Harnessing the Strength of Women Leadership to solve the challenges of the 21st Century

History has recorded extraordinary feats accomplished by women leaders in government and the private sector.

By Rita Kavashe

The Prime Minister emphatically rejects an offer by the US Secretary of State Alexander Haig to explore a diplomatic solution to avert a war: “No, no, no. We will stand on principle, or we will not stand at all!” Margaret Thatcher went ahead with the war against Argentina for the Falklands Islands. In ten weeks, the British forces emerged victorious.

On being elected for the first time as UK Prime Minister on 4th May 1979, Margaret Thatcher quoting St. Francis of Assisi, summarized her upcoming style of governance to the media: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope”.

Margaret Thatcher’s time in office over an 11-year period was marked by great vision and purpose during the cold war phase of the 1980s. She often navigated through diverse economic and social challenges in the UK as well as on the global stage.

In 1979, when she began her term in office, Thatcher found a nation mired in economic recession. Businesses were failing, with inflation and unemployment rising. Thatcher immediately set out to turn the economic situation around. In her quest to privatize state-owned enterprises, Thatcher was confronted by the 1984 miners’ strike which threatened to paralyze the country.

The Prime Minister faced down the Trade Unions during a 362-days national strike, and eventually triumphed, to modernize and hugely improve the productivity of the UK economy. Her tough stance helped build her enduring reputation as the “Iron Lady” – a nickname given to her by the Soviet press in the ‘70s. Of note, the failure of the 1984-85 miners’ strike helped revive the British economy.

Margaret Thatcher was the longest serving British Prime Minister of the 20th Century and the only one to have won three consecutive terms in office between 1979 and 1990. The ‘Iron Lady’ banished all doubts as to the capabilities of women in national and global leadership positions.
Joining the gallery of prominent women leaders to emerge in the 20th century was the former Pakistan Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. In 1988, she became the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority country.

In the 21st Century, Angela Merkel emerged as the first female woman Chancellor in Germany. She came into office in 2005, becoming the third longest serving Chancellor in German history until 2021 when she retired. For 16 years, Merkel was a towering figure in the politics of Germany, the European Union and respected on the global stage.

She was widely seen as a steadying influence among the fractious 27 member states, often finding a way out of difficult disputes. Merkel helped to steer the bloc out of the 2008 financial crash and the subsequent euro crisis when the European Union’s currency was under its severest threat.
In Africa, Graca Machel had the unique distinction of serving as a first lady in her native Mozambique as well as in neighboring South Africa. What a feat. In her long professional and public life, she led strong initiatives as an international advocate for peace, women and children’s rights.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf served as President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018, being the first woman elected head of state of an African country. As president, she secured millions of dollars of foreign direct investments (FDIs) and established a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to probe corruption and heal ethnic tensions in her country.

More recently, Samia Suluhu Hassan made history in 2021 when she was sworn in as Tanzania’s first female president after the death of her predecessor, John Pombe Magufuli. She is currently one of two serving female heads of state in Africa, alongside Ethiopia’s Sahle-Work Zewde.
This list of internationally acclaimed women leaders would not be complete without mention of the most impactful Kenyans of all times – the late Prof. Wangari Maathai. She was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. She was also the first female scholar from East and Central Africa to take a doctorate in biology, and the first female professor in Kenya.

In 1977, she started a grassroots movement aimed at countering deforestation by encouraging women to plant trees in their local environments and to think ecologically. The Green Belt Movement spread to other African countries contributing to the planting of over thirty million trees. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee aptly described Prof. Maathai as “thinking globally and acting locally.”

This fascinating history provides a glimpse into the evolution of women in leadership and the significant strides achieved across public and private sector spheres over the last century and into the 21st century.

In the last couple of years, we have seen more women rise to the top levels of companies across the world. This is because an increasing number of companies are seeing the value of having more women in leadership, and they are proving that they can make progress on gender diversity.

A 2016 study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, surveying 91 countries, found that organizations with women in the C-suite were more profitable. This is supported by a 2018 McKinsey Report, Delivering through Diversity, which showed that companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to have superior value creation.
There is also evidence that corporate boards with women are better able to shift business focus from short term profit to longer term growth as women leaders are more collaborative and skilled in balancing interests of multiple stakeholders.

