Education | Speeches

Women & Leadership

Chatham Hall Leaders in Residence

Chatham Hall, Chatham, Virginia, USA

April 18, 2009

We are going to talk about women in leadership during the next two half days. This is a topic that has been much discussed especially in the last two centuries. Even at this moment during our era, innumerable hours are spent discussing this subject and searching for solutions to increase women participation in all aspects of public life. Many more hours are spent on the subject of women's liberation and giving women their rightful place in their homes and in their work places.

I would like to handle this in a manner that would prove useful to you, young ladies, as you step out from College to face the challenges of the world, beyond the protected life you have led until now in your home, school and college.

I will first talk to you of leadership in general, whether it be a woman or a man who takes such leadership.

How does one become a leader?

What personality traits, attitudes and behaviour are required for a leader?

You need to have a vision. This is a set of objectives and the moral and practical reasons that justify them.

Based on the vision have a plan of action (planning and implementation). This Plan of Action is the mission.
Need to be focused
The Action Plan must be implemented. For this we need to evolve tactics on how to implement the plan.

What strategy or vision should a leader possess?

What tactics or action plan should she develop thereafter?

A leader must be able to inspire others. A most essential ingredient of this is a clear, good vision.

(a) Vision

This vision must respond to:-
Given needs
During a given time period
For a specific group of people
It also has to be measurable in quantity.
It must be achievable. So we have to assess the resources at our command - material and human.
Weigh this up against our final goal and then ascertain whether we have sufficient resources to reach our objectives. If we don't have them, we have to plan how we will access the resources we require.
(b) Commitment

A Leader has to prove that she is totally committed to the vision.
Therefore you cannot compromise on your vision, even though you can compromise for your vision. In other words it is acceptable to compromise and be flexible when faced with obstacles along the path to achieving the final goal. But, it would be most negative, if as a leader you begin to compromise on the principles of your vision.

(c) Conviction

If you are convinced of your vision, then you can go ahead and achieve your goals. We are all capable of reaching great heights when we see big. Be confident that you are capable of "Reaching for the Stars".

Mahatma Gandhi once said "The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing, would solve most of the world's problems". I think what the Great Mahatma tried to say was, that we do not know that we are capable of much more than we normally do.

When you are convinced of your mission and passionately committed to it, you achieve high performance.

(d) Credible

A leader must express her vision in a credible and convincing manner. She must then do what she says. Walk the Talk.

To be credible the leader must have;
A proven capability as well as
Integrity and honesty.

To prove ones capabilities one has to have a record of successful achievements. This is something that is required not only for leaders, but anyone wishing to achieve a purpose.

For this you evidently have to possess attitudes and strengths we talked of earlier.
(e) Confidence

Confidence in one's self is a totally essential requirement of a leader.
Once he is confident of his mission and commits himself to it, he will naturally develop confidence in his mission.
We must know that we are superior to what we think we are and that we could do much more than we think. Human capacity is incredibly massive.
We are only as big as the challenges we are willing to accept. (give examples).

(f) Implementation

To implement your vision we need to formulate a clear Action Plan and find the tools required to implement it. The Action Plan must contain the following aspects:-

Decide on the priorities i.e. First things first.
Be focused
Start moving into action with the specific goal of achieving the final objectives or purpose.
(g) Efficiency and Performance

A leader requires to be efficient.

For this she needs to organize her time and her work.

She can create her own methods of work.

As I said earlier, this must be focu on achieving the goals she has set herself. She must then:-
Select a good team,
Then identify the capability of each member of the team,
Select the right person for each task,
Then motivate them and get the best from them to achieve excellence,
Weld the team together, around your vision and your objectives

For this, a good leader must develop a good human management capability.
You must listen to your team,
admit to your errors,
thank for a job well done,
encourage for further achievement
II. Women as Leaders

Until now I talked to you of the overall qualities required by a leader. Let us now look at Women as Leaders.

Women have faced many challenges in their long march towards women's rights and equal status with men.

Historically the basis of patriarchal society was, the dominant position of the man in society. This gave rise to the philosophy of male supremacy and hence the acceptance of male domination and its corollary - the suppression of women's rights in most religious, cultural and political theories.

I shall focus mainly on the last few Centuries that have marked the birth and progress of Parliamentary Democracy and modern capitalism.

Women's rights movements, as we know them today, probably began in the 18th Century, called the Century of Enlightenment. This is the period of several struggles for Freedom and Equality, culminating in the French Revolution and numerous other freedom and liberation struggles in Europe and in America.

Mary Wolstone Craft of England was one of the first leaders of the women’s movement. Then there was Olympe Dourges of France, who lived and worked during the French revolution. Before this we hear of Paul Ganguin’s grandmother, who in the middle of the 18th Century, took up the call for women’s rights. Florence Nightingale did likewise during the same period.

