How do you imagine you might develop these skills?
By Molly Breysse Cox
The purpose of this question is to galvanize thinking towards how the women might develop the desired skills mentioned in Question Three. They may consider initiating a local discussion circle to support each others’ development, participating in activities or exercises, or learning from wise men and women in their communities. Inherent in this question is the need for each woman to create a vision for how she will move forward on her leadership journey, alone and together, and within her culture; in short, how each of these women can best enhance their leadership skills?
These nine Conversations support evidence that women seek and value positive ways to harness the potential of working together to create change. Coming together with intention to support, encourage and provide confidence to other women serves each woman, family and community. This section is devoted to highlighting the enablers for women to further develop their own leadership, and more generally, to accelerate behavior and conditions for women’s leadership development taking place all over the globe. As each of these women share their story, readers will bear witness to the power of listening as an amplifier for positive progress and change and we too will become part of this wave.
The insights that unfolded when Question Four was discussed fell into four core categories of ideas on how to continue learning about leadership while maintaining a focus on positive group structure and dynamics. These categories are: building a safe environment, taking care of self, creating opportunities to learn, and finding opportunities to practice skills and grow in experience.
Creating a Safe Environment
The Country Conveners prioritized the need to create a safe space when participating in the Women’s Leadership Project. Safety was a consideration in developing the processes, engaging in conversations and building an environment for activating change. Based on the feedback from each country, these considerations prove to be an enabler for activating conversation and change. The challenge is to consider trust as a key dynamic in designing a foundation for a positive and safe Conversation experience, knowing that each country has a different safety dynamic.
For instance, in Guatemala, enabling safety included prioritizing the prevention of domestic violence; in Vietnam it included strengthening the relationship between community and government; for Uganda it included spiritual practices; in Nicaragua, having the safety of the Conversation Circles enabled discussion with family members, creating a culture where women can ask questions.
Taking Care of Self
A universal theme in all the Conversations is the need to take care of oneself and practice positive self-esteem and confidence. Many women told personal stories that confirmed that building confidence will build personal power and influence. Almost 20% of ideas for current and future learning focused on building practices that facilitate personal motivation and self-worth. These include centering, building self-esteem, being open to learning, reflecting, validating what is already known, and increasing capacity for confidence, honesty and compassion.
In the Antioch U.S. Conversation, women discussed the role of understanding one’s own limitations and boundaries in taking care of self. They pointed out that the art of saying no is required to honor boundaries and this capability requires practice, role models and knowing who you are.
Conversations in Vietnam, AUS and Uganda discussed the importance of relationships between family and community for building a supportive environment. In these Conversations, personal stories unfolded and it became clear that self-confidence is tied closely with willingness to take risks and participate in change. Winnie in Uganda shared her story about the relationship between family and care of self. Her dad was very supportive, “gave her all the love, attention and always had all the answers” while her mum was always at home and “everything was always there, so I grew up feeling important.” In addition, her education qualification helped her to open up and develop self-belief. Winnie went on to describe, however, that when she married into a culture where women were not allowed to say anything, her self-esteem was lowered.
Each group reinforced the enabling impact they felt by having the support of the Conversation group and the role this support has in building a positive self-image and self-esteem. Susan in Uganda called out her appreciation for the Conversation as “a great platform for women to tell and share their stories as leaders.”
Once an open, inclusive environment is created, then fostering the ideas of learning from each other becomes a possibility. Over 20% of the responses mentioned the opportunity to learn and grow from others in the Circle, from the Kitchen Cabinet members and from other associations or community groups. These women discussed surrounding themselves with supportive people, learning from and with family, learning from role models and teaching other women about topics they know well. These Conversations held stories of women who understood the value of learning and lifting other women up in the process.
For example, Irene in Uganda said: “Being a more advantaged woman than the members of my group, I always feel the urge to pass on the skills to the group to enable them improve their social and financial status. I feel that women are capable of improving but they are only disadvantaged in that they lack information and guidance and having someone like me take on this role will not only help them individually but their families as well.”
Susan in Uganda shared that both her parents have been very inspiring. Her mum inspired her to be a go-getter and always endeavor to be on top of things. Her dad inspired her career-wise since he is a highly learned man. Her siblings are all scientists except herself – so she had to work harder to prove herself. This support had a ripple effect creating positive impact for the members of the group, the group as a collective as well as across family and community. In Uganda, the women told how important the love and support from family is for building confidence and inspiring leadership behavior.
In Guatemala each of the women shared stories of learning and gaining experience so as to pass along and empower other women. For example, Noelia is a loan officer and is sharing her experience in village banks. Elida is a leader of a group of women in the church community, who, along with other women, travels to other villages to learn new information which she then shares with her own local community of women.
