I am sharing with you a conversation I had with three young women leaders, launched by one of them about a situation in which she found herself. “I am the only woman on this board, and one of the men asked me to get him a cup of tea,” she narrated and asked how I would have reacted.

Earlier I had shown myself to be a champion for women, so she was surprised and dismayed when I replied that I would have brought him the tea. I explained that otherwise I would have risked provoking resentment on his part, and hence quite likely jeopardised our relationship.

My suggestion was that she should be building her status as a board member by making high-quality contributions, leading people like him to perhaps think again about such requests.

However, I would not have left the matter there. I hoped her chairman — or another director — was someone she could have approached after the meeting, requesting him to speak to his fellow board member and suggest he find other ways of getting his tea.

She revealed that she had indeed refused to be the “tea-girl”, and quite assertively so, but it turned out that at the subsequent board meeting and consistently thereafter other staff provided the service.

She wasn’t aware of how this came about, but she was relieved that she no longer risked being placed in this awkward situation.

Others in our group now had their say, with one suggesting she would have just put the tea on the table without actually serving the man, and another saying she would have smiled as she responded, whether accepting or refusing his request.

I now had two of the women role-play the situation, with one acting the part of the man. How did he feel when his request was strongly rejected? Was he embarrassed and remorseful? Did he resent the snub? It’s good to put oneself in the other’s shoes.

As we continued, I decided to call my wife, who has over the years often been the only woman on a board. Had she ever been asked to be the tea-girl? And if so how did she handle the situation? No, she hadn’t, she told me, but if asked she would have done so – with a smile and a light touch.

I then brought the conversation to the subject of emotional intelligence, which I suggested is about negotiating win-win outcomes. The challenge here was how to deal with the tea request in a way that both parties ended up feeling OK about it all.

And for me that meant giving way at the outset, while finding gentle ways of preventing a recurrence. Not necessarily by engaging directly with the other person, but perhaps seeking the intervention of a third party, a mediator.

One aspect of emotional intelligence is that sometimes we need to find the strength to separate how we feel from how we behave.

For sure, the lady board member resented being asked to be the tea-girl. But my thought was for her to swallow her short-term pride to allow for an easier long-term resolution.

Here we were talking about a small matter, however demeaned the lady in question felt. But the pluses and minuses of the different approaches we discussed among us regarding the tea-serving apply much more broadly. And not just between men and women.

It can be between older and younger people, senior and junior ones, the more and the less educated, and other pairings where one side feels unduly entitled to favours.

A final word on women’s empowerment. Any time I hear about women “fighting” for their rights it worries me. For in fights there are winners and losers.

Where such aggressive women win their fight, one of their key measures is that men will lose. No, I say. I am an absolute supporter of women’s rights, but wherever possible to go after them in graceful, elegant ways that allow for win-win all round.

Going back to the days of the British suffragettes who struggled to obtain the right to vote for women in the early 20th century there were two groups: one that was confrontational and dramatic, and one that operated more quietly but at least as effectively. I would have been with the latter.

So to the women reading this I say, smile rather than frown as you advocate for your cause. And to the men, go get your own tea.

Business Monthly magazine recently published a list of our 25 most influential CEOs, and 14 of those selected were women.

So good news: in recent years, female representation on boards and in senior management positions in Kenya has been on a steady increase.

Yet despite the significant gains made in the past decade or so, many organisations still lack substantial female representation at the senior leadership level.

Organisations like Davis & Shirtliff (where I am a director) have been working on filling this gap through a mentoring programme for empowering their women to fulfil their potential as leaders, and I thought it would be helpful to share how they’ve been going about it.

The “Women in Leadership” programme was started in 2022, with women who have already reached senior management positions mentoring other female staff members to nurture their leadership skills, attitudes and behaviours.

It utilises storytelling as a powerful tool, where these senior female staff share how struggles and victories in their personal lives have related to and impacted their performance in their professional lives.

The programme regularly attracts up to 170 online attendees each month, and the presenters have been described as refreshingly vulnerable and honest about their experiences.

The mentors share what they have been through regarding issues such as work-life balance, physical and mental health, disappointments and career progression in the workplace.

The sessions are open to all female staff, whatever their rank, profession or position, and Margaret Kuchio, a General Manager in the company and the programme’s patron, emphasises that inclusivity is key, as are the informal conversations that occur after the sessions between mentors and mentees.

The reality is that some of the biggest obstacles that women are facing now, both in the corporate world and elsewhere, are the absence of an enabling environment in which they can grow their competencies and rise through the managerial ranks – despite being just as capable and growth-oriented as their male counterparts.

It is out of this realisation that workplace mentoring programmes have become increasingly popular in Kenya, as more female mentors are now there to act as role models for other women in the organisation.

These mentors can guide and advise their junior counterparts, inspiring them to greater heights. For a young woman observing a female leader in her organisation with whom she identifies and who is breaking glass ceilings and thriving in her field, gives her the confidence that she too can advance to those upper levels.

The value of such women in leadership programmes is that through their mentoring the women in management positions are showing how they can make a transformative contribution to empowering other women in the modern workplace to grow despite the ongoing real obstacles.

Understandably, many women believe that to rise the corporate ladder they must be “made of steel” and behave in a “manly” way.

But in the safe space of the “Women in Leadership” programme, women share stories that debunk this myth and expose vulnerabilities that had been misconceived as non-existent.

Hearing a senior manager speak of how she rose through the ranks in the workplace while at the same time dealing with health or owes as they grapple with their own trials.

Mentorship programmes built on such platforms not only expose younger professionals to the glass ceilings that have been shattered by their seniors, but they also let the younger generation in on how their seniors manoeuvred their way through the barriers without cutting themselves too much as they were breaking the glass.

A few years ago McKinsey conducted a much-quoted study that found women to be better leaders than men in providing emotional support to staff, helping them navigate work-life challenges, and checking in on their general well-being.

Companies that run mentorship programmes that are for women and by women are tapping into the rich resource of women who have already earned the right to sit at the top tables.

And such initiatives will surely significantly strengthen their organisational culture and their performance. I happen to be speaking as a man, but what’s that got to do with it?

On women in the Kenyan workplace, I am confident that the glass is not only far from empty but that it continues to fill at a reasonably rapid pace. With the exception of the contact sport of politics, there is increasing gender balance at all levels, including in senior management and on boards.

Sure, there’s plenty of scope for further improvement, but I never like seeing the gloomy picture portrayed by over-focusing on the dearth of women in elective offices.

We have so many well-educated, articulate women here, both technically competent and emotionally intelligent, that employers are able to up their gender balance without any thought of affirmative action: for anyone to claim they “can’t find suitable women candidates” is simply unjustified.

In so many places I see women in leadership positions – including filling the roles of both chair and CEO. The 2021 survey conducted by the Kenya Institute of Management, together with Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa) and the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) on board diversity and inclusion showed that gender diversity in the boardroom now stands at 36 percent, from 21 percent in 2017.

By comparison, the global average of women holding board positions stands at 23.3 percent, up from 20.4 percent in 2018. Then, women here constitute 21 percent of board chairperson appointments, whereas the global average is three percent. And female representation in C-suite roles in Kenya constitutes 37 percent compared to 21 percent globally.

Even in organisations dominated by technical staff, the proportion of women is on the rise. A good example is Davis & Shirtliff, where I am a director. When I first joined the board nearly two decades ago there were very few women among its ranks – not surprising, as the vast majority of employees are engineers and until not long ago this discipline did not attract women.

Over time, however, not only has the number of women among the annual graduate intake significantly increased, but those who preceded them have been rising steadily up the organisation.

Also, in running my workshops on change management and culture strengthening, I have observed that it is disproportionately the women who not only contribute more but also more impressively.

Contrary to many studies that show women are less vocal, my experience is the opposite. Their competence is matched by a well-earned self-confidence, which leads them to articulate in ways that show they are headed for higher leadership.

In disciplines like HR and company secretarial, women have for long been prominent, and as these functions have moved more centre-stage those within them have been increasing their circles of influence.

When in 2019 Evelyn Mungai published her book on women’s empowerment, From Glass Ceilings to Open Skies (full disclosure: she is my wife, and I was the book’s editor) it gave women encouragement that the glass ceiling is disappearing, at least for educated urban women.

And to retain the mindset that it is still blocking their progress may be more a self-defeating choice than a rational judgment.

The onset of Covid, resulting in the spread of home-working, part-time working and flexible hours, has brought new opportunities for women in the workplace.

More organisations are now providing lactation locations and onsite nurseries, plus also back-to-work programmes for women re-entering the workforce. Those that do will attract and retain the best female talent, having them be productive and happy.

The rise of so many strong, competent women in this country is indeed encouraging. But it leaves us with concern for an increasing number of their male counterparts. In some workplaces, leaders are already worrying about the men being left behind. The aspiration is not for women to be included at the expense of men.

Rather, each person, irrespective of gender, should be nurtured to develop both their technical and non-technical skills so they may fulfil their own potential while maximising their contribution to the broader group objectives.

That is when we will no longer need to be talking about the struggle to include women in the workplace.

It will be as much history as giving women the right to vote or to have a bank account.

A few months ago I wrote a column about my session at a Women On Boards Network (WOBN) event on building one’s brand as a board member, and today I share the views I expressed at the recent WOBN annual conference on how the presence of women on boards influences board governance and performance.

Over the last few years significant research has been carried out on this subject, with varying conclusions. Some (including one by IFC) found a positive correlation; others (like one carried out in Taiwan) reached an opposite view; and more saw no distinct impact, either positive or negative. Studies have also been carried out to see how the presence of only one woman differs from when there is more than one, creating a critical mass for the feminine voice.

As I have read the literature on the subject a number of questions kept nagging me. The first was to do with attributability. OK, performance was more this way or that way when women were members of a board, but how do we know it was their gender that made the difference? Couldn’t other factors have been the determinants – like the board focus on strategy and innovation as well as oversight; the qualities of the chairperson; the relationship between board and management?

Finally, how do we judge performance? Merely by growth and profitability? Or also taking into account other desirables, such as culture, purpose, sustainability?

I was almost amused to read in one study that found women are more conscientious in reading board papers and in their attendance at board meetings. Plus that where women are on boards the attendance of the men on those boards is also higher.

Another variable to consider is the effect of women directors who are either executive – with managerial positions; or non-executive – independent. And here the Taiwan-based study concluded that it is the non-execs who add more value, thanks to their broader and higher-level perspectives. Fair enough… as it would be for their male counterparts.

Generally, what we should be looking for among our board directors is previous experience – a portfolio of operational and board leadership positions; their ability to prevent and resolve conflicts; their networks; and other capabilities that reach beyond their gender… or how many degrees and other formal qualifications they have.

For sure we should enjoy the benefits of diversity on our boards, bringing in a collection of directors who together cover the spectrum of needed knowledge, skills and attitudes. And among these of course there should be a gender balance, just as there must be ethnic and generational balance.

My big conclusion, the consequence of my personal experience on boards and working with boards over many years, is that we should not over-generalise. I feel quite uncomfortable when I hear statements like “women are more emotionally intelligent” or “more spiteful”; or – as one study found – that they are “less economically oriented and more philanthropically focused”; or, as the IFC study showed, that “women are not as great risk-takers as men”.

Prior to addressing the WOBN conference I had a long conversation with my wife Evelyn Mungai who has been on many boards, and on not a few as their chairman (as she liked to be described). As I was already aware, her experience was aligned to mine, also leading her to an avoidance of gender stereotyping.

Let’s judge each individual on their personal merits. Let’s select board members, including women, who add needed value. Certainly there should not be tokenism, with flower girls merely decorating the boardroom. We equally disapprove of the “Old Boys’ Club” from which women are excluded. (Evelyn has smoothly entered some of those too, as an invited and welcomed member.)

What I – and my wife – want us to move to more fully is a situation where women are appointed to boards neither because of nor despite their gender. We look forward to a world where people ask: “Men? Women? So what? What difference does that make?”

Here in Kenya and elsewhere, she and I have been seeing that where boards are composed of innovative, responsible, progressive directors they will naturally include women among them, including as their leaders. Because they are good people. And don’t tell us you can’t find any.