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Dear Woman: It is in your power to lead

This post was written by MEST Entrepreneur-In-Training, Lanre Adeoye.

Recently in a conversation about women representation in business and tech, I was embarrassed and simultaneously shocked to realize that off-the-top-of-my-head I couldn’t think of a popular female-founded company. Immediately pulling out my phone, search results pulled up companies such as Canva, Spanx, Rent the runway, Flickr, and Tinder.

After the conversation ended, I was inspired to find out where women are leading in business and if their impact is tangible.

Women representation in corporations

According to research conducted by McKinsey, only 5% of the CEOs of major corporations are women. In 2019, 6.6% of Fortune 500 companies had women as the CEO which is a jump from 2018’s 4.8%.

Women representation in small business ownership

Research done by the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE), 2019 states that 37.9% of businesses in Ghana are owned by women. In the report, MIWE shares how necessity‐driven entrepreneurial activities have led to a surge in female entrepreneurs in markets such as Uganda, Ghana, and Botswana. Today, these markets have more women in business as a percentage of all business owners than any developed market. The report also reveals that gender inequality is ubiquitous, but manifests across markets in different ways. Even markets with high overall index scores, still have other gender disparities to contend with, such as the income gap between women and men business owners. This income gap can be deduced when the sheer scale of women-owned businesses is compared to that of men.

Value-add of women to large corporations

So, what reasons do we have for having more women in leadership roles? Studies have shown that women add immense value to startups, small businesses, and corporations when they are placed in positions of leadership. Let’s break it down:

According to a report by The Africa CEO Forum, businesses in Africa with the most women on their boards have an operating profit of over 20% higher than industry averages.

According to Fast Company, a higher representation of women in C-suite level positions results in 34% greater returns to shareholders. A look at the Fortune 1000 list of companies shows that 5% of the companies on the list are run by women and these organizations contribute 7% of the total revenue. These companies also outperform the S&P 500 index. Companies with at least 50% of women in leadership positions consistently do better than the companies with less than half of their leadership positions filled with women.

Higher participation of women in business will lead to innovation in female-oriented businesses. There is a low tendency for people to extensively research industries that have no relationship with them. Female-oriented products such as breast pumps, pregnancy test kits, ovulation tracking tools, sanitary towels, hair and beauty products, wedding and family-related products could experience some form of disruption should more women business leaders be in these fields.

Courtesy: Massira

Also, consider that the way women approach problems differs from men. Women usually think more emotionally, empathetically and are usually design-focused while men tend to be more logical. This different perspective on problem-solving will also be instrumental in springing innovations in industries.

More women in business leadership will encourage more girls to aspire to leadership. Imagine a teenage boy and a teenage girl with equal interest and capabilities in technology careers. For the girl, she sees few women leading in the workplace and business. These images will likely discourage her from aiming for the top because she may feel like leadership is not for people like her. Having more women in leadership roles will serve as role models for young girls, thereby causing a ripple effect in increasing the numbers.

Then why are there few women business leaders?

Even though there are now more opportunities for women to lead in business, it is still a struggle to get the numbers up. This is as a result of internal and external forces. Internal forces regarding how the upbringing of female children have affected their outcome as women and external forces refer to how external environmental forces have affected their outcome.

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and author of Lean In: Women, Work And The Will To Lead, has been instrumental in driving conversations about internal forces that hold women back. In her book, she says, “Women keep themselves from advancing because they do not have as much self-confidence and drive as men do.”

This is corroborated in an article on The Atlantic titled “The Confidence Gap” written by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. In the article, the authors share that research shows that women are less self-assured than men — and that to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence.

This is further collaborated by a discovery by Hewlett-Packard many years ago when it was trying to figure out how to get more women into top management positions. A review of personnel records found that women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men, on the other hand, applied for promotions when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements. A series of studies by HP on its employees confirm that underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Too many overqualified and overprepared women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.

In the typical African setting, this lack of self-confidence and drive is as a result of the conditioning of many girl-children. At home, the girl is trained to cook, clean, wash, be courteous and have the basic education to the tertiary level, because “no man wants to marry a liability these days”. These subtle innuendos have affected the psyche of many women.

Sandberg also writes about likability. Most women are motivated when they are liked by other people. But what if our success means that others do not like us? She cites her first performance review with Mark Zuckerberg to drive this point home. At the review, Mark told her that her desire to be liked by everyone was keeping her back. “Mark was right”, she writes. “Everyone needs to get comfortable with female leaders, including female leaders themselves”.

Another factor that has contributed to fewer women in business is the stereotypes surrounding women. Qualities like aggression, ambition, and dominance are seen as qualities of effective leaders. When a woman displays these traits, she tends to be seen as unfeminine and is less likable. But a man with these same traits is viewed as an effective leader. This discriminatory factor is responsible for less demand for women in leadership.

Women are also victims of in-group favoritism. People generally evaluate others that are similar to them more favorably. In a male-dominated world, the men would usually nominate men like themselves for leadership positions.

There are also social factors. Women perform more family duties than men. Raising children and managing a household, with or without a spouse can sometimes feel daunting for a working mother. Most women feel “mom-guilt” when they do not spend as much time with their kids as they assume they should. When these working moms occasionally show up in their children’s school, they often receive critical comments like “we haven’t seen you around in a while”. Yet a working man would show up in school and get affirming words like “You are a great dad, so involved with your kids.

If you are a woman unsure about what decision to take with growing a business and managing the home, consider this report from Havard Business School. It has been discovered that daughters of employed mothers often perform better in their eventual careers than the daughters of stay-at-home moms. They also wind up just as happy in adulthood as the children of moms who stayed home.

Source: Harvard Business School

How can we achieve better representation of women in business?

Women need to innately understand that it is in their power to lead in any field that they choose to delve into. Drive, passion, grit, dogged determination and zeal to succeed is embedded in everyone and should be stirred.

Today, the most successful companies in the world are technology companies. According to UNESCO statistics, only 23% of STEM talent globally is female, with more women ditching tech careers as they move up the ladder. It is important for more women to intentionally pursue tech careers and stay on course.

The first step to ensuring more women technology-savvy business leaders is by elevating the interest of young girls towards entrepreneurship and technology. Young girls should be encouraged to study STEAM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) courses in tertiary institutions.

There are also entrepreneurship training and accelerator programs that women apply to be a part of. One of such is the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), a one-year entrepreneurship program for software entrepreneurship.

Finally, as we close the International Women’s Month 2020, let’s be reminded that it is up to us to celebrate female leaders in business. Remember, you can be next!

We can actively choose to challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, improve situations and celebrate women’s achievements.

Collectively, each one of us can help create a gender-equal world.

Let’s all be #EachforEqual.



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