The Dearth of Women in Leadership Seminar Series – Recap

For AWiBs second seminar series, our moderator for the day Ms. Selome Tadesse, Founder, Emerge Leaders Consultancy & Training PLC led a panel discussion with three prominent speakers whose life’s work has exposed them to the intricacies surrounding women’s leadership.  This seminar entitled “The Dearth of Women in Leadership” was born out of the need to question and reflect on the tendency that demanding women’s leadership in Ethiopia is a privilege that only the elite can concern themselves with.

The question of elitism has long existed and will continue to be a core concern in the discourse surrounding women’s leadership. In her opening remarks, Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa-Onochie, UNDP Resident Representative and UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Ethiopia explained that the dearth of women’s leadership was of interest to her ancestors and will continue to be relevant for future generations. According to UNDP estimations, gender inequality costs Sub Saharan Africa 95 billion USD annually. Therefore, Ms.  Eziakonwa-Onochie stressed the importance of this seminar in challenging this notion of elitism and exploring the various ways in which it has been used to brand women’s leadership in the country. 

The audience had the great pleasure of viewing a short video featuring the Honourable Ms. Senedu Gebru who was a visionary, a fighter, an educator, a feminist, and a patriot. She was Ethiopia’s first woman in public affairs during the Emperor’s regime and was the first woman to serve as a school director. Having been born into an upper class family and educated in Switzerland; can we argue that her leadership and her immense contribution to the empowerment of women was shaped by her elitist stature?

This question of women leaders in the public arena developed out of need, explained Amb. Tadelech Hailemichael, Former Minister of the FDRE Ministry of Women Affairs; Founder & Director, Women’s Development Fund. Women became trained professionals in the health care system, gained education and ultimately served their country because of the chaos and upheaval created after the Italian invasion. Therefore, women’s ability to rise as leaders was not marked by their elitism. And if that is the case, it begs the question: Where did elitism come from and how can we deconstruct it?

According to Mr. Hadis D. Tadesse, Deputy Director, Africa; Representative to Ethiopia and the African Union, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, elitism is a social construct. It is a way of ordering a group of people based on their family lineage, their wealth, their level of education and the like. “Referring to one as an elite is not a bad thing” explained Mr. Haddis. It should not be taken as a way to discredit one’s work, but rather be used as a means to recognise one’s achievement. So the problem with the term lies in our perception, and not the meaning of the term.  Therefore, part of our task in deconstructing the term requires us to question why women who concern themselves with gender-representation in leadership positions are labelled as elites?

Globally Ethiopia has a high rank for gender inequality. Given this context, there is a common perception that the needs of the urban women are given far more attention than that of the rural. According to Mr. Haddis, there are common struggles to both groups. And that is the struggle of physical violence which has been growing in the country despite growth in education and economic sectors. The question of elitisim thus aggregates all problems under one label. 

Dr. Meseret Kassahun Desta, assistant professor at the School of Social Science in Addis Ababa University identified the historical and political ideologies that lead to the misconstrual of the question of women’s role in leadership as an elitist question. She mentioned that the vehement opposition of Marxism-Leninism, on which Ethiopian political ideologies today are still based, to bourgeois democracy by definition invalidates any questions for equality that arise from the elite class. Dr. Meseret further explored factors that silence not only demands for women in leadership but any questions that challenge the status quo. She argued that Ethiopia does not have a culture of discourse and debate and therefore any dissent is seen as a form of revolt against the current system. Furthermore feminist discussions, indeed all discussion related to socio-political movements are repeatedly high jacked by political agendas so no real progress is made. Add to this the adherence to a revolutionary democracy which discourages gradual continued growth leading to the creation of the proverbial wheel over and over again and you will have the current political climate where the question of women in leadership is dismissed as elitist.

What was learned from this seminars proceedings was that the argument of elitisim is not inherently bad. It has been misunderstood and misused and thus there is a need to reclaim it and use it in the correct manner. It is not only elitist women who occupy leadership positions. There is a clear disconnect between who an elite is and the use of the term to silence, segregate or “other” women who concern themselves with questions of leadership. The problem is how we have come to perceive and internalise it. Part of this problem is recognition says Amb. Tadelech Women’s work is not recognised by others, and we do not use the lessons learnt to move forward.

In concluding the seminar, Ms. Selome celebrated the huge achievement in engaging in a momentous dialogue to ask critical questions like why do we label and how has our labelling of elitism affected women’s leadership.  She left the audience to wonder about the link between generations. If the question of elitisim is not intergenerational then what binds us?

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