Women have done remarkably well in certain spheres of life, but could be better in others, writes Folarin Alayande

It was a silent coup d’état. The women had taken over. Almost 60 years after Nigeria’s independence, it is clear that women have taken over the nation’s key strategic financial establishment ranging from having three women consecutively as Minister of Finance, to leading the Securities and Exchange Commission, Debt Management Office, Nigeria Investment Promotion Commission; and serving as Chairpersons of three of the nation’s largest mega- banks. In a way, it reflects the global financial landscape with women running some of the most important global financial institutions right from the IMF, twice consecutively, the European Central Bank, and a large global bank among others. Eventually Nigerian women in the workplace have come of age. Or so it seems. Are the headlines on women’s emergence in the workplace really balanced or is it just a mirage of improvements in headline achievements of women whereas the core indicators may have stagnated or declined? Are the few chairpersons and female directors getting all the accolades in the klieg lights while the progress for the average working class female toiling in the background is less dramatic? The answers are mixed.

Statistics like the American humorist once said are like miniskirts or bikinis. What they reveal is interesting but what they don’t show is probably more interesting and worth the salivating hunt. Our years of longitudinal research over the past three decades is that the positioning of Nigeria women has improved at certain levels of management and in certain industries, but in others not much has changed. In a few instances, the indicators of women representation and voice may indeed have declined. There are no easy patterns nor simple answers. While sectors such as financial services have featured increased representation of women, with the improvements skewed towards non-executive directors rather than executive management, several other sectors of the economy have simply stagnated or just marginally improved over the past two decades.

In principle, the goal of any diversity and gender-centric inclusion agenda should ideally cover increased women representation, giving women a voice, and empowering women for enhanced performance. Representation, voice, and enhanced performance are what most of our efforts on diversity initiatives seek to attain. Ironically, until we improve our scores on women representation, we may struggle to amplify their voice and instead only be creating empty cacophony. Here are some interesting summary facts on women representation in corporate Nigeria, with emphasis on the banking industry that has been globally identified as one of the toughest industries for women to work in, given the long working hours and the wild testosterone drive to control money.

In the early years, between 1960 and 1973, women representation in senior management in corporate Nigeria was low and board succession was glaringly patrilineal. The enterprise promotion or indigenisation exercises of the 1970s with the attendant increase in floatation of more publicly quoted companies and domestic ownership provided more access for Nigerians to general management and board positions. Yet only a few women benefitted from this. By 1980, average representation of women in senior management and Boards of Directors was still in the low single-digits. Three decades on from independence, as at 1990, many boards of publicly quoted companies were still all-male boards and at best only sparingly featured a female company secretary. While a few of the larger banks had two female directors concurrently on the board, these institutions were outliers for several reasons including the fact that they had relatively large boards and could “accommodate” extra directors. Indeed, the notion of women on boards was still seen in some circles as simply accommodation or tokenism. This posture was obviously anachronistic as a few women directors of that era earned their positions on merit and proved their mettle. Overall, average representation of women in executive management and company boards of large corporations and publicly quoted companies was less than 10% in many sectors up till 1990.

The deregulation in the economy in the 1990s however changed the game on many scales. Most noticeable impact was in financial services. First, the wanton issuance of licences to many new banks and other financial institutions created new managerial opportunities in the sector and opened up more vacancies in general management and on the board that women could be considered for. Second, the expansion of the international banks that were more gender-friendly, and the leadership style of the chief executives of some new generation banks supported the rapid promotion of career women to positions of general manager and executive director, as well as fostered more non-executive director appointments for women. Third, the growth of the capital markets fostered the listing of more companies in the real and services sector that also opened up more opportunities for female white-collar professionals. Ironically, the growth of the financial services industry in an economy where the real sector was tanking and the services sector booming, meant that there were more opportunities and prospects for senior women in banking than say, manufacturing or construction. Women representation in general management therefore improved significantly in the 1990s and 2000s and by 2010, the ratios had improved up closer to 20 per cent.

Initiatives such as the Codes of Corporate Governance of the various regulators that encouraged increased women representation on boards, the Nigerian Banking Sustainability Principles of 2012, and the myriad of women interest groups that started receiving prominent attention in 2001, have all elevated the discourse on equity for women in the professions, management and business.

The sum total of all these positive developments is that today the average female graduate has an equal choice of working in any reputable organisation of her choice in Nigeria without knowing any ‘uncle’ or dropping her cv with any friend’s father at home ‘after hours’. With fairly transparent aptitude tests and screening processes, the ratio of female to male on the graduate entry programme of many organisations today is approximately 45:55. In a few organisations, the ratio is approximately 50:50. However, this ratio becomes to thin out as we move up the corporate ladder dropping to as low as 30:70 in upper middle management and 25:75 in senior management. Even when we adjust for the 18 to 24 month discount that may be accorded for multiple maternity leaves and cost of women re-entry to work, the thinning numbers of women in the pipeline as we ascend the executive ladder still do not add up. In the sober mood of the popular folk song by Grammy Hall of Fame singer Peter Seeger, ‘Where have all the flowers gone’, one cannot but ask ‘Where have all the women gone?’. Where did all those bright young women who scored First Class in school and trumped their male classmates to win multiple prizes back-to-back on convocation day, and completed their professional examinations the same year they graduated, go to? Where have they disappeared to?

Like the rhetorical song that is an all-time classic, ‘Where have all the flowers gone’, we may not have all the answers, but we do have an option to create a new narrative for the next generation of women. It is the least we owe our daughters and nieces.

Part of the problem is that very few businesses, and even large corporations who should know better, have an unambiguous diversity strategy, even when they claim they have a sustainability strategy. Another piece of the puzzle is the tendency to frame the theme of diversity in the workplace in emotive terms rather than in terms of quantifiable impact. It is the responsibility of women directors to speak upon on boards, to hold their colleagues accountable, and insist that such a merit-based diversity strategy be clearly documented with a clear timeline for implementation. That is the only definition of stewardship. Let it be clear: History will not forgive us if we do not speak up at such a time as this.

The implications of sub-optimising minority talent and under-utilising the enormous women talent in our economy cannot be under-estimated. The immediate cost is that our economy is losing the increased creativity and productivity that these ladies with superior brain-power can deliver in the workplace, but that quite frankly is the lesser problem. Here is the time-bomb. Today, we have higher representation of women at the board level in many institutions than we have in executive management, and worse so in a few institutions, this also applies to senior management. This is the stark reality that has emerged in the past decade. The immediate inference from this is that there is an internally weak pipeline of female executives who could be elevated to the board without being given accelerated promotion. However, this deduction is not necessarily correct. The real position is that the high ratio of women independent non-executive directors suggests that women are getting increased representation in corporate Nigeria, whereas the ratio of women in general management has not improved materially in many sectors in the past decade. As at 2017, the normalised ratio of female independent non-executive directors to total independent directors and total number of directors, respectively, in the top 50 listed companies was 32 % and 18%. The figures for 2018 and 2019 show slight sectoral variations but are consistent with the patterns from 2015 to 2017. These numbers speak for themselves. Most of the female independent non-executive directors by definition have to come from without the organisation. An increasing number of female independent non-executive directors while beneficial to some categories of professional women does not still address the need to open up more equitable opportunities for active career women in their primes, while their flowers are still blooming. We definitely cannot let these flowers radiate less than their full fragrance while the sun still shines on their careers.

Dr. Alayande, international strategy and diversity consultant, and convener of The Diversity Initiative, was Co-ordinator/ Senior Special Assistant to the President on Economic Recovery from 2017-2019