The ideas for learning from each other include sharing education and training on basic skills that are held among the women in the group. In Guatemala, Conversation participants are Village Bank leaders who have invited women to learn about finances, banking and credit. These women see opportunity for building and running their own businesses and they continue to look for ways to improve their teaching, communication and public speaking skills to be even more effective.
Practice and Experience
The opportunity to practice skills and grow from experience was a strong theme across all of the Conversation Circles. The feedback from the women highlights the importance of practice for building skills, confidence and effectiveness. In particular, the opportunity to practice in a group setting was called out as important to personal development. In Nicaragua, for example, women shared the need to continue to convene as women helping women, along with the importance of gaining the experience of working with others to implement ideas.
The Muckleshoot Nation Conversation in the United States discussed how to continue to share skills, potentially pooling resources for improving group development. In Ethiopia the participants discussed ways to keep momentum going and build more skills. They focused on their roles as parents and community members as direct opportunities for learning.
There is a strong appetite for making specific leadership development opportunities more available to enhance and grow skills. Over 20% of the comments and feedback suggested formal training and coursework as ways to improve leadership skills. These include vocational training, skills to build a business, obtaining a college or master’s degree, working with mentors, learning more about technology and social media, and learning from new jobs. A great example of this is again from Irene in Uganda. Irene is currently helping the group to get legally registered as a savings and credit scheme community group. She is trying to identify micro-finance training opportunities and resources for her group members. The group has 30 members currently and their target is 50 members.
Levels of Safety, Injustice and Illiteracy
The above discussion is based on the common themes of safety, self, learning and practice that were consistent across each Conversation Circle that took place. There were also differences that emerged during this project. A key distinction between the Conversations was the varying degree of safety and the level of injustice that women in different countries experienced. In Nicaragua, the women said preventing domestic violence is a key ingredient for enabling women to develop their leadership. In Guatemala women noted their challenges of low literacy rates, especially in rural areas, and the prevalence of violence that hinder women’s leadership and empowerment.
“Many women don’t know their rights, suffer from different types of violence – physical, psychological, economic,” the women said. Their Conversation also called out the high rate of illiteracy among women and girls, “because of machismo, opportunity is given to the man for him to go to school while women are left behind.” The women also said that working parents have no time for their children and “that makes them vulnerable to social media…with cases of kidnapping, rape and murder of girls.” The Guatemalan participants made the direct connection between education and training for women and the positive impact their collective knowledge could have on basic needs like getting clean water to their villages.
Ugandan participants also called out the challenges of sexual violence and sex trafficking, but noted that women are more than victims. “They play an active role in nurturing, providing, educating, leading, managing, supporting interventions at different levels in society,” said Betty Kagoro, Country Convener for this project. In truth, though the variations are real, the issue of violence seems a shared concern, a case where the format (in this case a discussion of differences) might best be abandoned.
Another area of difference is the prevalence of organized advocacy by women. In the US, where women experience more political rights and education, change is often focused on advocacy. Similarly, the Vietnam Women’s Union plays a major role in fostering women and women’s rights and formal education and training play a major role for learning and gaining experience. Thirteen million women are involved in the Women’s Union, out of a country population of 90 million people. “In Vietnam, if you ask someone to hold the leadership role of women throughout the country, the answer is the Women’s Union,” says Tam, the Country Convener. “In the Vietnamese village, if you ask anyone who has leadership abilities of women, the answer is representative of the Women’s Union.”
Question Four posed how to develop women’s leadership, and responses highlighted universal truths and conditions across each of these countries for accelerating and amplifying women in leadership. These truths include the importance of building a safe environment, honoring self-esteem, creating an environment to learn and finding opportunity to practice skills for activating change. These all require leadership intention and active participation in building trust, collaboration and an understanding of others in order to foster positive change.
This Project highlights the phenomena that knowledge can be socially constructed, as was demonstrated by the stories and ideas shared in each Conversation. The Muckleshoot Conversation, along with those in Guatemala, Ethiopia and Uganda, highlighted the importance of role models for inspiration, along with the importance of engaging in strong listening skills for creating an environment for learning and growth.
These Conversations serve as a reminder that when women come together to harness the potential of the collective creation of power and influence, anything is possible. Power is infinite and good leaders know that power, like trust, can provide a strong and compelling foundation for leading change. Winnie in Uganda expressed these possibilities best when she shared her “wildest dream” to modernize the village where she plans to retire. She envisions piped water, schools and programs for women in the neighborhood so that they can develop together.
By joining together and participating in Conversations about women’s contribution to our own learning, our families, communities and nations, we can honor where each of us stands and support how each of us longs to go forward.