Añuli Aniebo Ola-Olaniyi: Challenging Norms, Attitudes that Stifle Representation of Young Women

Añuli Aniebo Ola-Olaniyi: Challenging Norms, Attitudes that Stifle Representation of Young Women

Añuli Aniebo Ola-Olaniyi is the founder and Executive Director of HEIR Women Development and HEIR Women Hub. Both organizations focus on raising girls and young women to take up leadership positions and become decision-makers. With a degree in Psychology, BSc, from the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, and a Master in Human Resource Management from Middlesex University UK, Ola-Olaniyi is a certified Project Manager with over a decade of work experience in Fortune 500 companies and currently studying for a Master’s degree in Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS, UK. Author of a self-help book titled,  “More Than Just Pretty”,  she recently directed and launched a documentary titled “The Realities of Leadership for Young Women”, exploring barriers for women in leadership.  She hosts Instagram Live talks with opinion leaders about social issues that focus on young women in leadership and women’s inclusion in decision-making. In this interview with MARY NNAH, she shares her fulfillment in giving back to the community, producing and sharing knowledge as well as participating in forward-thinking discourse 

What experiences have shaped your passion for raising female leaders?

My encounter growing up with parents who believed in leadership has helped shape my mindset from the onset however, my engagement with some aspects of Christianity as a young adult stifles the belief that a woman can be more if she wants to. Some of the teachings transcribed by some don’t necessarily encourage women to position themselves for great things other than what a few have normalised. Some human beings use the platform of some churches to indoctrinate women to be less achieving and less productive than men. I have experienced being taught by a “pastor” to have no dreams or aspirations of my own but ensure the man’s dream is my responsibility to make happen. Talk about pressure! It would have been better to say ‘Men and women are entitled to dream big and all should dream and ensure you support each other to achieve your individual and collective dreams and purpose’ (laughing) but only very few platforms of authority will say the truth. Now we have some inclusive conversations coming to light and the emphasis on women being economically empowered has been buzzing. Some of these platforms forget that women funded Jesus’s ministry and the celebrated entrepreneur was the Proverbs 31 Woman who we have all been “instructed” to be like but not “supported and empowered” to become, even Madam Dorcas’s philanthropy made her be raised from death due to the people’s request and Queen Esther saved her Nation. So, I am seeing selfishness and lack of truth in such teachings that disempower girls and young women and also some narratives that need to be expelled from our thought processes. That’s the main foundation for me. The root causes of our mindset need to be confronted and addressed and doing this drives my need to provide real-time information for myself and to females, so they can make better decisions for themselves as they journey to fulfill a purpose – whatever that looks like for them.

As a certified project manager, how has your experience shaped your personality to achieve your purpose?

Growing up, I interned in my mother’s many businesses, overseeing some aspects, managing some, and working with staff as well to serve customers. New ideas that my parents had, always engaged me and my siblings and so the drive to begin an idea or project and run with it was part of my journey. Now I studied Psychology as my first degree, Human Resource Management as my first Master before I even knew there was a discipline called Project Management.

I remember I used to be asked how I was going to adapt and transition to the Project Management environment with my experience, knowledge, and skills and I say that having an understanding of people through psychology and the vital importance of humans to any project through Human Resource Management, the field of Project Management will have added value with me on board. Of course, as with many steps in life, I did do an internship In Project Management, took and passed the certification courses, and was thankfully allowed to work in this field. My father instilled discipline in me and my siblings and I learned how to work within the allocated time, and resources, and be accountable for any tasks assigned.

Project Management help refine and increase skills from an industry point of view that reinforces we work with systems and people to deliver on those projects. There’s no project management without people management. I believe in making and sustaining an impact that is evident and measurable and that’s one of many outputs of this field for me. As I continue my journey in doing a second Masters in Gender Studies, I see the many opportunities to engage in projects that are progressive and impact-changing to ensure that development does what it is intended to do. My personality is to be intentional and that’s what Project Management has also taught and still teaching me as I keep refining this skill.  

