INTRODUCE yourself to any audience as an African woman leader and a whole army of stereotypes is likely to come to life and attempt to own you.
Some believe that an African woman must be submissive — meek, speaking only when spoken to and generally doing as she is told.
Others believe that an African woman must be physically constructed in a particular way, and have an “African figure” and a face bearing “African features”.
In certain quarters they will wonder why you are not dressed in java, shweshwe or wax prints with a complicated turban on your head. They will find it confusing that you might want to wear your hair long and straight and still embrace your African heritage.
For others still, the notion of an African being a woman and a leader at the same time is an oxymoron that they would prefer not to engage with, and they will turn away muttering under their breath about confusion, Beijing and womens’ lib.
Although it is no longer remarkable to come across women who are talented and accomplished in different areas, it seems we still struggle with the notion of women being the complex and multi-faceted beings that they are.
When a woman excels in business, we find it odd that she might also be interested in baking. When she is a leading politician, we do not expect to see her running in the mothers race at school. The woman who makes groundbreaking discoveries in the science laboratory is not expected to wax lyrical about her sexuality.
The fact that women are not one-dimensional creatures who can only focus on one thing at a time seems to continue to vex us. But the simple matter of fact is that one women can have several areas of competence as well as excellence.
The corporate wonder-woman may well be an accomplished sponge cake queen, while the politician values both motherhood and physical fitness, Sexual healing and autonomy is of interest to many women, including serious scientists.
When we put women into boxes and proceed to frown upon them when their expansive personas overflow the small boxes we try to continue them in, we send a message to the next generation which is not only limiting, but also damaging.
We teach girls that people should be judged at face value and not probed for depth of character and a multiplicity of talents. We teach them that one set of competencies is enough.
We limit their ability to see themselves and every other woman as every woman, to realise their full potential and to embrace the variety of interests and giftings that just about every woman has.
So when your little one tells you that she doesn’t know whether she should be an astronaut or a hairdresser when she grows up, remind her that she can in fact, be both.
Give her permission to imagine how much fun it would be to spend all her days playing with peoples hair, and also to imagine how exciting it might be to discover new worlds. She is after all — every woman.