Since my childhood days, I was groomed for my prospective role as a future wife and mother. “No man will want to marry a girl who cannot cook, iron, or wash the dishes,” I was constantly reminded.
I was only fourteen when I left my parents’ house as a child bride to settle with my husband in a foreign country. Forced into adulthood long before I was ready, I had no choice at the time but to accept what I believed was a pre-determined fate. Even in the early years of my marriage, I often wondered how different my life would have been if I had had the choice of pursuing another path.
At the age of 31 – then a mother of two – I decided to take control of my life; I filed for divorce and started a career in journalism. It was not easy being a single mother in a conservative, male-dominated society where divorce is frowned upon as “the worst evil of all halal (permissible) deeds.” Today, more than two decades later, I am an accomplished journalist and award-winning former TV news anchor. I have traveled extensively, covering wars and conflicts, and I am an advocate for the rights of women and minorities. All this would not have been possible had it not been for the female role models that inspired and motivated me to succeed.
Women like Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist writer and activist whose books about women in Muslim-majority societies and Female Genital Mutilation opened my eyes to the fact that women have choices and need not be submissive. Saadawi’s books also taught me that women need not tolerate entrenched social norms: we can effect positive change in our societies by getting our voices heard. I also could not have gotten where I am today without the support of some of my senior colleagues —male and female journalists whom I respected and admired and who in turn, supported me, helping me advance in my career. It is through these bonds that I learned to appreciate and become inspired by the stories shared by those I perceived as my mentors and role models.
At the UNIDO Conference on Women in Industry and Innovation, there is no shortage of female role models and talent. The Gender Alliance session features five women leaders from across a number of industries and countries who, by sharing their stories, will also inspire many young, ambitious women, showing them that their opportunities too are limitless. The women role models – who are all members of the BMW Foundation’s Responsible Leaders Network – will speak about the challenges they overcame and what enabled them to advance to leadership positions; they will also recommend ways of achieving gender parity within organizations.
“Patriarchy is steeped in the minds of both men and women. In India too, like in most developing countries, we have patriarchal norms that hold women back. Thomson Reuters ranked India the most dangerous country for women in their 2018 Perception Survey,” laments ElsaMarie D’Silva, a Responsible Leader and social entrepreneur who founded Safecity, a crowdsourcing platform where survivors of rape and sexual assault can anonymously report such incidents. D’Silva is also the founder and CEO of Red Dot Foundation, an organization that works on increasing gender parity and sexual violence prevention.
Born into a family that did not discriminate against girls and was given the freedom to make her own choices, D’Silva had strong women role models in her family who had careers and were financially independent which “gave them options in life,” she says. She attributes her success to the support she got from those role models as well as to “will power, self-belief and sheer hard work.”
But men too have a major role to play in breaking down the patriarchy and promoting gender equality, according to D’Silva who adds, “My male mentors played a big role in shaping my thought processes, providing me with a platform to learn and thrive and giving me opportunities for growth.”
“Patriarchy is steeped in the minds of both men and women.” – ElsaMarie D’Silva –
She also believes that networks like the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network “are critical in providing members with an ecosystem of support.” Not only are the members of the network “empathetic, driven by values and committed to achieving the SDGs; it is also easy to collaborate with them on work projects and find friends to learn from.” Pratima Kirloskar, another Responsible Leader and President of Innovations (Society), Kirloskar Brothers LTD., meanwhile says, “networks help you to access skills and education, different problem-solving methods. The exposure to diverse opinions adds to your personality and maturity. India has talent but sometimes we are unable to access markets; networks give you that connect.”
While we have seen progress over the last decade or so in terms of women reaching leadership and decision-making positions, the road to gender equality is still long. Achieving SDG 5 (gender equality) would contribute to accelerating growth in businesses and economies; it would increase per capita GDP and have a positive effect on the employment of women. According to Kirloskar, women possess many of the traits associated with effective leadership.
“Women bring focus; nurturing the business comes naturally to them. They always look for the collective good rather than individual good. They can work in teams and create a collaborative environment in addition to having excellent communication skills,” she says.
Louise Blais, a Canadian diplomat and Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN (and another member of the BMW Foundation’s Responsible Leaders Network) advises young women starting their careers to “observe” and “conform.” Submissive as it may sound, she believes that navigating through challenging work environments as long as they are not abusive is key to advancing one’s career. She advocates “the water approach,” as opposed to resistance and confrontation.
“You might make it by rocking the boat but it is a riskier approach,” she cautions. Blais adds that for the first few years of her career, she dutifully respected the workplace culture and worked on fitting in even during moments of “injustice” and “outrage”: “As I gained experience and more wisdom, I started to gently push the envelope, yet again providing positive reinforcement to my superiors, mostly men. I did this because I had a lot to learn from the good and not so good leaders.” Both Blais and D’Silva have been empowering other women through various mentorship programs in the conviction that role models and mentoring are crucial in helping women advance in their careers.
“I make it a point to mentor young women professionally, keeping about 5 active relationships where I devote an hour to each a month; in addition, I include gender topics in all of my public speeches, making my advice as relevant to men as to women,” says Blais who is currently writing a book on Feminine Leadership. D’Silva meanwhile runs a mentoring program that matches established women leaders with younger women that aspire to be successful in their careers. “This has resulted in an ecosystem of support and role models who serve as reference points; you can’t be what you can’t see,” she says.
I agree and it is for this reason that in 2015, I co-founded, with a group of like-minded, independent journalists, the Egyptian Women Media Union, a Cairo-based NGO that helps empower young journalists, especially those living in marginalized, remote communities in the south of Egypt by offering them legal, technical, and moral support including training and employment opportunities. Thanks to guidance and advice from some fellow BMW Foundation network members —a big-hearted breed of inspiring social entrepreneurs and changemakers – our organization has over the years grown and developed, attracting sponsorships from UNFPA and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, while at the same time, developing the skills of thousands of young journalists.
Committed to its mission of promoting Responsible Leadership worldwide, the BMW Foundation continues to highlight and support the work of changemakers like Kirloskar, D’Silva, Blais, and others in the conviction that their contribution will help to achieve the SDGs; it will also inspire younger generations to make their contributions to a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world.
Shahira Amin is an award-winning journalist based in Cairo. The former deputy head of the state-run Nile TV, she resigned at the height of the 2011 uprising in protest over censorship of her work. Since then, she has worked as a freelance writer. In 2016, Shahira won a BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Award for founding a support network for female journalists in Egypt.
TwentyThirty is the foundation’s platform to inspire responsible leadership by showcasing articles and communication on projects, people and programs in the network.