Illustrated by: Capu Toons
As a child, my first interaction with leadership was with the prefect in our classroom, whose main job was to make sure we kept noise at bay when there was no adult supervision. He was neat and had a beautiful handwriting. Still does, I think. I remember him being tagged as the teacher’s pet for a long time because of these neat-freak tendencies, and his seemingly eternal need to play by the rules. That’s probably why my class three teacher saw him fit to lead us.
Fast forward to class 6, when we finally understood what it meant to be a girl and what it meant to be a boy, thanks to lessons about the human reproduction system among other anatomy and behavioral elements. This time round, our class teacher chose a girl to be our class monitor. The girl loved football, was smart and played against the rules. She still does.
But that was not all.
I remember one of my classmates liked calling the female class monitor ‘First boda’, apparently because she liked ‘boy-ish’ stuff and therefore had an easy time convincing everybody to keep quiet when the teacher wasn’t around and during our afternoon preps.
As for me, I felt unworthy for liking tiger lilies, sunflowers, chocolate and the colour pink. To fit in, I remember struggling to understand football and attempting to learn the Manchester United player lineup as if it were to be tested as part of my science exam. Never again!
Patriarchal gymnastics to fit in
Now, as I sit in the office and look at different managers and their leadership styles, I can see the impact and influence gender has on our ideas of leadership as a society, observing the glaring extent to which male leaders are either allowed to play outside the rules or are quickly forgiven when they err, privileges not enjoyed by womenfolk who find themselves in the same positions.
And it’s exactly out of this set of circumstances – that the more macho one is the more it fairs for their attempts at leadership – that women who seek to play in this very unlevel playing field have resorted to taking up what are perceived as male attributes, for them to be taken seriously. Some have even gone as far as creating pseudo-names in the pursuit of their careers, for them to have a patriarchal cover so that they can pursue their careers without gender biases getting in the way.
I know this is all a huge oxymoron and contradiction, but this is where women have been pushed.
And if they don’t resort to such unorthodox interventions, women’s feminine attributes then get deployed against them, where they are either sexualized or thought to be underqualified, and therefore must have gotten to where they are by sleeping their way up. It is all such a disgust!
Save your femininity for the weekend!
During a recent coffee date with a friend of mine, a graduate doctor no less posted to Kajiado County for her medical internship, she heartbreakingly explained to me how she has been forced to change her dressing, voice and overall demeanor, this after she was told (and experienced it herself) that male patients will not take her seriously. Apparently, my friend’s femininity was supposed to end at the hospital door, where it must stay domiciled and only get reunited with her on weekends, when she leaves her workstation and is headed back home in Nairobi.
This phenomenon has existed since 1809 in the medical fraternity.
The price women paid, from antiquity
The story of a woman disguising herself as a man to attain her goals extends further than the legend of Mulan. Margaret Bulkley may mean nothing to most people, but the name Dr.James Barry to historians may remind them of a story cocktail of fiction and fact.
In an era where it was unfathomable for women to offer their intellect beyond being a house manager and child-bearer, Margaret Bulkley did the unthinkable. In the height of the Napoleon War, this young, ambitious Irish woman set out on a course of deception that would fool the highest and brightest in the British empire. With the hope of becoming a surgeon, Margaret disguised herself as a man, adopting the name of her late uncle, James Barry, and applying to go to Edinburgh University.
Being a woman of intelligence and vision, Margaret was accepted and enrolled after debates of her small stature and fresh face appearance (a beard makes a man?). I can only imagine how hard it must have been to hide menstruation, mood swings and the need to cry if she needed to in the middle of 16-hour day lectures and practical exams. For Margaret, she kept her eye trained on the prize, because a few years later, Dr. James Barry – aka Margaret’s disguise – became a celebrated surgeon who joined the army in 1813 and traveled to Jamaica, Malta, South Africa and Crimea.
Many suspected Dr. James Barry’s demeanor and appearances, especially because he wasn’t growing facial hair. Perhaps to take a more stereotypical masculine ‘first boda’ personality, Dr. Barry decided to became short-tempered.
From that point onwards, Barry was known to be easily angered, threw medicine bottles and would occasionally participate in duels, on condition that no one would be left seriously injured.
All of this apparent aggression expected from men was overlooked, including by Florence Nightingale, since Barry’s medical skills were exceptional. Men, especially the gifted kind, always get a free pass. Barry went on to become the first doctor to perform a successful caesarian section in history, where both mother and child survived.
Betrayal in the city
And then it happened that Barry died from dysentery in 1865.
There’s speculation that while on his deathbed, many acquaintances waited for a secret to be revealed. Barry’s last wishes were that he be buried in the clothes he died in, without his body being washed. Unfortunately, these wishes were not followed.
And as Barry’s mortal remains were being prepared for burial, the attending nurse discovered two things; her female anatomy and stretch marks from a previous pregnancy. The funny thing was that Margaret’s exemplary work was suddenly being questioned and almost discredited, all because it had been established that she was a woman.
Almost 150 years later, scholars still misrepresent Margaret’s work and her gender.
Yet here we are…
In today’s world, enlightenment is supposed to be our portion, and yet stereotypes about the men and women in leadership still linger; at work, in politics, worse even in religious circles.
And so we build a language that reflects our biases, deploying English and Kiswahili to mimick our reality. Women-affiliated words such as ‘umama’ have always had a derogatory connotation, with this particular word often used to chide men who espouse perceived feminine tendencies.
On the other hand, language positivists have championed the use of words such as chairperson, police officer and so on in a bid to neutralize the temptation of looking at humans and their roles in society solely through gender prism.
For me, leadership is embedded in one’s character and not gender. For as long as we attribute leadership to masculinity, women leaders will continue to receive the shorter end of the stick.
To my mind, my class three prefect was a good leader because he was neat, organized, and played by the rules. Similarly, my class six monitor was a good leader because she was smart and a people’s person. Whatever (dis)advantages gender afforded them, at the core, character was the cornerstone, regardless of the stereotypical gymnastics they may have been made to endure.
Let’s do better in our critique of women in leadership and in society in general.