NCWS CONFERENCE: WOMEN OF AFRICA, GLASS CEILING OR NO GLASS CEILING ~ Adaora Onyechere

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BEING PAPER PRESENTATION AT THE NATIONAL COUNCIL OF WOMEN SOCIETIES CONFERENCE IN ABUJA ON JUNE 9, 2021

TITLE OF PAPER: WOMEN OF AFRICA, GLASS CEILING OR NO GLASS CEILING

THEME OF CONFERENCE: NEW AWAKENING FOR THE AFRICAN WOMEN 

Preamble

The African woman has always been so close yet so far away from her moment of glory. Between the kitchen and the boardroom is the glass ceiling that prevents her smooth ascension to positions of leadership. African women continue to be marginalized from attaining leadership positions in organizations despite the numerous efforts that have been made to achieve equality. The Africa Gender Equality Index of 2015 ranked the continent as having an average score of 54.1 out a possible 100 which is a visible pointer that the continent is making strides but gender parity and equal opportunities are still a far cry away. With numerous cultural barriers standing in the way of women’s ascension, the glass ceiling remains the present reality.

Background

African countries like Liberia have managed to sustainably elevate their women with an estimated 30% of companies being led by a female Chief Executive. More so, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the country’s President rewrote world history by becoming the first female President in Africa. Malawi’s Joyce Banda and Central African Republic’s Catherine Samba Panza followed soon after to further cement the rise of the modern woman in Africa. It is easy to then assume that these are milestones that prove equality is now a reality yet there are 52 countries in Africa and only three have had female heads of state. It is better than nothing but it is also proof that the society is not yet as fair and as equal as it should be. In actual facts, if the society was where it should be, female presidents would not make the news.

Recognitions

Permit me, in no particular preference encourage and inspire us with laudable shattering of glass ceiling testimonials by these outstanding women at least to show the milestone is progressing;

In the U.S., at least three Nigerian women are currently serving in the President Joe Biden’s administration. Enoh T. Ebong was appointed to serve as the acting director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, an agency that partners with the U.S. private sector to develop sustainable infrastructure and foster economic growth in emerging economies, while supporting U.S. jobs through the export of the country’s goods and services. 

Osaremen Okolo, a former senior health policy advisor at the United States House of Representatives, was appointed as a Covid-19 policy advisor to the president. Similarly, Funmi Olorunnipa Badejo, a former counsel for policy at the White House Counsel’s Office, was appointed as a White House counsel. Badejo was also attorney advisor at the Administrative Conference of the United States during the Obama-Biden administration.

At Intel Corporations, California, Nnennaya Udochu, a power integrity engineer, works as an analog engineer, leading platform designs for 2020 Microprocessor Projects and the technical collaterals of the Platform Design Guide. She had previously worked with Cisco and has been an adjunct professor at the University of Portland, Oregon. Udochu also serves on the board for Society of Women Engineers, Columbia River Section, and Engineers Without Borders Portland, Oregon. 

Pamela Adewoyin is the counsel, business & legal affairs at Netflix, where she negotiates and drafts development agreements for a multitude of unscripted series. She also provides legal support and advice to department heads on all corporate, vendor, lease, and sale agreements.

Human rights activist, writer, strategist and community organiser, Opal Tometi, is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and has campaigned for advancing human rights, migrant rights, and racial justice worldwide. She is also former executive director of the United States’ first national immigrant rights organisation for people of African descent, the Black Alliance For Just Immigration (BAJI). Tometi was included in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020 and she was on the list of the BBC’s 100 Women announced in November 2020.

Blessing Omakwu is a deputy director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she leads the Goalkeepers initiative, which is a campaign and community that serves as a catalyst for action on the Sustainable Development Goals. Prior to joining the Gates Foundation, she had worked with and advised a variety of international organisations and government agencies, including the ONE Campaign, the Nigerian Federal House of Representatives and the United Nations Development Program. 

