Women's leadership from the bottom up

On 27 June, former US first lady Laura Bush spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival about why sustaining the gains made by Afghan women was an important reason for US troops to remain in Afghanistan. Despite more than US$100 billion in US development assistance given to Afghanistan (not to mention billions from other countries), including many projects intended to promote gender equality, why are women’s gains viewed as so perilous?

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

In our recent research, Women’s Leadership Roles in Afghanistan, we show that this resulted from the top-down models the international donor community and the Afghan government have used to promote gender equality and women’s leadership.

These well-intentioned efforts have often severed the connection of women with the communities they seek to lead. Rather than promoting leadership, such programmes actually isolate women from society, unintentionally undermining their efforts in all fields, including education.

To tackle this question, we conducted interviews in Kabul in 2015 with a range of prominent Afghan women as well as men to understand the factors that contribute to the emergence of women leaders and to assess the effectiveness of efforts to promote women’s leadership across the public and private sectors.

What we found was an overwhelming consensus that women in the public sphere lack self-confidence and, as leaders, typically feel isolated. They do not feel connected to other women in order to forge the kind of collective action needed to sustain enduring social, political and economic change. What matters for women is the support of those around them, especially male relatives.

In our research, we define leadership using an adaptive framework, based on which successful leadership has four characteristics: it is an activity that involves mobilising groups; it differentiates between leadership and authority; it stresses the importance of contextual awareness and that leaders themselves should have a strong sense of purpose.

Using this perspective, leadership is an activity that is not a solitary effort but instead is a process that helps individuals and groups define problems, identify solutions and promote collective action for change.

By differentiating between leadership and authority, leaders do not necessarily need to rely on formal positions – such as government positions or heads of non-governmental organisations – to effectively mobilise for change.

What makes a leader?

In Afghanistan, most of those we spoke with saw leadership in very binary terms. They believed that authority should be used to command followers rather than mobilise them for a common goal. When people referred to leaders, they referred to positions of authority rather than their ability to mobilise for results.

Alternatively, individuals viewed leadership as charismatic authority – being able to convince or persuade through impressive oratory skills. For example, a male student at Kabul University said that: “I can’t think of a man who speaks as well as Shukria Barekzai [a female MP]; she clearly is a great leader.”

Despite this, both men and women described women’s presence in the public sphere as largely symbolic. Although women have been appointed to significant positions in the public sector, there was a consensus among those whom we spoke with that they are not actually able to lead because they lack political support, have weak decision-making and enforcement power and lack financial and human capital to make sustainable changes.

Most surprising were the perceptions among the women leaders we interviewed that women who were promoted to leadership positions in the public sphere were largely token and unable to sustain or promote meaningful change. According to a senior female lawyer, women executives are “unable to embody the values they claim to represent” and are reduced to mere symbols in others’ eyes, including men.

Empty symbols

Of course, making such societal shifts in such a short period of time is no easy task. From our evidence it is clear that some of the most visible efforts to support women’s leadership have served to undermine perceptions of those leaders.

This is because efforts have been supported from the top-down: through the creation of a separate ministry for women’s issues and donor support for hundreds of women’s NGOs intended to support women’s issues.

Some suggested that the creation of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, for instance, served to appease the international community. The interests of the ministry, they suggested, were driven by donor interests rather than by the prioritised needs of Afghan women.

So what factors did matter to sustain effective female leadership?

Most women stressed the importance of having a supportive family. This suggests that a more bottom-up approach to support women’s leadership would be to engage with men, and religious leaders in particular, who have important voices in dictating the role of women in Afghan society.

To extend women’s empowerment outside of enclaves in Kabul and other select urban areas, grassroots organisations need to engage with religious groups and thought leaders, primarily to widen rural women’s access to education and ensure their mobility.

Without more sustained engagement with religious and traditional leaders, aspiring women leaders in Afghanistan will continue to be isolated from the public they seek to serve.

Jennifer Murtazashvili is an assistant professor of international development and public management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, USA. Aarya Nijat, a Harvard graduate, co-runs Duran Research & Analysis, a programme development firm based in Kabul, Afghanistan.