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‘It was time to contribute to my country,” says Gertrude Chirambo, recalling her return to Malawi, where she was born and grew up.
Chirambo had been working in the UK for 12 years when she left her job in communications and public affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat.
In May 2014 she was elected as an independent councillor in Blantyre, Malawi’s main commercial hub, with just over 1m inhabitants. Just two months later, she was a contender in the city’s mayoral election.
Chirambo’s candidacy was unsuccessful, however, receiving only one vote from the other councillors. She found it difficult to network and lobby in the male-dominated political sphere of Malawi. Part of her response was to attend Women and Power, a short programme at Harvard Kennedy School in the US designed to help women in public leadership positions advance to top roles.
She took the course in 2016, a year before she was nominated for deputy mayor. After tying with another candidate she narrowly lost in the 16-14 recount. Undaunted — and now with years of experience as a councillor — she is planning to stand as an MP in 2019.
The one-week programme has been running annually since 2002. “That was a time when the conversation about female leadership was really starting to pick up,” says Erica Lane, programme director. The course, which focuses on alliance-building, admits only women. Hannah Riley Bowles, the programme’s faculty director, says this helps participants speak frankly about their experiences as leaders. “We do not dwell on negatives but focus on strategies,” she says. Topics include how to establish yourself in a new role when you are in a minority and ways to overcome stereotypes.
A growing number of international participants are attending, with the average now at 60 per cent of a cohort of 60. “The social distance allows them to put down their guard and speak openly about problems they face and solutions they are considering,” says Prof Riley Bowles.
The $8,500 course has developed over the years. Prof Riley Bowles says there is much more research today on biases in public leadership. The teaching also takes a more intersectional view of gender, meaning participants are encouraged to reflect on how social and ethnic background affects the challenges women face. “If you are aware of gender dynamics and other type of biases they are less likely to affect you,” says Prof Riley Bowles.
For Chirambo the main lesson from the programme was to become more visible and to network, with both men and women. “Decisions are not made in meeting rooms; you need to already know what other people think by the time you get there,” she says. “Now I lobby, I talk to my colleagues and try to get their support.”
Interest from male leaders who want to help women progress led Harvard to launch a new course teaching strategies for leading diverse organisations, but Women and Power focuses on women’s personal development.
Chirambo’s favourite aspect was an element called the board of directors — a small peer feedback forum that met every morning. “During these meetings we could discuss specific problems we were facing,” she says.
Lane, who manages admissions, makes sure that participants are at similar stages of their careers. “They not only learn from faculty, but also from each other,” she says, adding that the morning board meetings allow participants to ask: “Did you also go through this? How did you do it?”
Peer-to-peer elements help bring participants closer and Lane says Women and Power is the only Harvard Kennedy School programme with a self-organised alumni network that meets up every year. Prof Riley Bowles says she would like to incorporate a more structured follow-up in the future. Once participants return to their workplaces, they will start thinking about what they learnt in a new way, she says. “Whether it has to do with their own career advancement or changing something in their organisation, alumni are definitely asking for some kind of follow-up after the course.”
Chirambo is now preparing for the 2019 parliamentary elections. Blantyre does not currently have a female representative in parliament and only four of 24 city councillors are female. However, she says: “I believe I will be successful. I have accomplished a lot here in Blantyre.”
Being a woman in politics is still mired with specific challenges. “When you are a woman and you are a leader, your actions impact the chances of other women becoming leaders,” Chirambo says, reflecting on the legacy of Malawi’s first female president, Joyce Banda, whose two-year rule ended in 2014.
“I speak to many youth groups and meet young women who say: ‘if you can do it, we can do it too’.”
Building bridges in schools
Women and Power course participants are encouraged to stay in touch and collaborate after the course. In the case of Gertrude Chirambo and her classmate Marjorie Bride — who worked in urban development in Boston — co-operation and friendship built a new bridge in Blantyre.
A footbridge that needed repair was forcing schoolgirls to walk for nearly an hour to get to school on the other side of the Nasolo river. “Teachers would sometimes not show up to class because they fell in the river,” Chirambo says, “and during rain season no one could get to the school at all.”
When Bride heard about the problem, she helped her friend set up a fundraiser in the US, and soon a new footbridge was constructed, helping 2,000 people a month to cross the river. The two are now trying to set up a non-profit together, with the aim of building Blantyre’s first centre for senior citizens.