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Is she ‘bossy’ or are you biased?
July 25, 2016

Black businesswoman at office desk


More African women are breaking the “glass ceiling” in the business world by advancing to management positions. As a result, more women are finding themselves on the receiving end of criticism from both male and female subordinates. There are complaints like “she’s bossy,” or “she doesn’t respect the people who work for her.”

Would a male boss who acted in the same manner receive the same kinds of comments? According to studies, probably not. Old habits die hard, and one of them is the perception that male authority is respected while female authority is “unbecoming” or even threatening.

“Africa still is a deeply patriarchal society in most areas, where women have to struggle to even voice their opinions let alone rise to a managerial position. So it is the norm that when they do, they are held in contempt by male subordinates who still feel that it is not a man’s place to answer [or] report to a woman,” said Sherifah Tumusiime, CEO of Zimba Group Ltd.

Dudu Msomi, CEO of Busara Leadership Partners, said women leaders also fall victim to what she calls the “pedestal syndrome” in the business world.

“This is when women are put on a pedestal with puritan, stereotypical expectations and views in which women should not do wrong according to the standards of the observer. Thus when a woman does things that do not embody the expectations, they are severely judged and crucified,” she said, adding that women workers “tend to also be tougher on other women.”

As African women who are also business leaders, Msomi and Tumusiime are helping to lead the path for their peers. Unfortunately, female bosses often face double standards, unconscious or otherwise, compared to their male counterparts. Being aware of this can help women as they assert their rights as corporate leaders.

Women should not be shy or apologetic about having a leadership role, said Msomi.

“There are decisions that require a leader to take charge and be authoritarian. Not every situation is a democracy. Thus leaders have the prerogative to not always consult. It is not a sex or gender issue. It is related to an individual leadership style and the circumstances that are prevailing at that particular moment,” she said.

Tumusiime said businesswomen can do whatever their male counterparts can do, and the best response to bias is simply to do your best and be professional.

“Respect is earned and not demanded, so respect others but most importantly respect yourself. Treat everyone in your team fairly without any sort of bias. Praise in public and reproach in private. You cannot control the perception of others, but you certainly can control your reaction to them, and the best reaction to them is none,” she said.

If you are a woman looking to become a leader in a male-dominated business world, here are five pieces of advice:

  • Always remember that business, money and career do not have a gender and do not care what sex you are. Your gender is just one aspect of who you are.
  • “Intuition” is a gift, so do not be afraid to use it. It simply means you are able to understand something quickly on a subconscious level, drawing from past experiences and external cues.
  • Everyone has an individual definition of “respect,” and it is important to communicate your expectations. For example, there are different views on punctuality and the degrees to which others need to be kept informed.
  • Do not assume that your colleagues always understand what you want or that bad situations will change on their own. Performance management and other meetings are worthwhile venues to discuss issues in both group and private settings.
  • Everyone has some kind of gender bias. Even professional gender-equality advocates admit they sometimes catch themselves making unfair assessments. Step back, take a breath, and take pride in your role as a pioneer.

Join #Africa4Her and tell us how you will be bold for change at https://yali.state.gov/4her.