by Liz Grossman ’05
As I struggle to come to terms with the current state of gender politics in my own country, I am looking to Africa for inspiration, where many countries are actually making steps to bring women into positions of public leadership. Seven African countries make the top twenty of Inter-Parliamentary Union’s statistical rankings on the percentage of women in parliament, Rwanda being first globally. Not only this, but four different women from four different African countries have served in the highest office of the land.
This past year, I have had the honor to listen to, shake hands with, meet with, and grow professionally with all four of these women: Her Excellency Ellen Sirleaf Johnson President of Liberia and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Her Excellency Joyce Banda Former President of Malawi, Her Excellency Catherine Samba Panza President of the Transitional Government of Central African Republic, and Her Excellency Ameenah Gurib President of Mauritius.
My first exposure to these female African heads of state was with Gwen Young, a role model and inspirational leader who runs the Women in Public Service Project at the Wilson Center. Gwen moderated a panel entitled “Women’s Political Participation: Leadership and the Global Agenda” at the Concordia Summit in New York City, featuring Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, the first African woman president, and Dr. Joyce Banda, the second. Fortunately, I had the chance to sit down with Gwen and Dr. Banda during a break, and my first impression was how down to earth Dr. Banda was. I noticed several young African women come over to her, nervously make small talk and ask for pictures, to which she graciously obliged. I noticed how much she cared about people, especially those with a passion for making change in Africa.
Next in the presidential circuit was Ameenah Gurib, the sitting President of Mauritius. She was a keynote speaker at the MIT Sloan Innovate Africa Conference this past April. President Gurib inspired the audience with her vision for Africa, supporting entrepreneurship, improving access to education, and getting more women into political leadership.
The journey continued in May, when I applied for a consultancy at the Wilson Center, specifically to support Dr. Banda on the research and writing of her policy toolkit entitled “Advancing Women’s Leaders in Africa.” Alongside Dr. Banda, I attended the launch of the African Women Leaders Network at the United Nations, where some of the continent’s most prominent leaders in government, business, and civil society gathered to figure out how to promote one another and address the issue of gender parity in public service. Another important attendee was Catherine Samba Panza, former President of the Central African Republic.
Rounding out this year in Accra, Ghana, at the Harvard Africa Alumni Action Forum, came a second opportunity to listen to President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, a Harvard alumna, deliver a keynote speech alongside President Nana Akufo Addo of Ghana. Several weeks later, I was flying back to Accra on a plane with my now client Dr. Joyce Banda, honored to accompany her to the UNDP Africa’s High-Level Policy Dialogue on Governance in Africa and support her while she spoke to policymakers about how promoting women’s leadership can end corruption and promote peace.
It has been an inspiring and humbling year, to say the very least. What has encouraged me the most was that four of these women all shared traits of relatability, kindness, and openness. All were receptive to questions, comments, often quite long-winded project partnership pitches, and even seem to genuinely welcomed them. Dr. Joyce Banda was sharing personal life anecdotes and taking selfies. Catherine Samba Panza was handing out her personal business cards. Ameenah Gurib was attending a conference dinner to chat with more participants, and Ellen Sirleaf Johnson was delivering an extra session about women’s leadership as a way to engage more with the audience in Accra. These women all know how to relate to other people, and they all have a knack for making the average Joe and Jane feel like they were worthy of a President’s time.
Politics, particularly in Africa, can be dirty, but these women all showed no outward sign being bothered or upset by it. Each one of them, and most female leaders globally, have been dealing with harassment, reputation tarnishing scandals, and lies. They hold their heads up with poise and grace, remembering the real reason for their existence is for the people they serve, and the future young leaders who need their coaching and example to break the glass ceiling.
Being in proximity to these women leaders, and now counting Dr. Joyce Banda as a role model and mentor, I am energetic as ever to find ways not only to empower young women in Africa to access education and develop as leaders, but also to push my own compatriots to challenge the way we view women’s leadership. Women have to work twice as hard to prove themselves, fight harassment and overcome sexism in the workplace, and these four women in particular are showing that anything really is possible.
Engaging with four African female presidents renewed my certitude about the immense potential of girls and young women across the continent to become leaders of the next generation. Thinking of the students I spent three years teaching in Senegal and the countless entrepreneurs and community leaders I’ve met across the continent and here in the United States, I am confident that I already know many other future presidents.