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COVID-19 is our opportunity to embrace our collective superpower – women leadership

06 August 2020 Elize Botha, Managing Director at Old Mutual Unit Trusts

August is Women's Month in South Africa, and on the 9th we will commemorate the 1956 women's march to petition against legislation that required African people to carry a 'pass'.

Despite the leadership shown by women on that historic day, 64 years later only 20.7% of women hold directorships, 29.4% are in executive management, 11.8% are in chairperson positions, and 3.31% are CEOs of JSE-listed companies, according to the Business Women's Association of South Africa.

Considering the reasons that tend to be advanced against the occupation of leadership positions by women, how better to show the impact women have when they're at the helm than the case study provided by the biggest challenge of our time.

In 2020, Covid-19 has unanimously determined how we work, school, vacation, invest and altogether live. Among many, one of the key lessons we seem to be learning from this Covid-19-afflicted time isn't that of epidemiology, health, economics, environment, or relationships. It is that of leadership — particularly women leadership.

As early as April, the media distinguished how countries led by women were seemingly managing the Covid-19 crisis better. This is quite interesting, considering only 10% of countries are led by women. There were suggestions that the success was because female leaders are humble, less constrained by tradition, more accepting of science, hands-on, and welcome and encourage diversity. Since then, studies are accumulating to support this initial view.

One worth mentioning is Leading the Fight Against the Pandemic: Does Gender 'Really' Matter? (Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati, 2020), which concludes that "even accounting for institutional context and other controls, being female-led has provided countries with an advantage in the current crisis".

The authors say that "examining what is already known about the gender differences in behaviour from a variety of disciplines gives us some insights into observed differential behaviour of female and male leaders in tackling the current pandemic. The factors affecting the pandemic outcomes in various countries are likely to be complex. However, the gender of leadership could well have been key in the current context, where attitudes to risk and empathy mattered as did clear and decisive communications".

A Forbes study showed that the commonality between female leaders in tackling Covid-19 was that they lead with truth, conviction, technology and empathy.

Being risk-averse with respect to the loss of lives and having a clear, empathetic and decisive communication approach seems to have made a significant difference to the immediate outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic in women-led countries. It is to be noted though that we are not out of the woods yet and there are still many challenges to overcome,

It is important to emphasise that I am in no way saying women must lead at the expense of men. Various studies have shown that the leadership styles of men and women are different, but complementary, both are needed for decision-making, and both can be learned. In addition, the conversation extends beyond national responses to Covid-19 and implicates every sector of society — big business in particular.

Teams led by women tend to be more diverse, as women are more likely to enact transformational leadership. Studies by Harvard Business
School and the World Economic Forum, among others, have concluded that diverse teams perform better. Diverse teams are a key driver of innovation. A Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation.

The issue is that positional power tends to render women with less hierarchical scope, which means organisations and society at large lose out on their leadership contribution. In a country such as South Africa and amid the myriad of challenges we face, this void deserves greater attention.

The likes of 18-year-old Ayakha Melithafa, who was invited to participate in a panel at the World Economic Forum (WEF) earlier this year; activist Zulaikha Patel; Fasiha Hassan, the youngest MPL at the Gauteng Provincial Legislature and winner of the Student Peace Prize in 2019; tech entrepreneur Nureshka Viranna; and Hanli Prinsloo, a passionate ocean conservationist, deserve our attention. As do many other young ladies.

In a year in which the global community is grossly challenged to deliver our best, it should be more obvious than ever before that everyone, every voice is important – we all count. The ways of old haven't worked, and we need to chart a new path embracing the opportunity that the global crisis has given us.

This new path will require that bravery, new ideas, and varying viewpoints be brought together in a melting pot of innovation to deliver quality education, to grow our economies in an inclusive way, and to sustain our ailing planet.

There is great potential in tapping into the complete skills of the other 50% of the global population at more senior levels of business, government, and civil society. Doing this may well be our collective superpower.

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