Your profile X-rayed your expertise working in various multinationals and having certifications across gender-based systems, would you mind telling us those features that determine your success stories?

I can probably speak to many features that catapulted pockets of gratitude in my journey but would like to emphasize that “success” is a relative term.

The awakening of one to see an area or need or an idea is in itself, success. My need to dive deeper into the terrain or “Gender” is to understand what’s beneath the surface of this terminology so that I can better position my mind to deliver positive antecedents of Development in our Nation. The ‘will’ or ‘drive’ to rise above tokenism and mediocrity to think critically and analytically challenges me to engage in behaviour that can bring about productiveness.

So my many certifications (and counting) are from the quest to be one of the very best in this space with a new voice that speaks to issues from a new, nonrhetorical lens. Deciding to do a second Master in Gender Studies in one of the World’s most prestigious institutions for this course is a success for me because that decision, as you would probably imagine, took and still takes time, focus, energy, grit and a mindset that’s resolute to bring the desired impact for our Nation’s Gender Inclusive Agenda. My parents always taught and showed us what it means to be determined once you clock what it is you are meant to be delivered. This is not to say that I don’t experience situations that are challenging, rough, painful, betrayal or rejection, I do however like my Dad would always say, “Take your time, cry and be sad about it, throw a pity party if you like but watch your timeline, remember your drive and release that negative energy, then come back with all the stones (lessons learned, criticisms, good opinions) and start to re-build”. Dad always had something profound to get me re-aligned. Now that’s one human being that features in my success stories. 

As the Founder of HEIR Women Hub, what has been the key impact?

My team and I at HEIR Women Hub have been privileged to undertake impact-driven initiatives under our thematic areas which cut across inclusivity for young women in leadership spaces. We speak to and challenge norms and attitudes that stifle the representation of young women at various intersections of society. For over six years, we have engaged in conversations around policy, education, social economic development, economic empowerment, employability skills, workplace, and career workshops, engaging with duty bearers to create visibility on structural and systemic violence that sustain conditional biases.

So all we do is intentional and impact-driven, all are very key to our purpose. Our most recent globally funded project is on the enhancement of leadership capacity for young women with a lens into understanding the barriers to leadership positions in Nigeria and setting the stage for young women to ‘take on the baton’ of decision-making roles. Before this, we curated a documentary titled ‘The Impact of Leadership on Young Women”, where we spoke and interviewed thought leaders and decision-makers on the dimensions of barriers and challenges women face in our Nation when it comes to leadership, we worked on a project called the prevalence of sexual harassment at workplaces, also globally funded, where we identified the root causes of workplace sexual harassment and it impacts on young women and brought to light, data to back up the research. The engagements my team and I have had on the output of all our projects enable us to engage with stakeholders that cut across society where policy changes can be made. We got endorsements from the National Orientation Agency, ICPC, engagements with the Ministry of Labour, NLC, FCT SGBV, and the good people of the Media.

We have now engaged in a follow on project, funded by our organization, HEIR Women Hub, to do an added project to understand the knowledge, orientation, mindset, and reactions of a survey sample of 200 men and boys about workplace sexual harassment. We are analyzing our data and teasing out the responses now and will make that available to stakeholders and the media. The output from this project will give us an understanding of where we need to adequately engage these issues from an inclusivity perspective. I also need to say here that, from inception six years ago, till now, all the projects we deploy are key. Supporting SMEs owned and run by young women is ongoing for me, re-educating on the need to be self-enabled to deliver on your goals and purpose is vital and so I also teach secondary school students in leadership and life skills to give them an enabling platform, early in their journey to fulfill a purpose.

What is your take on gender inclusiveness and how are you driving this through your organization?

