#BreakTheBias: Unlocking the Power of Women’s Leadership

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By Irene Atuhairwe, RN, MPH, Country Director, Uganda

“The world needs more women’s leadership,” said UN experts in a joint statement with the Inter-Parliamentary Union during the 2019 International Women’s Day.

As a woman and a person who has seen the transformative power of women in leadership across sectors, I can’t agree more with this statement. Over the past two decades, there have been gains made in ensuring more women hold leadership positions.

On a global scale, the number of women in senior management roles has increased to 29 percent. The latest Gender Equality in Public Administration report shows that 46 percent of women occupy public administration roles but only 31 percent occupy top leadership positions.

My country, Uganda, which is party to several international and regional commitments to gender equality, has made progress on this front. At the national level, women make up 43 percent of the cabinet, an increase from the previous 27 percent. They occupy 33 percent of parliamentary seats and at the local government level, they hold 46 percent of the positions. Most notably, the three ministerial positions at the Ministry of Health are currently held by women. This is significant given that women make up a majority of the health workforce and face unique challenges that need to be urgently addressed so that they can continue to provide high-quality care. Out of the three ministerial positions in the Ministry of Education and Sports, two are held by women. Under their leadership, and that of their predecessors, there has been an increase in the number of girls going to school and women attaining university degrees in fields that were previously male-dominated. 

Across the world, we know this to be true—when women lead, change happens. Women leaders bring with them unique and creative ideas, build dynamic teams, strengthen communication across the entities they lead, provide inclusive mentorship, and due to the many roles we play in society, are all encompassing in our response to issues within the workplace.   

Despite the gains made toward gender equality and the numerous proven benefits of women in leadership, we continue to face many challenges, especially in a country like Uganda which is still largely patriarchal. After the most recent cabinet appointments in June 2021, for example, there was a debate across communities and the media on whether the Prime Minister, Hon. Robinah Nabbanja, the first woman to hold the position in the country, was indeed fit for that office even though she held a ministerial position prior to this appointment. Her male predecessors were not subjected to similar criticisms. Sadly, having our qualifications and expertise questioned and scrutinized is something that women have become accustomed to.

Growing up and working in Uganda in different leadership roles, I have experienced the impact of patriarchy first-hand and witnessed its effects on women in the workplace. As an example, women in leadership are often described in terms of motherhood and complimented for being ‘motherly.’ Women who may not exhibit these attributes are often referred to as aggressive or rude. This type of stereotyping diminishes the true contribution and value women bring in the spaces they occupy. In contrast, it is very rare to hear a man’s leadership being described as ‘fatherly.’

I was recently listening to Ms. Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS, as she shared her experience on 360 Mentor Africa, a program that uses Twitter Spaces to mentor young people. Even with her expertise and her status as a global changemaker, she still experiences condescending treatment from men who don’t think she is deserving of her position. However, this has not deterred her from her pursuit of transformational leadership. It was inspiring to hear how she continues to challenge these biases to influence change in her spheres.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I continue to be inspired by the lives of women like my mother who was not only the head of our household but also a caregiver within the community. It is through experiencing her grace, witnessing her grit, and following her guidance that I learnt about intentional leadership and the transformational impact that it has on society.

For our sake and that of future generations, we need to break the bias—we must actively dismantle gender discrimination and stereotyping. Let us set women up for success as leaders in every sphere of life. We need to ensure that women are supported with resources and an enabling environment so that they can realize their potential and transform their communities. We can foster lasting change in health, national prosperity, and global security by unlocking the potential and power of women leaders.


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