A recipient of the 2012 USA National Association of Women Lawyers Outstanding Law Graduate award, Omakwu was also recognised as one of the top 50 emerging global policy leaders by the British Council in 2017.

Similarly, Nigerian women in the UK are breaking through barriers, especially in the political arena. Chinyelu Susan Onwurah, a Labour Party politician, has served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Newcastle upon Tyne Central since 2010. She was shadow minister for industrial strategy, science and innovation from October 2016 until 9 April 2020, when she was appointed as shadow minister for science, research and digital.

Helen Grant, born of an English mother to a Nigerian father, is an orthopedic surgeon by training but veered into politics. She was appointed special envoy of UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on Girls’ Education in January, 2021. Before her appointment, she had become the first black woman of mixed heritage to be elected in 2010 as an MP under the Conservative Party. She also became minister for sports and tourism in 2013, a post she held until after the 2015 general election.

Ofunne Kate Osamor is the Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Edmonton since 2015 and has consistently argued for much fuller representation of Black and Ethnic Minority communities in political bodies, causing her to successfully win re-election in 2017 and 2019 general elections. She is a former minister for women and equalities and former shadow secretary of state for International Development. Osamor was appointed to the House of Lords in 2018 and is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Nigeria.

In February 2020, Olukemi Badenoch was appointed exchequer secretary to the Treasury and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Minister for Equalities) in the Department for International Trade. She has also been a Conservative politician since 2017 when she won the seat of MP for Saffron Walden, becoming the first woman to represent that constituency, and was later appointed minister of children and families by Boris Johnson in 2019.

At the Central Bank of Ireland, a young Nigerian woman, Nono Okeke, recently won the Spotlight Award, the bank’s highest award which she dedicated to Okonjo-Iweala for being a source of inspiration to her and many young women.

Nigeria’s Tito Daodu is the first black woman to become a pediatric surgeon in Canada and currently works at Alberta’s Children’s Hospital Foundation. Daodu has a passion for global health and promoting justice and equity in medicine. She is actively involved in Global and Public Health Research, focusing on improving surgical outcomes and making surgical care more equitable and accessible in Canada and around the world.

This should be the case even more. None of us would be here if it weren’t for a woman. Or a man for that matter. But then again, if all of us owe our success to both genders, then why is it that when it comes to important business, political and even artistic leadership positions, women are always at a disadvantage? There are various answers to this question, which must all be addressed.

Challenges

Explaining— The popular notion of glass ceiling effects implies that gender(or other) disadvantages are stronger at the top of the hierarchy than at lower levels and that these disadvantages become worse later in a person’s career. The term “glass ceiling” refers to invisible barriers that keep some people from advancing in the workplace.

You know you’ve reached it when lesser qualified individuals keep passing you by. In theory, any qualified person can rise in the ranks at work and enjoy the perks that come with that. There are legal protections and individual corporate protections that should make the glass ceiling obsolete.

But those invisible barriers persist. Leaders may or may not be aware of their own cultural biases involving gender and race. Whether they do or not, it’s a subtle form of discrimination.

The glass ceiling keeps people from getting certain jobs, despite being well qualified and deserving. It’s a phenomenon that affects career trajectory, status, and lifetime earning potential. The glass ceiling effect doesn’t end with the workday. It fans out into all areas of a person’s life. It can even affect mental and physical health.

Some of the factors affecting glass ceiling is identified and some of them are:

  1. Personal factors
  2. Organizational factor
  3. Societal factors

Personal Factors: Under personal factors, ability to work,willingness to do the assigned job, self-perception about themselves, family work balance have been cited as factors determining career development. This shows the extents to which individual factors come as barriers for women’s career development Family work balance shows how relation of the female employees affect their performance.

Organizational factors: Organization policy, organization culture, perception of the management towards the advancement of the women in higher roles are some of the factors under organizational factors. Organizations are reluctant to invest in women employees, as they perceive women may quit the job.Women have fewer promotion opportunity, despite having high coordinating ability.

Societal Factors: Beliefs and stereotype are the factors identified under societal factors. This refers to the extent to which the beliefs, traditions and influence the employee development.

The greatest battles the African woman has had to fight are those against widely held convictions that have always relegated her to a second class citizen whose forte is the kitchen. Gender equality is still some sort of favour men think they are doing women. A case in point is Zimbabwe’s new constitution which provides for a mandatory quota of 30% women representation in the Parliament and Senate. It seems like a step in the right direction as women currently make up 35% Zimbabwe’s two law-making houses.

Another set-back in the African journey towards women empowerment has been cultural indoctrination. Women are taught from a tender age that success scares men away and they might not have families if they are successful. Men who are threatened by women’s success further perpetuate this belief. Marriage is essentially a luxury that ironically only the unsuccessful woman can afford. Many ladies are being pushed to give up on their lofty dreams of grandeur. The pressure cannot be underestimated as many girls are taught to value marital success over all else and they are falsely made to believe successful women do not get married.

Being African, and being a woman has often meant being underrepresented due to discrimination in the corporate and governance pipeline, I thought to myself when I read that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had just been elected as Director General of the World Trade Organisation. This results from the fact that odds are heavily stacked against them. And although this is an unfortunate reality which must be acknowledged, we must also acknowledge the round pegs in the square holes who have challenged the ruling paradigm in this regard, as Okonjo-Iweala has done so herself.

Looking at possible way forward

For a start, there is no denying that patriarchal mentalities are still alive and well. Sure, things have improved both in Malawi and in Africa in the last years. Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first female elected Head of State in 2006 for example. And personally I’d also like to think that Joyce Banda’s Presidency of Malawi had something to do with this improvement, be it not through the ballot but she was at the table. However we are not there yet. So the time is ripe for us to ask: how do we get there? Looking towards Rwanda, we can note that ever since 2003 Rwanda has required 30 percent of its elected officials to be women. And this in return has resulted in Rwanda having the highest female representation in Parliament in the world.

All positions at all levels and within all arms of government should have equal representation of the two sexes. However, we should recognise that this may not lead to a gender responsive parliament/executive. As Charmaine noted, it may not be possible to have women chair or co-chair every committee in the parliament. Take for instance the Nigerian parliament made up of 2 chambers- House and Senate. There are about 80 committees in the House and about 70 in the Senate. Meanwhile, there are only 24 women out of 360 members in the House and only 8 women out of the 109 senators in the Senate. It would be practically impossible to have women chair or co-chair all these committees. I think what is most important is while ensuring visibility of women within the leadership structures of any arm of government (whether parliament or executive), we should also ensure we are strategic enough to implement initiatives that will make both male and female parliamentarians custodians of gender equality principles. It will be assumed with the present political reality a double jeopardy for only female parliamentarians/legislators to be saddled with the responsibility of gender equality and women’s empowerment. It should be a societal cause. 

These initiatives could be advocacy efforts to advance the leadership of women in legislative structures or to have a mechanism that can engage with the whole parliamentary/legislative structures and make them gender responsive thereby having that trickling effect to the grassroots.

In Nigeria, we have to consolidate the efforts of civil society, development partners and the Parliamentary committees on women affairs who established the Gender technical Unit which is physically located within the Parliamentary complex. The gender Technical Unit is saddled with the responsibility of not only building the capacity of female parliamentarians to deliver on the job but to ensure that gender responsiveness is mainstreamed into ALL legislative processes.

Therefore, advocacy efforts is very critical and especially at strategic times when positions are in contest or appoints within any arm of government. 

Without Affirmative Action policies/laws, it will become difficult for women to climb into any leadership positions in Nigeria. However, we also do not have any law on Affirmative Action so the journey has been arduous. The measures are needed because there are other systemic causes of low representation of women in public life and this involves changing of mind set which is a transformational and generational task. In the interim, measure of affirmative action policy or better still law will suffice.

