. Women also have a tendency to internalize their concerns about their careers and it is often not until they come together in a safe environment – such as the one we provide in the programme – that they realize the issues they face might be gender-related rather than specific to them as an individual.
In this way, we hope to dispel the myth that “women’s leadership programmes are about ‘fixing’ women”. It’s not about ‘fixing’ women; it’s about ‘fixing’ the system. The goal of the programme is also not to teach women how to be more like men. Nor is it about being anti-male – far from it! It is a programme for women but it is not against men. Rather, it gives women the time and space to reflect and share with other women, without the pressure to carry on behaving as they normally do in their (mixed) working environment. It is a space wherein they can discuss their experiences openly and honestly.
Often, this is the first time these women have been able to sit down with their female peers; this is a real voyage of discovery which includes:
- finding out about the challenges other women have faced,
- the mistakes they have made
- and the ways they have behaved in certain situations.
And that is really the essence of the issue. It is not about gender, it is about making the most of the talent we have. It also just happens that one of our strategies involves investing in a particular group!
As mentioned, Women Leadership Programmes (WLP) are not about fixing women or even empowerment of women, but helping women identify opportunities to shift the system. Women are just as competent as men but we work and live in a system that was not designed for women.
Traditionally, training targeted at women tends to put the emphasis on skills development or assertiveness, but as mentioned our ALIS data confirmed that women do not lack the skills and that there was a need to delve deeper to find what was really holding them back.
The overall aim of the programme was to demonstrate commitment to our female staff, that they are valued and that we support their further growth and success within the university. The specific aims are:
- Supporting the women to understand their own brand and style of leadership
- Identifying the obstacles to leadership effectiveness
- Understanding the importance of self-confidence
- Realizing that the women are already leaders
It is a journey that starts with the SELF. Participants arrive expecting a traditional training intervention, and the element of self-discovery working through very personal issues comes as a surprise. Ultimately, we want them to succeed as women, to feel that they can be themselves. We do not want them to change, we want them to harness the difference that they bring and know that it is valued, especially since women mostly had to learn to ‘fit in’ to get on. And by performing leadership differently, they are influencing the university’s leadership culture, however slowly.
The communicating with confidence pre and post online survey that is conducted before and after the programme shows that the overall impact on their ability to communicate with confidence was rated 6.7 on a scale from 1-7. It has re-energized some of our women, and encouraged them to think differently about what they want from their career and how they will achieve it. It has helped them develop strategies that will improve their navigation of the university. There is no question that women feel more confident at the end of the programme. They are more ready to take ownership of their careers and more confident in their own potential.
Women’s Comments About the Programme
The women’s comments about the program included the following:
The impact is very high. I’m happy that the programme was able to help me rediscover and uncover who I really am, and I am presently working on my personal impact.
The programme has been a life changer.
The programme was very empowering. I am much bolder and confident both in my personal and professional life.
This programme has made me become the greatest woman I never thought I will ever be. I moved from a girl in the corner to a confident woman in the front. My confidence level has become high. I am well aware of who I am and where I want to be.
The programme has given me the confidence to be me, by revealing to me my inner strength. I can use my voice, my posture and how I communicate to be listened to.
This programme was a life changing journey. It was an eye opener and lead to self-discovery. I have learned a lot and acquired skills.
The story of ME and story of US
Stories about women have mostly been written by men. In the programme we spend a lot of time to reflect on:
- What are the stories women have bought into? – girls must be pretty and nice
- What are the stories that keep us stuck?
Our stories help us to show up or not show up. People who created the system are not going to change it for you. 8 Women raised their hands and agreed to come and share their stories – this is their way of using the power of their voice, stepping into their power and shifting the system.
There is a saying that to LEAD is to live dangerously. These women all demonstrated immense courage in being willing to come to a forum like this and share their stories. Telling your story is an act of courage. These women all chose courage over comfort.
When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.
A good way to measure progress with regard to gender equality is to look at the Nobel Prizes. The Nobel Prizes are awarded in 6 categories:
As of 2021, women have been the recipients of fewer than three percent of Nobel prizes, and only one woman of colour has ever received the award. Therefore, to quote from the book by Elizabeth Lesser (Cassandra speaks):
“The world would have been different – and better – if women had an equal say in the development of literature, medicine, chemistry, physics, peace and economics. Better, not because women are better, but because they are more than half of humanity, representing more than half of what it means to be human.”
If you can convince us otherwise – you should win a Noble Prize.
Elizabeth Lesser, Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes