Woman leaders are necessary for society to progress, says Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.
"Shutting women out of decision-making means society has to limp without part of the human input that it needs to move forward," she said at a dinner in Cape Town on Sunday, according to a speech prepared for delivery.
Women brought different perspectives to leadership roles and often worked in pursuit of social justice because of their own underdog status in society.
However, occupying a leadership position did not automatically make one a leader, Madonsela said.
"We must also accept that some people occupy top decision-making positions without ever stepping up to exercise leadership."
The dinner was hosted by the Higher Education Resource Services SA Academy.
Madonsela said woman leaders often encountered problems when having to exercise discipline, as women were traditionally associated with nurturing roles.
"Nurturing is associated with stereotyping women as mothers. But this does not take into account that mothers nurture while exacting discipline in families."
Woman executives were also sometimes concerned that if they spoke up for women's rights they would be sidelined as spokeswomen for gender rights rather than seen in their full capacity as leaders.
Madonsela said there were lessons to be drawn from pioneers such as Charlotte Maxeke, Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi, and Albertina Sisulu to help women realise their full potential.
"Women must stand up for something. If you stand for nothing you will fall for anything."
They should also act authentically, or risk acting by proxy, which made one easily replaceable, she said.
"Women in leadership positions need to step up now more than ever to play their part in supporting and strengthening constitutional democracy. As they do so, their own fortunes as leaders will be improved."