The low representation of women on corporate boards has remained a serious issue affecting the upward mobility of women in the workplace. In this interview, the Executive Director, Women in Management, Business and Public Service (WIMBIZ) Hansatu Adegbite, suggests measures on how to improve representation, as well as the role of her organisation in addressing the challenge. Ugo Aliogo brings the excerpts:
Women in Corporate Governance in Nigeria. What progress do you think we have made as a country in terms of the number of women in corporate leadership?
I guess over the years, the progress we have made in that space has been very slow. But I would like to assert here that we have made a bit of progress. If you look at Nigeria 20years ago, it was unheard of, to have a female as the Chairman of a bank. That glass ceiling has been destroyed because today, we have four female chairmen of banks. This is a huge achievement for Nigeria and it shows that we have made some progress though it has been slow and it has taken a long time. Presently, I think the representation of women is less than eight percent and Nigeria is not ranked among the top 20 worldwide. But I think in Africa, we have made some leeway, maybe being among the top 20, certainly not the top three. Countries such as Rwanda, Kenya, and Senegal, are doing better than Nigeria in the issue of women representation in corporate boards. However, for Senegal, it might be in the realm of politics. While for Nigeria, I think the awareness on gender inequality on corporate boards is increasing.
As an organisation, we are doing a lot in that space. But it is very important to state that Nigeria has a lot of barriers when it comes to leadership for women. Not just on corporate boards, but across sectors. Most of these barriers are around religion, culture, patriarchy and others. Then we also have family barriers, women go into the workforce and have to make some sacrifices based on family obligations and child bearing stages of their lives. Having said that barriers are there to be broken and some women have successfully shattered some of these ceilings that have been set. Just this year, we have celebrated a lot of women on social media; Transcorp group is a case in point. Women are heading three groups within the Transcorp industry. The Chief Executive Officer of Siemens is a woman. First time in the history of this country, the Chief Executive Officer, is a woman. Last year, the Chief Executive Officer Unilever resigned and a woman was placed on an acting capacity. All those progress shows that women are actually proving themselves in the corporate space of the country. In the Nigeria Stock Exchange (NSE), WIMBIZ has been involved in a lot of advocacy efforts. The NSE never used to have women on the board, but through advocacy efforts, they have three. I think this year, they are introducing more women in the corporate board they are setting up.
For us, it took almost 15years or more to see an increased representation of women in the financial sector board in comparison to other sector. If you look at the Dangote group, women are heading the foundation and other leadership positions in that organisation. If you go to some of the banks, such Access Bank, UBA and First bank, women are at the helms of affairs. For instance, First Bank is very gender sensitive when it comes to corporate governance. Slow movement is better than no movement, so Nigeria is actually moving in that direction.
Gender parity is one of the cardinal goals of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). What is your view about that and how do you access the progress we have made in that space in comparison to other Africa countries such as Senegal, Kenya and South Africa?
To answer this question, I will mention three things because there are so many reasons. But when you see best practices anywhere, there are certain things they have put in place that has made their practice work. First is policy. There are certain policies that have been introduced in some countries that are increasing the representation of women in corporate boards. Secondly, some organisations and some countries have quota systems. Those countries have realised that the issue of gender inequality cannot move forward unless there is a quota system in place. For instance, Senegal is an Islamic State. But they have been able to put in place laws and quota systems that are working for them. In advocacy efforts, you need to have people that are willing to champion gender parity. If we have leaders that are open to gender parity issues; they would put measures in place to drive progress in that space, this is why the UN has started the He for She campaign. But I have realised that as a man, if you are heading any type of organisation within the country, your belief system is very critical. I believe that a country as complex as Nigeria will require policies and quota system to move forward without it, it will continue to be talk and no action.
There is a need for policy review. I feel the policy we have is not tackling the issue. The challenge we have in this country is not we don’t have enough policies. Policies have been discussed at so many levels. Various reports have been given to government over the years. The challenge we have is implementation of those policies. Even in reviewing some of these policies, we should focus on reviewing for implementation. Last year, we were with the Speaker of the House of Representatives also pushing for increased representation of women even in the political space going forward, and looking for ways to assist government to achieve that. The Speaker brought a lot of concerns around our constitution. He said were certain things in the constitution that will not permit a gender bill going forward. Even though he has made a commitment that they do look at the constitution and try to pass the gender bill, it is still a process and it will take time. I think if we have a leadership that is willing, to begin the process with the mind of implementation, then the policies we will have in place will not just be what is on paper. But actions that a lot of us can hold unto as tangible results. Implementation is on different levels.
There is need for implementation from a government perspective, in the government; I think we need to start with regulatory bodies. Various sectors have regulators and some of these policies need to start from there. Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has done it, they did for the financial sector and it is working. So if you can take a cue from that you will begin to target the regulators. The government has to do it from a national perspective through the legislature. Coming to corporate organisations, organisations have to put in place, the necessary corporate governance policy. As every leadership body is being built, from all levels, from middle management to the board level, there has to be a percentage that is allocated for gender balance and parity. I will like to state here that irrespective of how large or small the organisation might be we need to start from all levels, from the Small Medium Scale Enterprise (SME), corporate, legislative and multi-national levels. It has to be something that everybody sees as an urgent need.
