Back in primary school, the most fearsome teacher I ever had the misfortune of crossing paths with was one Mr Komen. He spoke mostly in staccato, rarely smiled and was known for his liberal and vicious use of the cane.
Then there was Ms Njoki who was also not one to cross paths with. And it wasn’t just because she was the proprietor of the school; she was also a strict disciplinarian who did not tolerate bad behaviour.
They were probably the most feared teachers at the school at the time. But while most of us interpreted Mr Wachira’s violence as something that was necessary to preserve order, and which ultimately commanded our respect, Ms Njoki – who rarely, if ever, used the cane – wasn’t as highly regarded. In fact, I remember we had more negative things to say about her than we ever did him.
It is only years later as an adult that I’ve found the words to describe the dynamics of leadership, gender and perception that had played out in our little school, and which would continue to manifest in different scenarios later in life.
I like to call it the yoke of being a ‘nice’ woman leader. Tonnes of research, including a study published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) last year interrogating the different words used to describe men versus women leaders in the US military shows that, in addition to being competent and firm, female leaders are widely expected to be warm and nice. This, according to HBR, often leaves women in a catch 22 situation because these traits are often seen as opposites.
Even in the Kenyan context, our women in politics, corporate and business find themselves having to navigate through strong tides of public perception while going about their work.
For women, being a leader often means self-policing your tone when issuing directives to your team. It means proof-reading your emails two or three times to ensure they leave no room for misinterpretation and that there’s nothing that could be misread as being bossy.
Sometimes, it also means mastering the art of biting your tongue as you politely decline to serve tea in a meeting because you’re the only woman in the room.
Navigating male-dominated professional spaces is a delicate tap dance that you quickly master over time.
And if you play ball long enough to crack the glass ceiling, the yoke of niceness will always be there to remind you to stay in line so you have a shot at shattering it.
We often hear things like “I don’t want to work under a woman because they can be so moody”, among other unsavory adjectives. So then women in top positions work extra hard to ensure that these things are never said about them because once they are, the labels stick throughout their careers.
Think Hillary Clinton and her characterization as unlikeable and brash. These perceived traits dogged her entire career since she was first lady, with some media studies showing that the negative stereotypes of her spiked in the US whenever she expressed interest in running for public office.
Writer Greer Litton Fox in his book on social values theorises that the societal expectation of being a nice girl is rooted in social control. That it is a strategy used to regulate and exert control over their behaviour.
Thus, women are rewarded when they present as ladylike, demure and likeable. This is an invisible rule that cuts across class, race and marital status.
For this reason, I’m always in awe of women who break away from the prescribed mould of female leadership that demands a public performance of niceness, but rarely expects the same from their male counterparts.
The Millie Odhiambos and Martha Karuas of this world are important. They’re a refreshing reminder that you can be your authentic self and still have a place in the world.