Data continues to show that women are accelerators for economic growth, new market value, profits, reputation and development goals like ending hunger, poverty, inequality, and tackling climate change.

These are the major challenges of the 21st Century which also comprise health, aging populations, talent shortage, virtual management of production and employees. These challenges which have no easy answers require leadership (with female-like values) that involves resilience, courage, flexibility, listening, caring, empathy, collaboration and collective contribution. The participation of everyone’s intelligence becomes the key to success, characterized by a more traditional female management style.

The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 brought this element strongly to the forefront, in the way different countries responded to the health crisis. It was widely noted that countries led by women seemed to be particularly successful in fighting the Coronavirus.
Countries such as Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark – which are women-led – rose to the occasion, revealing that women have what it takes when the heat rises in our Houses of State. While other countries were reeling from the effects of Covid-19, these countries were able to effectively manage the crisis, hence recording lower deaths and infection rates.

For instance, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel stood up early and calmly told her countrymen that this was a serious bug that would infect up to 70% of the population. “It’s serious,” she said, “take it seriously.” She did, so they did too. Testing and lock downs began right from the get-go.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was early to impose lockdowns and crystal clear on the maximum level of alert she was putting the country under – and why. She imposed self-isolation on people entering New Zealand when there were just 6 cases in the whole country. She banned foreign – ers from entering the country soon after.

In January 2020, at the first sign of the new illness, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan introduced 124 measures to block the Corona SAR-2 virus spread without having to resort to the lockdowns that later become common elsewhere.

A World Economic Forum (WEF) study found that female-led countries invariably locked down earlier than their male counterparts in similar circumstances. While this had some longer-term economic implications, it certainly helped these countries to save lives, as evidenced by the significantly lower number of deaths in those countries. Covid-19 demonstrated that women make smart leaders across the world.

Closer home, an ambitious health initiative conceptualized by Kenya’s First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, stands out as an example of what single-minded commitment to a social cause can achieve. In rolling out the initiative in 2013, Ms Kenyatta envisioned the Beyond Zero work as a health program focused on ending preventable maternal and child deaths in Kenya’s remote rural areas by 2023.

The First Lady identified the problem as the lack of essential health services for expectant mothers in marginalized areas to sup – port the safe deliveries of their babies and to reduce new HIV infections among children. Beyond Zero committed to take these services closer to the mothers through the provision of well-equipped mobile clinics in all the 47 counties of the country.

The Beyond Zero team of medical staff worked closely with engineers from local automotive assembler Isuzu East Africa to develop a mobile clinic design that would adequately meet the program objectives. The very first Isuzu mobile clinic was donated to the program in early 2014, opening the way for every county in Kenya to receive a locally assembled mobile clinic by the end of 2016.

The initiative has played a significant role in reducing child maternal mortality rates in the country, and Ms Kenyatta has been recognized by various international organizations for successfully driving the Beyond Zero campaign.

There is a lot we can draw from these remarkable leaders. They inspire and empower the rest of us to become great leaders. Indeed, women must continue to be given the opportunity to play significant roles in decision making as countries continue to recover after Covid-19, to now tackle emerging socio-economic challenges.

The value that women bring to the table can no longer be ignored. Stereotypical female qualities such as social skills, tact, empathy, com – passion, collaboration and intuitive decision making are more needed in tough times like these.

The “Women Matter 3” report by McKinsey shows that such leadership behaviors more frequently adopted by women are critical to navigate through crisis safely and perform well in a post-crisis world. There is no better time to tap these strengths of women in leadership to inspire optimism for the future.

Rita Kavashe is the Managing Director of Isuzu East Africa. She is regarded as a thought leader in the African Women CEOs Forum.


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Dr. Hanningtone Gaya

Dr. Hanningtone Gaya

Kenya’s Dr Hanningtone Gaya, holds a PhD in Commerce in Business Management from Nelson Mandela University (NMU), is viewed as an authority in country branding and is the founder chairman of the Brand Kenya Board.

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