What is the role of WIMBIZ in promoting increased participation of women in corporate governance?
This is WIMBIZ 19th year of existence. November this year will be our 19th conference. When WIMBIZ started, it wanted to see women attain leadership positions by inspiring them. Our founders realised that we had gaps. These gaps existed when we were having our inspirational, empowerment, connecting and networking programmes. Each time a gap was identified, a programme was created to address it. The gap affecting Nigeria women on boards was also identified. The founders began to reach out to Chief Executive Officers of organisations to request for increase in women representation on boards and the CEOs on their part sort for the qualified women to serve on boards.
Wimbiz on their part took it as a challenge; they went back to the drawing board and developed the women on boards programme. In developing that programme, we looked at four areas that were of major concern, for women to serve on boards. The first was that we needed a database of women that are board ready to meet the specifications and requirements of CEOs.
The second thing we realised was that there was a need to prepare women so that they would be board ready. What WIMBIZ focused on is that you don’t have to be a member to benefit from these initiatives. The thing important is that we just want to drive growth and progress in this area. Therefore, we partnered with the IE Business School in Spain to start training some of these women on boards. But after running that programme for about three years, we began to realise that a lot of these women also wanted local content because as much they were been offered international training. There are certain things that are peculiar to Nigeria as a country; therefore we decided to develop a curriculum for Nigeria women on boards programme that is more localised. We organised some test runs towards the latter part of last year and it was a huge success. We will build on that because it is about preparing women to serve on boards.
We have a third aspect which is mentoring. We have women who have been on boards and they have realised that serving on boards requires much commitment and focus. So these women who have been on boards are discovering new ways to mentor those that have been trained or already existing on boards in areas of growth so that they will continue to expand territories in that respect. The advocacy still continues. We have developed plans to carry advocacy to CEOs. We have women that visit CEOs monthly just to advocate for increased representation of women on boards.
Despite, these efforts, we are not satisfied in terms of the number. We have seen some few progresses which in my opinion are less than two percent increase in that regard. Again, it is better than nothing. Yearly, we go back to the drawing board and strategise on how to improve and do more.
What are the challenges that confront women upward mobility in the workplace?
First is family demands and responsibility. You realise that a lot of women when they go into the workforce, they have the same opportunities as men. When they start getting committed to their marital responsibilities, some give up their careers, while others cannot cope with the demands of motherhood and the workplace. Therefore, their upward mobility in the workplace suffers. The second factor is that women sometimes don’t know how to project themselves, they tend to play safe. When men begin to break new grounds in their careers and other endeavours, women are very much focused on their work.
Most might women might be diligent in their careers, and qualified for a particular role, but they don’t have the desire to push themselves due to certain factors such as mental limitations, fear and others. Some are not interested in being on platforms of attention, they prefer their safe spaces. Sometimes, women don’t want to be exposed to the social stigma because of the society they belong to. What I mean here is that some people believe that for a woman to rise to certain enviable positions in career they might have compromised their values and principles. People may not see the hardwork she has put in order to attain such enviable positions. There are a lot of women who have worked hard to reach the peak of their careers. Also, most women don’t have the opportunity for the kind of exposure that is needed to build their leadership capacity. Some women cannot afford to invest in opportunities that would build their leadership capacities; therefore they cannot make it a priority area because they are trying to joggle some many things at the same time. Within organisations and companies, there are some organisations that don’t encourage women to rise to the top echelon either because of their culture or organisational structure.
Gender inequality has been termed as a cultural problem. Some Schools of thought view gender equality as a cultural problem, while others feel women have a role to play in addressing this challenge. What is your take on these views?
There are people (both men and women) that are just satisfied with their career growth and don’t bother to aim higher. They are not so ambitious. There are circumstances whereby women are not eager to aim higher because they feel that the lives of certain individuals (male and female) who attain top leadership positions are always in the public domain such as the pages of newspapers and social media. So you cannot blame them. Having said that I do think that the percentage of women who are ambitious is rising by the day. There are competitions where women come tops. I think it is also happening in organisations, gone are the days, when you enter an organisation and you don’t see women push themselves forward. So I think on both sides, there have been efforts to move forward, but each argument is justified in its own way.
Is there level playing for men and women in the corporate world?
For me, I will like to go back to the organisation. For instance in WIMBIZ, there is no disparities between male and female, we pay all our staff equally and based on the level that they are on. However, I know that some persons in our network do have disparity of payment in their various organisations. I cannot speak for some organisations because I have not been exposed to research in that area. But I know that it is a serious problem and I also know that there is a gap in terms of having a level playing field between men and women. Apart from advocacy, women need to keep proving themselves in anything they are doing.