For Verna Sinimbo, Rundu’s mayor, it is important to challenge traditional notions and value individual contributions. She also believes that women are good leaders who walk the talk, writes Mathias Haufiku
Sinimbo is aware of the gender perceptions around women’s abilities to be good leaders, but she says: “I don’t believe gender has much influence on ones’ leadership style. I believe it’s all about character. Believe you me, we have become forces to be reckoned with.”
With a deep and the diverse experience of teaching, entrepreneurship and community development, Sinimbo understands the challenges facing the community from a social and business perspective. Despite being in a male-dominated field[politics], Sinimbo still has time to tend to her other life roles such as being a business women, mother and wife.
Very few people would leave their comfort zones to venture into private business-Sinimbo is one of them.
“After having worked as the Chief Community Liaisons Officer for the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child welfare for 11 years, I took a risk last year (2015) and resigned from my job. I decided to become a full time entrepreneur, to have more time to manage my private school, which now has a total of 21 employees. In the same year, I then became the Mayor of my home town Rundu, which is now one of the fastest developing towns in Namibia,” she says passionately.
Asked what the biggest challenges are for women in leadership roles, Sinimbo was quick to point out that women have to work twice as hard to prove that they are just as good as their male counterparts.
But it does not end there she says: “Once in a position of leadership, it’s a struggle to have your voice heard as loud as that of men, because we have a stereotype attached to us as being very emotional and therefore incapable of making sound decisions.”
Generally speaking, the upbringing of girls are more inclined to value “softer characteristics”. The Rundu mayor believes such upbringing serve both as an advantage and disadvantage for women in their leadership careers.
“I believe that women bring a certain value to the society by being soft and it’s a characteristic that is required of us since we are the main caretakers in society. My perspective is that being “soft” is a characteristic that compliments leadership and that makes us human and we need to keep that balance in society,” she says.
Sinimbo singles out specific patterns she has taken note of over the years regarding women in the workplace. These include things women could be doing better to advance their careers and also the aspect of women being seemingly more prone to becoming comfortable and subsequently sacrificing their ambitions.
“I think that because of the glass ceiling that exists for women in the workplace, women can easily become complacent and give up on their career ambitions. But just because the environment limits you, doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to settle for that. Remain ambitious and work hard to be the best at what you do and go where you are appreciated,” she said.
Another concern for Sinimbo relates to women leaders being so few and far between, Sinimbo says it is hard to form circles of influence and when they do form such networks, there’s a tendency for rivalry. “But I do believe that women are starting to realize that we do need each other and I think there are efforts being made towards women empowerment by women, but it needs to happen more frequently.”
Sinimbo believes in facing challenges head on and dispelled the notion of gender roadblocks, when asked if she encountered any in her career.
“I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a roadblock, but rather a challenge. After having resigned from my job, the transition was not an easy one as there were more demands on my time, being a mother, wife and politician. Sacrifices had to be made, compromising on the amount of time I have to spend with my family.
She also underscored the importance of family support. “With the support of my family “husband and my daughter,” I have been able to continue being a wife, mother, politician and entrepreneur with dreams that I am realising.”
Sinimbo also believes that women are equally ambitious as men and opposed those who think women aren’t as ambitious as their male counterparts.
“I don’t believe this is true[women being less ambitious than men]. I think it once again comes down to what society teaches us and the constraints of gender roles. Women aren’t generally encouraged to aspire for leadership or anything that takes them away from their duties in the home. However, I see a new generation of women rising, who know that they can do anything a man can do,” she said.
Regarding the apparent discomfort some men feel reporting to a woman, there has been reports that some men cannot handle it and will regularly challenge a woman’s authority or expertise, Sinimbo urged men to accept the fact that women are here to stay.
“I believe that it is, especially seeing as we are still such a cultural society and our culture teaches us that women are always to submit to men. A man’s masculinity can feel threatened by a women in charge and I think it’s going to be a while, before our society can adjust. It is high time to accept the fact that women are here to lead and change some of those myths. I lead without fear or favour and will never waver.”
Sinimbo is part of a group of female politicians that have infiltrated the very top segments of Namibian politics, but she cautioned politicians to never depend on political positions.
“Lead without fear. Never be dependent on political positions because you will feel enslaved and will not have the liberty to do what is right. Be guided by the needs of your electorate and by the provisions of the law. When you are no longer wanted as a leader by your electorate, embrace the change and move on without stressing.”
When reminiscing on the progress made to date with regards to how women are being perceived as an authoritative figure, she says “significant progress has been made in this regard and women are gradually receiving the respect they deserve as leaders. The more we fight for gender equality, the more it’s becoming a cultural norm for us to see women as authoritative figures and we see evidence of this with so many prominent female figures in positions of authority. There was a generation before us that paved the way and we will continue to pave the way for future generations until this question doesn’t have to be asked.”
She also noted that women can apply different styles of leadership depending on the issues at hand. “I personally use situational style to accommodate everyone in general life and democratic leadership in politics. Privately, I can be autocratic once in a while.”
Regarding confidence in the workplace, Sinimbo reminded her female counterparts that confidence is a valuable and indispensable quality in any aspect of life.
In her view, it[confidence] conveys how much you believe in yourself and it’s something that people sense without it having to be spoken.”
“Therefore, it’s a must in the workplace. When people realize how confident you are, you give them a reason to trust that you are capable. It will also keep you going even when others doubt your abilities,” she stressed.
On a parting note, Sinimbo had this to say to Namibian women.
“As women, our strengths and impact on society have for long been downplayed and undermined. But I would like women to realize just how powerful they are. I would like women to be bold and confident enough to pursue their passions even if society doesn’t approve.”