UP Girls 4 Girls programme empowers young women to claim their place as leaders

Posted on October 21, 2021

“I don’t need to be a man to be a leader, and I don’t have to change everything about myself – that’s what Girls 4 Girls has taught me,” says Akahlulwa Dlamini of the mentoring programme being run at the University of Pretoria (UP) that helps young women to develop the courage, vision and skills to take on public leadership.  

“Instead, I should use my values and other ‘feminine qualities’ that traditionally have been seen as unsuitable to lead others,” adds the Financial Sciences student. Dlamini is one of 62 young women who graduated last year as part of the inaugural cohort of the Girls 4 Girls (G4G) programme at UP – and her comments get to the heart of its mission.

G4G is an international programme that came about in 2017 when a group of Harvard graduate students recognised that women are still being elbowed out of positions of power, and decided to do something to close the gender gap. With the insights of established female leaders who act as mentors, G4G hopes to grow the pipeline of women in public leadership and ensure that the aspirations of young women are supported so they can use their innate abilities to take their place at the decision-making table in various spheres of society. 

“The University ran its first cohort last year at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it was completely online,” says UP’s Dr Matete Madiba, Director of Student Affairs, who initiated the University’s chapter, one of several in the country. About 75 young women currently make up UP’s second cohort, with a third intake planned for early 2022. And by all accounts, it has been a resounding success. “The young women are singing the praises about the networking and being exposed to the kind of content that is building their confidence and helping them to plan for their careers,” Dr Madiba says.

When G4G South Africa approached UP for participation, Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe immediately opened doors for the project to be implemented at the University. Dr Madiba was motivated to lead it because of the dire lack of gender equity in the workplace and many other spaces in SA, as several reports show. The pandemic has also exposed the level of gender inequality, she notes. “Current trends from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) show that the recovery from the recession caused by the pandemic is sexist: men regain the jobs they lost, but women continue to suffer unemployment. Many other indicators show that there is a lot of work to be done to fight gender inequality.”

Lasting gender diversity can be achieved only if young women believe that their voices are vital in determining the future, and instilling confidence in them is a principle aim of G4G. “We live in a country where boys and men are given priority in the home and the school to become leaders,” says Director of G4G SA Elaine Mpulo, a retired HR director and G4G mentor. “Girls tend to shy away. And it’s not because they don’t have the wherewithal to do great things. They do – we see it at G4G. They just need to be listened to, empowered, guided in finding their mission and encouraged to action it.”

In commemoration of International Women’s Day this year, the ILO was emphatic in its message: “The world needs more women leaders.” The organisation went on to detail the qualities that women bring to leadership roles: flexibility, a holistic approach to decision-making, emotional intelligence, and that women leaders help other women to realise their potential – much in the way that Girls 4 Girls does.

“Women leaders are more compassionate,” Dr Madiba says. “This goes beyond ordinary leadership – we are talking about compassion that has an impact, that changes and protects lives. With the protection of lives, we can tackle issues in the economy, and our politics should improve. The more women leaders we have, the better governance we are likely to have.”

The G4G programme covers six transformational sessions, and participants are organised into smaller circles where established leaders from varying sectors – including politics, higher education, business, NGOs, even the arts – offer mentorship. Topics such as becoming a courageous leader, the art of communication, negotiation, and public service and running for office are covered.

But the sessions go beyond offering mentees practical tips, to include issues around self-care. “Mentors talk about not neglecting yourself and your key relationships,” Dr Madiba explains. “We also use failure as an area of learning – mentors relate how they messed up, yet were able to regain their strength.” The sessions are also anything but one-way monologues. “As a mentor, I work and learn with the mentees,” Mpulo says. “When I look at what these young women are capable of, I am reminded of what is possible. I’m also taught to listen more and talk less, even though I think I know it all.”

Moreover, Dr Madiba has been bowled over by the enthusiasm of participants during sessions, which have been limited to virtual interactions. “We’d start with a song, and dance together before we settle into the formalities,” she says. “The Q&A sessions are vibrant after they have listened to the speaker and participated in their mentoring circles. We were pleasantly surprised by how the young women engaged even though it was virtual. It’s been excellent in every way!”

So instructive has the programme been that several graduates from the 2020 cohort have continued their skills training by becoming part of a countrywide alumni network, and are driving further activities for their growth and that of their peers. They have organised sessions on self-care, interview presentation, writing proposals for funding and more.

“I may not become a world leader one day,” Dlamini says, “but the skills I have and am still learning through G4G are making me a good leader. I think that matters more.”

For more information on the UP chapter and how to be part of next year’s programme as a mentor or mentee, please contact Priscilla Malaza at [email protected]

- Author Maya Skillen
Published by Mecayla Maseka

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