The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #PressforProgress. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, it will take the world two hundred years to reach gender parity. We are being urged not to sit back. I am the first female leader of the Bar Association in Zambia pre- and post- Zambia’s independence in 1964. At the last count, I was one of only two female leaders of a national Bar Association in Africa. This is a very sad state of affairs. As the famous anti-apartheid activist Dr. Mamphela Rampele once said:

“Throughout my career, I had to bear the burden of being the only woman, the first woman. It’s not something to celebrate. It’s a serious commentary on a society that has not leveraged the talent of women”

I have been very deliberate about my leadership journey. I planned to become the President of the Law Association of Zambia seven or eight years in advance. Getting elected was not easy but as Thomas P. O’Neil once said, “It’s easier to run for office than it is to run the office”. I am here to talk to you about what it is like to aspire for office as a woman, what it is like to lead as a woman, and why it matters.

One aspect of women in leadership that is often spoken about is how people relate to women in leadership as it is often negative. So how do I deal with this? I focus on the minds that I can change and that is one of the reasons that I am writing about this today. I cannot do that without talking about how insidious unconscious bias is. In my opinion it is far worse than conscious bias because when people are unconsciously biased they manage to convince themselves that they are perfectly unprejudiced.

One clear example of unconscious bias was a question posed to me during the run up to my election as President of the Law Association of Zambia posed to me by a female lawyer on a social media platform, “What have you done [that would make me vote for you]?”. I proceeded to list everything I had achieved over the previous six years at every level of the Association, including on the many committees of the Association that I had worked on during that time. It was a long list. Her response, “What else”? I do not believe that it is an exaggeration to say that during that election race I was by far the most experienced, accomplished and qualified candidate and still my pound of flesh was not enough.

An American study by the Pew Research Centre found that 64% of people surveyed believed that one of the reasons that women struggle to get elected is because they are held to a higher standard than men. Of those 64%, 38% of those surveyed listed it as a major reason that women do not get elected into office. For us women to succeed we must be able to embrace the ambition and success of other women because it will take nothing away from our own ability to achieve.

It has not been easy for me to be in office, particularly during a time when our country is going through political turmoil. The mandate of the Law Association of Zambia is not only to regulate the legal profession in Zambia but also to promote and protect the rule of law, constitutionalism, good governance and social justice in Zambia. Often these objectives are seen as antithetical to political expedience so you have to constantly be on your guard.

As a female leader in the public eye, you must be prepared for a lot of criticism, sexual objectification, and even threats to your personal safety. I have experienced protests outside the offices of the Law Association of Zambia Secretariat by cadres in support of the ruling party, a failed impeachment attempt, and have been declared a political enemy separately by the Republican President and the Secretary-General of his party. Women leaders also experience very personal attacks on social media. This is a worldwide phenomenon. For example, Hillary Clinton reportedly received around three times more online abuse than her male opponents during her presidential campaign.

To handle the personal attacks against you, you need to be very convinced about why you are doing what you are doing. There must be purpose and meaning to it because willpower is not enough. For me, my Christian faith keeps me going. I have experienced what I can only describe as miracles through my faith. John Wooden, a famous U.S. basketball coach once said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character I what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are”. Also, do not read the comments – unless of course you are into self-mutilation.

One of the things that I did when I needed inspiration was to turn to people who have had similar experiences for guidance and comfort. Unfortunately for me, I am personally acquainted with only one other woman whom I feel can entirely relate to my experience. I have however drawn a lot of inspiration and comfort from the writings and videos of Oprah Winfrey and Thuli Madonsela. They have been invaluable.

One of the most difficult things that you may have to contend with is loved ones trying to dissuade you from a particular course of action because they are concerned for your welfare. I have however noticed that a lot of this has eased the more I have proven myself. But the fact that I cannot always turn to someone I actually know in a time of need is lamentable. That is why we need to build a critical mass of women in leadership. Not only will it allow men and women to see women in leadership as a normal thing but it will also create a bigger support network for women in leadership.

Being in leadership is a difficult balancing act. A lot of the difficulties I would have faced have been eased by the fact that I have chosen to take a sabbatical from my law firm to take up my role as Law Association of Zambia President. What I can say is that being in a leadership role does require making a lot of sacrifices – financially, physically and emotionally. You may also have to restrict your movements. I am only able to make these sacrifices because I believe in what I am doing. It is not for the faint-hearted.

So why is it important for more women to be in leadership? The Council of the Law Association of Zambia has sixteen members, of those, six are women. They also happen to be some of the most active members of the Association. I have noticed the same trend in the leadership of a lot of the Association’s committees. That means more gets done. Women also bring a different perspective to leadership. According to a 2017 report by UN Women on leadership and political participation:

“There is established and growing evidence that women’s leadership in political decision-making processes improves them. Women demonstrate political leadership by working across party lines through parliamentary women’s caucuses – even in the most politically combative environments – and by championing issues of gender equality, such as the elimination of gender-based violence, parental leave and childcare, pensions, gender-equality laws and electoral reform”.

In my experience, women are often also more consultative. It is true that not all women or men like the idea of women being in leadership. For example, I noticed that when I first got into office some of the men on the Council would defer to the opinion of the other men on the Council after I had said something in a meeting. But as I quickly found, being excellent is the best response to all your detractors. That goes for internal and external threats to your leadership. I also find that being transparent allows people to trust you. But ultimately, being a good leader requires you to collaborate effectively with women and men. We must always include men in the pursuit of gender equity. Without them, we are only competing against ourselves instead of bridging the gender divide.

Here is the good news: women are perfectly capable of being good leaders. Although being a woman in leadership is hard, I believe it will get better when more women step forward to take up the challenge. Aspiring for leadership can be a noble pursuit. As the writer Maya Angelou once said, “If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities.” Too many women do not take any steps towards leadership because they are waiting for someone to hand it to them. You have got to grab it – with both hands. To quote Mikki Taylor, another accomplished woman, “Many women live like it’s a dress rehearsal. Ladies, the curtain is up and you’re on.”

The author of this article is the President of the Law Association of Zambia and an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow. The views expressed in this article are her own