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Women and the long journey to deserved leadership

Women have been leading for years at home, in the community, and in the workplace. At an early age, women learned to be great at multitasking, solving problems, managing resources, and collaborating. However, women’s natural ability to lead is often underrated in organisations because of gender bias and cultural stereotypes despite the increasing number of women graduates and participation in the labour force compared to the ’60s and ’70s. Women make up half of the workforce in Nigeria and the world. Disappointingly, for women, their male colleagues get rapid promotions and are deemed better suited for leadership roles.

In contrast, the women’s work ethics and rigor go unnoticed. However, women have actively fought to break through the prejudice attached to leading in politics, private and public organisations. A few examples of women breaking barriers in Nigeria and Africa, starting with Amina, the warrior Queen of Zaria, debuting as the first woman to rule an African kingdom in the 15th century. The Dahomey Benin female warriors, Ghanaian Queen Ashantiwa, who led a war against British colonials, Empress Candace of Ethiopia, and others. Bringing it closer to the organizational successes of female trailblazers in Nigeria, Chief Bola Kuforiji-Olubi is one of the trailblazers even before the dawn of the fight for gender equality. She had many firsts, became a head schoolteacher at nineteen, the first female Nigerian graduate of the Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, the first female graduate of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria. She later went on to become the first female elected and 25th president of the Nigeria body (ICAN) in 1989.

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Chief Bola was also the first woman in 1977 to become a director of an international company in Nigeria (VYB-Nig Ltd), the first female chairperson of a public quoted company, and the first female chairperson of the United Bank for Africa UBA). Later in her career, appointed a minister of commerce and tourism during the Ernest Shonekan interim government in 1993. These women have paved the way for many more women professionals in politics, private and public organizations, with women leading in roles, which in the past were exclusively reserved for men. Examples include Funmi Opeke an electrical engineer and CEO of MainOne Cable and founder of Main Street Technologies, Ibukun Awosika Nigerian businesswoman, who was appointed First Bank of Nigeria Limited’s first female chairperson, in September 2015 since its establishment in 1854. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically elected woman president of Liberia 2006-2018, Nobel Peace Prize winner 2011 for her work on women empowerment and the first female leader in Africa to address the UN General Assembly.

Meaza Ashenafi is another trailblazer, the first female Chief Justice of Ethiopia, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Minister of finance in Nigeria, and currently appointed first African and woman director-general of the world trade organization (WTO) after working for 25 years at the World Bank. Although times have changed, nevertheless, cultural, and societal prejudice persists. As men have been leaders in organizations longer than women and are predominantly decision-makers in organizations. Hence, women need to work doubly harder to prove their competence and ability to lead in higher positions. Other barriers to entry include organizational policies that are not gender-friendly, with no support for work, life, and family balance.

Women have been made to let go of their careers to birth, bring up children, or follow their spouses to other locations. Another bias is pay inequalities; research has found that men get paid better in a job role or position with all genders. Thus, reducing the spending power of the women. The increase in the number of women on the boards of Nigerian banks is due to an intentional decision made by the Central Bank of Nigeria. There is also the Code of Corporate Governance regulation in 2018, which requires a minimum of 30 percent female representation on all bank boards, setting intentional diversity goals when filling open positions on the board. Though gender quotas were not stipulated; therefore, women aspiring to be board members must have significant shares in that organization.

Globally, women in Africa occupy political representation in government, according to the UN woman 2017. Women in southern and east Africa contribute much of this, therefore, increasing women representation in other parts of Africa, including Nigeria remains important. The UN women’s Africa leadership appendage in 2017 research findings reveal women in Nigeria, compared to other African countries, only held 6 percent of the membership in the legislature. In addition, over 65 percent of women in Nigeria are poor, and 28 percent have experienced physical abuse from 15 years of age.

There is a need to integrate gender and diversity into leadership theories. It is becoming more evident that women’s leadership style is progressively as effective for leading. Several studies have shown men’s prominence preferred leadership style to be task-oriented autocratic, direct, and competitive in their management style. In contrast, women are person-oriented, collaborative, and transformational in their style of leadership. Chin et al. 2007 study on women and leadership conducted a survey on a hundred women leaders and found women are ethical and transformational in their visions, sought leadership roles to empower others and achieve social justice.

Half of the global talent pool is women, an indicator that they should be at the forefront of the economic and social scene. Not just out of a sense of fairness, but to ensure that the absolute best minds, men, and women alike, are brought together to address the challenges faced by society. Organizational investors have also seen the importance of diversity in the boardroom and thus asked for increased positions for female CEOs. This informed the increase from twenty-one women on the board of organizations to thirty-two as recorded by the 2018 fortune five hundred companies report.

The May 2020 report recorded thirty-seven women as heads of fortune five hundred organizations, a significant leap from the previous year. Achieving gender diversity in corporations at all levels is a long and demanding journey, which requires top management’s involvement and strong commitment. A 2012 McKinsey research on US firms shows organizations with a diverse gender on the boards outperform all-male boards. While gender diversity provides a unique offering of a diverse team, organizational culture and policies must be updated to support diversity and women’s succession to leadership roles.

Embassey is a doctoral student of Organizational Leadership at the Alliant International University, San Diego, California US.

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