In my part of the world too, we have had women leaders in several fields. It is noteworthy that Asian women have led and participated in Women’s Rights Movements from the dawn of the 19th Century. A significant number of women participated in them throughout South Asia.

I would like to tell you about women’s movements in my part of the world. These appeared indigenously, for instance in South Asia, Egypt, Japan, China and Iran, contemporary with similar movements in the West. The women of India and Sri Lanka, for instance, obtained Universal franchise in early 1930’s.

In India several women leaders emerged during the struggle for Independence from British Colonialism, participating actively in the Independent movement. This occurred at a time, in a country, where women’s rights were hugely suppressed. Yet the women, who participated in the Independence movement, took leadership and suffered the same punishments as the men. Also they were accepted by the men without hesitation.

This leads to my contention, that if women are ready to commit themselves to a cause, to take responsibility and act effectively, they can surmount the obstacles laid in their path by Centuries of male domination.

We will no doubt encounter challenges and set backs. The main ones would be;

The accepted philosophy the world over, in every society that women do not have the same rights as men,

that she should bow down to male dictates. Some societies go as far as mutilating parts of women's bodies or insisting that they kill themselves after their husbands die.
The world has gone a long way from this situation today, although there are rare remnants of such practices in some parts of the world. Most countries have given women’s rights legally, and adopted various measures to remove social and traditional practices designed to oppress the women.

Women’s Rights Movements began with a call for women’s education. This progressed to demands for employment for women and finally to the demand for women’s franchise, together with all the democratic rights accorded to men. These demands were part of the liberal agenda of democratic movements, which were sweeping across the world, from the 18th century to our day.

Let us look at your immediate situation. You are young women living in the Unites States of America – a country which has experienced liberation movements, such as,

the war of liberation from British Colonialism,

the abolition of slavery,
the struggle for the abolition of segregationist policies.
The American people have achieved a society, in which Democracy, Freedom and Equal Rights for All is guaranteed and protected. The most recent and almost incredible example of this is the election of Barrak Obama to the Presidency of the United Sates of America.

In such a country, there shouldn’t be any obstacles to women reaching the highest positions.

I would like you to tell me - if you have experienced in your day to day life or on any specific matters, barriers of any sort, to your freedoms or advancement as a woman.
It is said that there is a "glass ceiling" beyond which most women find difficult to reach. In other words, that they can go up to a point, but not to the top, that they can see through the glass ceiling, those at the top levels who are obviously men - but cannot join them at the top.

I would like you to tell me if you have encountered such situations in your country.
In any case I would say that if women have the qualities, attitudes and organizational abilities that we talked of earlier on, they will succeed like any other man. Even though this would not have been possible one century ago, democracy and all its institutions have made it possible today. In your country, the major obstacles have all been removed to your becoming leaders in your chosen field.

So let us apply ourselves to become good and effective leaders. I have no doubt you will make it.

III. Women in Conflict Resolution and as Peace Makers.

Even as I speak to you today, women have not succeeded in wiping away all the barriers they face to equal participation and equal rights as men.
The UN recognizing this, has adopted several resolutions to promote equality for women especially in Government and National and International Institutions. i.e. CEDAW, UN Resolution1325, UNIFEM etc;

The UN and other International Institutions have adopted laws and regulations to ensure gender equality. Yet, in most important issues women are poorly represented in decision making and implementation.

In matters of National and International Peace and Security, women are sidelined when important decisions are made. Yet, during war, the women suffer as much as the men. There are many instances where women have actively engaged in the fight for Peace.

But when Peace is being won, women are sidelined in negotiations and in formulating agreements. In other words, women have still not achieved equal status in the peace making process. UN Resolution 1325 attempts to deal with this problem.

In the decade spanning 1990 – 2000, the world has seen 118 violent conflicts, which have claimed 06 million civilian lives. We also know that recent trends in many countries facing violent conflicts, indicate that the largest numbers of victims are innocent women and children.

Women as mothers and managers of households have natural aptitudes towards mediating in conflicts arising between family members, to be more gentle and caring than men in their dealings. They also have a special interest in resolving violent conflict, as they, their families and their children fall victims to these situations.

UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) argues that peace agreements and restructuring work progresses better when women are involved in the building process. A critical mass of women and not merely token representation however is needed, for this work; the minimum recommended is 30%.

SCR 1325 – promotes gender equality and women’s participation in peace and security, conflict resolution, conflict management and peace building initiatives of the UN.

ICTY - the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia – passed the first ever sentence on sexual violence against women.

The concept of democracy will only assume true and dynamic significance, when political parties and national legislation are decided upon jointly by men and women in equal regard for the interests and uplifting of both halves of the population.


Sri Lanka’s first woman President spent three days at Chatham Hall, Virginia, United States mingling with the students who will have an opportunity to learn from a leader. It was part of the school’s Leader-in-Residence program held on 16th, 17th and 18th 0f April 2009.