Leveling the Playing Field for Women in Corporate Africa

Why do women lead only 5 percent of Africa’s companies?

Growing up in Northern Nigeria, the majority of women around me worked. From the woman selling sweet mangoes around the corner from my house to my own mother, a dentist, the idea of a working woman wasn’t novel or different.

African history is full of the stories of trailblazing women. While written history has yet to catch up, our oral traditions have preserved the tales of heroines like Queen Amina of Zaria and Emotan of the Benin Kingdom. From these historical examples to today’s “market queens” of Accra and the no-nonsense traders who line the Lagos streets, African women have always led by example. Even now, the region is currently home to the highest share of female entrepreneurs globally. But despite this history of powerful women, in corporate Africa, women lead only 5% of the region’s businesses.

Why is it that we can trust women to drive a hard bargain in the market, but we can’t trust them to close the deal in the boardroom? Looking at the gender issues that plague many modern societies, it doesn’t take much to see that latent gender bias, entrenched hierarchy, and a female-led dialogue around gender equality lead to lip service instead of action across much of corporate Africa.

Queen Amina of Zaria, one of Nigeria’s legendary heroines

Recent high-profile cases of sexual misconduct show that gender bias is persistent worldwide. But unlike in the United States and Europe, where landmark cases of sexual harassment have spurred legal challenges and workplace reforms, the conversation around gender bias in the African workplace is still evolving. This weak emphasis on women’s empowerment harms African women at all levels, from analysts to executives, forcing them to confront considerable challenges to advancing in the workplace due to their gender.

In the last two years, Female In Nigeria (FIN), a “secret” Facebook group, has emerged as a place where over 70,000 Nigerian women come together online to openly discuss their everyday lives. While stories range from the comical (first dates gone horribly wrong) to the tragic (stories of physical and emotional abuse), a consistent theme emerges: in Nigeria’s conservative society, women bear the brunt of workplace inequality. For some women, their beauty becomes a challenge to being taken seriously. For others, marital status or children is the chief liability hindering them from climbing the corporate ladder.

Early in my career, I interviewed for a job at Elf Petroleum while pregnant with my second child. After I received my offer, I sat down with my hiring manager to inform her that I would shortly have to take maternity leave. Although I was anxious at disclosing my pregnancy, her answer was a pleasant surprise. She told me not to worry and told me I would receive maternity leave with pay. A few months later, the office welcomed me back as a normal member of the team. I never felt disadvantaged by my absence nor, much later on in my career, by my familial obligations as a mother of three. However, like in so many places around the world, there are countless Nigerian women who have felt these pressures. I know many women who have been asked by prospective employers if they intend to have more children. I know many more who feel pressured to compensate for the ‘privilege’ of maternity leave because policy doesn’t reflect practice. Despite the fact that almost half of African countries have mandatory paid maternity leave, employers often fail to meet their legal obligations. Only 10 percent of African women in the workplace receive all or part of their salary while on maternity leave.

In addition to gender biases, the hierarchical, formal nature of the African workplace creates a culture that is not conducive to helping women move up the ladder. In the 1960s and 70s, Geert Hofstede, a Dutch academic, pioneered the concept of corporate culture through his studies of cross-country variations in the workplace. His model showed that most African and Asian countries tend to embrace notions of centralized authority and operate in tighter social frameworks than their Western counterparts. For African women, our societies’ emphasis on these values is both a benefit and a challenge.

Lagos skyline

African children are taught to be seen and not heard. At home, our children are told not to interrupt their elders. In school, they are instructed not to ask too many questions. The consequence of this ingrained deference to authority is that in a large number of companies, youth are unable to express contrarian points of view. For young women in patriarchal societies, the emphasis on hierarchy can marginalize their voices and perspectives on the sideline.

Because African companies are more likely to place an emphasis on formal, rigid work styles, African women face significant challenges in juggling work and family life. For most American families, with an average of 2 children, picking up and dropping off kids is already a difficult task. Imagine the challenge confronting working Nigerian or Ivorian women, for example, who have an average of five kids. Making sure that they get where they need to go for school and play takes up valuable work time.

Although Africans tend to mitigate these problems through an emphasis on strong extended family networks, juggling large families with mothers who work outside the home is no easy feat. At GE, I am fortunate enough to benefit from progressive policies and an emphasis on that allows me to juggle raising my three children with my obligations at work. Moreover, my husband and I are fortunate enough to rely upon the support of our parents, siblings, and friends to meet our commitments at home and in the workplace.

Recently, my 6-year-old’s school hosted a play, but neither my husband nor I were able to attend on such short notice. Luckily, my brother-in-law and a dear friend stood in loco parentis to capture my daughter reciting her lines. This is not an unusual occurrence — I have played similar roles for friends and family on many occasions and I am eternally grateful for my “tribe.” As the African adage says, it takes a village to raise a child. But for women who do not have the benefit of this community nor a workplace that embraces flexibility, the delicate juggling act of managing home and work can lead to difficult trade-offs.

Until companies transform their cultures to eliminate the emphasis on hierarchy in favor of quality of life for all employees, women will continue to be held back. However, conversations about changing this dynamic are often restricted to women-only spaces, which makes systemic change difficult. As long as government and business remain male-dominated fields, any changes to the current systems will require the participation of men. If men do not participate in the conversation, efforts to effect change are nearly guaranteed to fail.

Part of that change begins with developing a participatory culture that encourages men to actively champion women. I co-lead the GE Women’s network for Sub-Saharan Africa, an affinity group that focuses on the recruitment, retention and promotion of women at GE. Professional relationships in the corporate world are too often limited by gender, but at GE, men regularly come out in large numbers. Part of that is due to our focus on relationship building. Our focus on gender equality reflects the company’s core cultural values — it is not just an end unto itself. By offering opportunities to socialize outside of male-centered spaces like the golf course or the bar, we chip away at that model of the old boys’ club. We also encourage both male and female executives to mentor and sponsor younger women to encourage them step forward into leadership roles rather than step back by giving into latent gender bias. When our male colleagues know the challenges we face, it gives them the knowledge and perspective to engage on women’s issues as advocates.

Calls for gender parity in corporate Africa aren’t just window-dressing. For African companies hoping to tackle global markets, it’s essential for growth. Studies have shown that having at least 30% of women in leadership positions adds 6% to net profit margin. McKinsey and Company has found that closing the gender gap could add as much as $12 trillion to global growth. But to build a culture that can secure Africa’s economic future, companies must recognize the challenges women face in rising and advancing in the workplace, and create the tools to help level the playing field.