Inclusivity engages everyone.  It’s a state of being conscious that no one is excluded and in the context of gender, when we discuss or engage on this topic, we are looking at either what excludes and why or, who should be included and why?. HEIR Women Hub, engagement is on the need to include young women across abilities in leadership and decision-making roles. Now as gender is just not women, we engage men in the conversation to bring about a more diverse audience into the reality young women face in our society from education to financial literacy and independence to career access and human rights. My understanding is that historically, there was no gendering in our society. Colonisation “civilised” our society and placed domestication of labour upon us and I see it as a major disenfranchisement of women and men. I say that because masculine norms are a Western concept imbibed in us through the platform of religion. These masculine norms have and still create pressure for men and women where one of the norms emphasis is on provision- men must provide- then women must reproduce. Where there is a challenge to provide or reproduce, pressure sets in and mental health, depression, and suicide become the outcome of societal pressures experienced by men and women. Now imagine a world where there is an inclusive conversation about these two examples. Young women are encouraged from when they are girls, to be financially literate and economically empowered. Or a world where young men are encouraged from when they are boys, to have a support and partnership mindset rather than a dominating one, our society will be better for it. Gender inclusivity works for us all. We have all been socialised into very violent structures and systems and we all need to be re-educated to unlearn what has kept us in a “developing” state to what can categorise us as “developed”.

Me and my team, I work to ensure all members of society are on the agenda.

For example, our project about the prevalence of sexual harassment at workplaces confirmed a disturbing trend of young women of all abilities being harassed at workplaces. Now, we have completed and analyzed a follow on research we conducted for men. This is to show us what the gap may be. Perhaps, answer the question and provide us with targeted methods to reduce and eradicate sexual harassment in workplaces. That’s inclusive in my opinion. I will ensure we make the findings available to the good people of the Media.

I will like to emphasise here that “Gender” is representative of everyone- women and men. It’s not a ‘woman’ only term as some narratives wrongly push, it’s an inclusive terminology.

What has been your experience raising girls and young women to become leaders and decision-makers?

I have encountered the very negative and the nearly positive. Socialisation and masculine norms have caused our lived experiences to lack the attention girls and young women need to thrive. Society has created a situation that celebrates mediocrity, dependability, and lack of financial, moral and emotional intelligence and no one is held accountable as should. And so the quest to raise girls and young women leaders is laced with structural, systemic, attitudinal and behavioural barriers across all intersections of society. My goal to change this mindset began with training on employability skills as I have had to do recruitment for a hospital chain, sitting across candidates and interviewing was nearly disheartening. It was sad that the number of candidates that were female did not do as well as some of the males. This, in turn, filters the number of females in career positions and fewer women gain opportunities due to a lack of employability skills. I created and run a workshop called ‘Hire Me’ Bootcamp, working with renowned organisations to deliver this project to get our young women, re-orientated into career skills that can also lead to leadership positions. This singular impact catapulted many of the work I am privileged to action in this space. I must call out strongly that many girls and young women have so many limitations they face and our society celebrates silence but stifles or ridicules agency. So you find that a binary acceptance criterion for girls and women is to be a human being that is assigned some goals to attain as long as that goal fits into the societal agenda that keeps girls and women from achieving their full potential and purpose. Girls should aspire to conquer like anyone else however we see less of this model in our society. So in raising young women, the societal norms are such a huge issue that you only find a slim lane of outliers who “have it all”, and I mean, are educated, employable, attain positions of leadership, live in matrimony, be “happy” wives and moms and content humans. This is a very critical conversation to have as we work to raise more informed girls and women to have it all done ethically. Now while raising girls and young women, who are raising the boys and young men to think differently?

What is the focus and key message of your book, “More Than Just Pretty”?

More Than Just Pretty published in April 2022,  is a collection of essays on my growing-up years in Nigeria, my experiences and my learning thus far. This book speaks to counter an idolised narrative of beauty and aims to re-educate on what the ideology of a woman’s calling and standards should be. My goal is to break down normalised stereotypes that limit the progression of girls and young women and the book offers opportunities to reflect at the end of each chapter.  

The key messaging is for us to do a lot of introspection to enable us to use real true stories as an example to evolve, grow and learn as we also progress to fulfill goals we align to. It’s about a life of impact and this book is one of the major goals achieved to support girls and young women to make more informed decisions. It’s available in major bookstores in Nigeria and online platforms like Amazon.

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