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At a Henley Business School Africa event on ‘How to Redress Gender-balance in Leadership and Management’, five panelists addressed workplace challenges and solutions. The discussion was hosted by Ginny Gibson, Deputy Dean, Henley Business School UK with panelists Arthi Rabrikisson, Business Development Executive Old Mutual Investment Group; Jules Newton, Managing Director of the sales training organisation Avocado Vision; Vasintha Pather, Masters Student and Organisational Development Specialist who facilitates on some of Henley’s management development programmes; and Ray White of 702 Talk Radio.

The consensus was that women leaders work primarily in a masculine environment. lnside each organisation their work is based mostly on male-dominated values, but outside they are mothers and wives where they are required to display different values.

The panelists agreed that sometimes the DNA within the corporate environment can be masculine. It is common for wording to be used such as ‘going into battle’ and ‘fighting the competition’ explained Ms Newton.

Ms Rabrikisson said that although women are soft spoken, they are still able to deliver in a masculine DNA environment. “We need to be ourselves. Those around us need to be flexible and not impose their gender experience on others.”

Ms Gibson introduced the topic of unconscious bias which she believes is at the root of the problem. Unconscious bias is the concept of making decisions based on unconscious desires and impulses.

Ms Rabrikisson said that reciprocal coaching at Old Mutual, in which women coach men, has been successful. “This has enabled our managers to understand leadership from a womens’ point of view and address possible unconscious bias that managers may have.”

The panelists agreed that many women who sit on male-dominated boards are lonely. They are not always treated equally. “A good leader has no gender. However, a concern is that women leaders tend not to socialise outside of work as their male counterparts do,” said Ms Newton.

“There is a feeling that women leaders often don’t support each other. We need to change the way we see ourselves and how we see other women leaders,” said Ms Pather.

Ms Gibson added: “We are trying to fit in and we are finding it difficult. This is because women do not want to have to act like their male counterparts. Both men and women need to address these biases. The downside is that men are missing out because women bring value to boards that is different because we are wired differently.”

“Another challenge for women in corporate leadership roles is the need to be accepted at home. But often they are not,” said Ms Newton. “This also requires a change in mindset.”

Mr White noted that as parents we need to be aware what we, as role models, project to our children with regards gender.

Ms Gibson added: “Women and men leaders need to get to know and understand each other better. It is not about gender but about one’s ability. Women on the other hand are sometimes held back by fear. We need to be ourselves, be authentic and communicate.”

In summing up the morning’s discussion Ms Gibson explained: “We’ve had a really interesting morning at Henley Africa talking about issues of women’s diversity in the boardroom, and how women are climbing the ladder, and whether we have a strong enough pipeline. We had four interesting panelists who have come from different walks of life to be able to share their experiences. I think for me there were three things that stood out.”

“First of all, looking at communication. Although the room was full of women there were also a few men. I think we all felt that this is a conversation which must be had much more broadly. We really need to engage not just with women, but with men, so that we can really understand our differences and strengths.”

“The second this is that ultimately we have come a long way but there is still a long way to go. There are some real systemic and cultural issues and therefore we are talking about it being a marathon and not a sprint. We need to keep thinking about how we role model and how the next generation of young boys and girls see women in leadership positions.”

“The final point is that women do bring different strengths, we are different and we should acknowledge that we are different and not be afraid to be different because some of those differences bring real strength to leadership. We see the big picture. We have great emotional intelligence and I think women need to be strong and comfortable in that, and be brave in how they deal with it. Overall, I think it was a very inspiring and insightful conversation which I was proud to be a part of.”