LINKAGE Q1 (2021) - Choose To Challenge
By Ruqayyah Scott
Women in leadership have often accomplished some of the greatest achievements known to mankind. Women continue to be an integral part of sewing together and upholding the fabric of our society. When we think about women in leadership, many great names come to mind: Mother Theresa, Rosa Luxemburg, Haydee Santamaria, Harriet Tubman, Rani Laxmi Bai, and more recently, Jacinda Arden, Mia Mottley, Lisa Hannah, and Paula-Mae Weekes, to name a few.
These women, amongst thousands more, have faced significant challenges to accomplish all that they have. Their stories are the lessons by which young women today are inspired, and frankly, it is because of these women that our journeys into leadership are supposedly faced with fewer challenges. However, society isn’t robotic - as one challenge is conquered, another arises. While the path is seemingly much easier for many young women today, it is not yet without its fair share of challenges. Not only do young women today experience similar challenges to that of women in the past, but they also encounter new and unique obstacles even as society advances.
When we think about women in leadership, some of us immediately think about women in politics, councillors, members of parliament, senators, ministers, and other political public figures. Seldom do we think about other aspects of our society through the lens of leadership. This is no fault of ours, since our political economy has been at the forefront, and rightfully so, as we navigate challenging economic and social issues which require transformational and sound leadership.
The World Bank conducted studies across the globe outlining the percentage of women in parliaments. Between 2015 and 2019, Trinidad and Tobago recorded a participation rate of 30.95% annually of women in parliament. This rate dropped slightly in 2020, where women constituted 26.19% of parliamentary seats. Still, this is a significant rise from 1977, when women only constituted 11.11% of the parliament in Trinidad and Tobago. It's an indication that Trinidad and Tobago has indeed come a long way with the representation of women in politics. Hence, women in leadership is not a foreign concept to Trinbagonians. Likewise, our Caribbean brothers and sisters have also seen significant changes in the participation rates of women in politics. Though the number is not enough, and by no means is equal, the progress made is still one to be appreciated.
The potential for leadership opportunities for women is all around us. Aside from the political economy, there are opportunities in the private sector, non-profit organisations, schools, religious institutions, and so much more. Trinidad and Tobago has made significant progress with the status of women in leadership in multiple spheres. Girls are taking up leadership roles in their pre-tertiary schools: as group project leaders, class prefects, school prefects, house captains, etc. Young women are volunteering at NGOs, district youth councils, national youth councils, university clubs, student governance, regional non-profit leadership development spaces, and we even have young female professionals taking up managerial positions within the private and public sectors. None of this would be possible had it not been for the strong legacy of women leaders who have paved the way.
Women still have to navigate traditional patriarchal challenges, and they face unique pressures from the highly demanding, and to an extent, toxic popular culture within the millennial and Gen Z generations. Young women also have to battle against prejudiced men (young and old) and women in the various spaces in which they interact. To highlight some of those challenges, consider when young women enter the realm of leadership and are expected to lead like men by displaying similar behaviours and mannerisms that are usually associated with male leaders. This is extremely problematic because men and women are different, and will naturally have different leadership styles. Young women constantly have to prove themselves as young leaders, when our approach is completely different to what is viewed as the norm.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault are alive and common in many professional spaces that women have to navigate to get ahead. Many times young women encounter uncomfortable situations with men in their age bracket, and from older men who attempt to exploit them. They also encounter the issue of not being taken seriously by elders due to their lack of experience. I firmly believe that if senior women guided and mentored younger women through the process, they would be given the opportunity to fulfil their potential as leaders.
Another major challenge that young women face is the prejudice meted out by senior women. Historically, there have been few spots for women in leadership, which often created fierce competition among women. This culture of competition among women has trickled down into our daily interactions in more relaxed social settings where women are often very critical and dismissive to other women, and especially to younger women who may choose to do things differently. Young women often do not perceive senior women as mentors, and have to deal with a great deal of prejudice that comes from their interactions. Not only is this discouraging to younger subordinates, but it also defeats the purpose of women empowering each other and moving towards a more gender-equal world.
I must acknowledge, though, that young women in Trinidad and Tobago have really managed to navigate these obstacles and achieve massive amounts of personal and social change in their communities. We no longer live in an era where we are expected to stick to the traditional roles, and there are endless opportunities for young women to advance themselves and their communities. However, these opportunities are not always distributed fairly and equitably among young women and girls, for example, they are more abundant in urban areas as opposed to rural areas, but women and girls do not only reside in the cities. We are everywhere, and therefore, opportunities deserve to be everywhere.
There is no doubt that women can navigate these challenges, and once presented with an opportunity, they can overcome all obstacles. However, young women must seek that personal initiative to build themselves and focus on consistent mastery of their individual skillset. The world is changing rapidly, and opportunities and challenges will always be present. We need to marry the skills we acquire in school with those learnt from our families and communities. We need to spread and seek knowledge to keep up with our evolving planet.
My hope is for those women who can change the lives of younger women to actively try their best to do so, through support and mentorship. Often, we let power, greed, and status get in the way of good community service. If we continue along that trajectory, women will never be able to trample the patriarchy that restricts our elevation in society. As young women, we must not forget our experiences and the power we have to influence the next generation. We ought to hold ourselves accountable and not let our success blind us from fighting the cause.
Women in leadership are all about transformation. We are different from men and will always be different. We should use our differences to impact the changes that we want to see and to reach the heights of success that we set out for ourselves. Let no one guilt you into hiding your emotions, changing your fashion sense, or inflicting the notion that you ought to be seen and not heard. Challenges will always present themselves, but we have the power to make the journey less challenging for the generation of women and girls who will come after us, just as those before us paved the way for us.
I want to encourage all young women to master their skills, to form their own personal identity that is separate and apart from their professional identity. When you enter a room, be confident, read the room, notice the challenges, and set your strategy bravely. Women are here to lead and will continue to lead. We may be seen as forceful to some, and perhaps many of us are adamant about the change we wish to create, but as long as our counterparts understand the importance of diverse opinions, gender equality will not be such a fearful concept to our society.
Ruqayyah Scott is the host of “One & One” – a local talk show which focuses on conversation surrounding the development of Trinidad and Tobago on the WESN Content Capital Channel. She is also a current undergraduate student at the University of the West Indies pursuing her BSc in Economics with a minor in Environmental Economics, and brands herself as an Economic and Social Development advocate. She currently serves as the President of the UWI Economics Society, Vice-chair of the Caribbean Women in Leadership Trinidad and Tobago National Chapter, Head Trainer of the Model United Nations, Professional Development Director and Public Relations Officer of the Rotaract Club of Central Port of Spain, and she is also a former Trinidad and Tobago Youth Ambassador to the United States.
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