Nigeria has the National Gender Policy which stipulates 35% affirmative action for women in all positions. However, this is just a policy document and it has been very difficult to hold government responsible to it. Also, some political parties have some policy statements that give specific positions to women within the party structures but this has been noted as very tokenistic in nature. 

I think for a country like Nigeria where political parties still remain the only legitimate route for either elective or appointive positions, it may be more strategic to get more women into political parties as authentic card carrying members of the party and mentor them to vie for positions within the parties. Often, the decision of who becomes a minister or which individual gets a party ticket to contest for elections is determined by the party leaders. Because women are in very small numbers in their hierarchy, they often lose out in appointments and elections. Interestingly, even within the parliamentary structures, the party has a huge influence on the parliamentary/legislative leadership composition and if women are not in decision making positions within the parties, they cannot have a say in what the party determines for the legislative houses/chambers.

The way I see it, more female Parliamentarians and Government officials can mean more African women making a name on a global level. And what better way to increase Africa’s success and representation in international institutions than by making sure that we have smart and progressive women representing us? The effort is also current visited, as led by The pragmatic Barrister Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, who as the Deputy Chief Whip of the House of Representatives in Nigeria has sponsored a bill for more inclusivity for women in the Parliament. We sure do need the numbers for a clear cut at the decision and negotiating tables.

African governments should do more to achieve a more equitable state of affairs. It is a shame that in Zimbabwe where there is a Gender Responsive Budget on paper, the Ministry of  Women Affairs has never been in the top 10 of the government’s top prioritised ministries. This in itself is a reflection of the low levels of commitment that governments have towards achieving a gender blind society. Taking a leaf from Europe, the Norwegian government put in place laws that go as far as enforcing the dissolution of companies that do not comply with the quotas set in place to maintain gender balance in publicly traded companies. This level of commitment is still lacking from many African countries where the concept of equality is still a political pawn that is used to gain votes and popularity during election time. The promises that are made to empower the girl child on grass root levels are not followed through and consequently, no one ever gets to see what that child could have potentially become had she received the tools she needed.

Africa needs to start being serious about the ascension of women to top decision making jobs. The African women in turn need to have a change of mindset and fight the “woman for a kitchen” mental syndrome that keeps holding them back. It is possible to have a perfect family and be successful all at once. Only weak men are intimidated by a woman’s success. In fact, it is imperative that everyone start appreciating the rise of the 21st century woman who can stand on her own two feet without anyone holding her hand. Gender equality as a movement should therefore be financed to educate people that women can and should also be successful. The gender responsive budgeting models should be effectively implemented and not remain a novelty, scribbled in fancy diction and filed away. Laws and conventions that have been put in place should be enforced with a Norwegian rigour if all else does not work.

Corporate leaders have the power to change attitudes by setting a good example by:

  • recognizing the value of diversity
  • committing to gender and racial equality
  • ensuring women are represented on boards and in senior management
  • addressing preconceptions and stereotypes that contribute to the glass ceiling
  • matching employees with suitable mentors
  • be inclusive with networking opportunities
  • giving all qualified applicants a chance to apply for promotions
  • encouraging better in-house communication
  • holding those in positions of power accountable
  • be intolerant of discriminatory practices
  • promoting a work-life balance

For every young African girl and women, I want you to know that you can become anything you want to in life. You can become Nigeria’s, Malawi’s, Zambia’s, or Ghana’s Lupita Nyong’o if you work hard for it. And if your dream is to be become a philanthropist and entrepreneur, know that you are fully capable of following in Madam Ngozi’s footsteps. In essence, you can be what you want to be.

I reaffirm today, knowing fully well that our collective mandate is with a resolve that the glass ceiling should be forcibly smashed if need be. Women Arise…Smash the ceiling…

Have a wonderful deliberation at the conference.

Presented by:

Ms Adaora Onyechere

Head, Women and Gender Affairs Cluster Committee, AU-ECOSOCC Nigeria

Executive Director, WeWe Network Afrique.

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