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Advancing the World's Leading Women

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By Claudia Frittelli, Program Officer, Higher Education & Libraries in Africa
Carnegie Corporation of New York

Earlier this month I attended the International Women's Forum (IWF) Leadership Foundation training sessions at Harvard Business School. As I listened to the presentations, I couldn't help reflecting on the latest wave of controversy about women and work, sparked to a large degree by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is new, but the debate about how women can become better leaders has been going on for decades -- not just in the U.S. but all over the world.

Leadership training is especially important for women in the developing world who have few mentors, navigate entrenched male networks, risk cultural exclusion and confront a limited pipeline even if education is becoming more equitable from a policy standpoint. Clearly, if women's talents aren't developed and put to use, half the world's capacity is wasted. Founded in 1982, and with membership on 5 continents and 26 nations, IWF advances leadership across careers, cultures and continents by connecting the world's most preeminent women to promote better leadership for a changing world. Its Leadership Foundation (LF) has been training international women leaders for thirteen years.

I had the pleasure of meeting this year's African university fellows sponsored by Carnegie Corporation, Florence Tushabe from Makerere University and Nana Aba Amfo from University of Ghana. While many LF participants will rise to senior level at corporations, these African fellows are challenged with reversing the education deficit of their nations and the transformation of their universities. One former fellow, Christine Dranzoa, was recruited by the President of Uganda to direct the founding of Muni University in her native rural Northern Uganda, and went on to become its first Vice Chancellor (the equivalent of a college president).

The Corporation has supported emerging women leaders to participate as fellows in this program since 2002 to improve the dearth of senior-level women at African universities. As African universities recognize the challenge they have to educate leaders in many fields, and the responsibility they bear for preparing the next generation of citizens, the critical importance of the role of women at the senior management level of the higher education system becomes more apparent. Although national policy statements promote gender equity and have yielded results in some sectors, particularly the political field, similar levels of achievement have not been reached in academia.

The LF draws on research expertise of the world's leading women, and provides data and insights on managing the workforce of the future across organizations. Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of the book The Progress Principle, presented on the positive inner work life that makes high performance -- especially the generation of creative ideas -- possible. Catalyzers she found were providing clear, meaningful goals, autonomy, sufficient resources, help with the work, learning from problems and successes and open idea flow. This session was particularly pertinent to the shortcomings of overly hierarchical organizations and traditional leadership styles that are inhibitors to high performance, accomplishment and advancing women's leadership.

Many of the women who attended this training are aiming at high-level business careers. Yet, reading Steve Jobs' biography on the plane home reminded me just how big a mountain they are trying to climb. At the other end of the spectrum, we have women fighting not only for equal opportunity, but for physical security. According to Barbara Gourley, the first woman vice chancellor in South Africa, institutions of higher learning need to do more to keep women safe. She says universities claim to be the nurseries for tomorrow's leaders -- and history bears witness to the fact that this is so -- but if, "universities are educating leaders for a better, fairer and safer society wherever that may be, then they had better also pay specific attention to interrogating and challenging the attitudes and beliefs that sustain horrendous acts of cruelty against women and girl children."

Gourley maintains that these institutions might produce "competent" engineers, accountants, doctors, computer specialists, scientists, teachers, nurses, managers, social scientists and the like, but they often fail to make space in curricula for surfacing the attitudes and beliefs that maintain and foster old customs and cultures.

Programs like IWF are committed to helping women prepare to take leadership roles, otherwise there will be no visible role models for future generations. The Corporation has sought to grow this vital pipeline by providing scholarships for African women -- undergraduates to postgraduates to academic staff. While this may be a drop in the bucket, nobody knows where LF fellows will end up after having been exposed to the training. Prior fellows became Tanzania's Deputy Minister for Information, Youth, Culture and Sports, and Deputy Governor of the Bank of Tanzania, to name just two.

Carnegie Corporation has supported IWF as one of many ways to create a cohort of women leaders who can bring about real change. While American women may be thinking about "leaning in," organizations like IWF aim to help women the world over to step up.