by Pamela D. Bongkiyung
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (NOI) started work on Monday, 1st March this week as the first woman and the first African to be elected to head the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as its 7th Director-General. It is an auspicious moment because the 66-year old twice former Nigerian Finance Minister and former Managing Director at World Bank, will take over a very significant position in the world, during this Women’s month ahead of International Women’s Day on 8th March 2021. NOI has worked over 3 decades as a development economist.
The news of her appointment was welcomed with much pomp and fanfare across Africa as seen in the #BeLikeNgoziChallenge or #NOIGoesToWTO challenge. Many ladies, children and even some men dressed like her in the signature design skirt and blouse, including the unique headtie twist NOI is known for. All this, to support her victory and wish her well when she takes up her post officially on 1st March 2021.
But what does this mean for Africa?
NOI on winning the election to lead the WTO said: “I hope it is a sign not only to women and girls in my country but to women and girls worldwide that the world is ready, and women can do it.”
A rather refreshing take from a woman who insists on merit, hard work and getting results as seen in her Twitter appreciative message to supporters. She has emphasised that under her directorship, it will not be business as usual given that this did not work so well in the past, and therefore necessitates a ‘fresh set of eyes and ears’ to look at issues of world trade.
As much as the world is getting more open to having female leadership, on the African continent, the data and culture say otherwise. In NOI’s native Nigeria, women still need their husband’s consent to get contraception or a passport. In Nigeria, a single woman still struggles to secure a tenancy agreement or visit certain establishments if not married or accompanied by a man. Nigeria’s renowned writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ bemoans the fact that she is not allowed to participate in Umunna meetings (a gathering of male members of the clan in the Igbo culture) because she is a woman, even though she is more knowledgeable in the ways of their ancestors and has more interest in such matters compared to her brothers.
Since most African countries started gaining independence in the 1950s, only four women have held the position of president. The first was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia in 2006-2018; Joyce Banda who was the first female president in southern Africa was president of Malawi from 2012 – 2014; Catherine Samba-Panza of the Central African Republic was instated as interim President between 2014 – 2016; and finally Sahle Work-Zewde of Ethiopia who was elected president in 2018 and remains the only female president currently on the continent.
A report by McKinsey titled ‘Women Matter Africa‘ of August 2016, concluded that Africa had more women in the executive committees in the private sector. The report underscored that women remained under-represented in middle and senior management roles within companies and particularly in industries that rely mostly on men for their workforce. Though the report noted that the number of women in parliament was above the average in Africa, it highlighted that this still did not necessarily translate into influence as the desired reach of equality was not yet achieved. In the private sector according to this report, women in leadership positions were rising but they often occupied staff roles and not the key roles which led to promotion as CEO. In government, women mostly were given social welfare ministerial portfolios which had little to no power.
How was the news of NOI’s election to WTO received by the West?
Apparently not very well by some as shown by this Swiss regional daily called Aargauer Zeitung. The paper headlined an article about NOI’s as ‘This grandmother will be the new chief of the WTO’. The paper was forced to apologise after the headline caused a furore online as NOI supporters lashed out against the paper’s racist headline. They wondered if Christine Lagarde’s election to the IMF was accompanied by such a headline? The paper was forced to issue an apology following the backlash.
NOI thanked all the women who supported her referring to them as ‘sisters’ particularly Phumzile Mlambo, the Executive Director of UN Women and Winnie Byanyima the Executive Director of UNAIDs. The UN Women Leaders and the 124 Ambassadors in Geneva signed the petition on calling out the racist & sexist remarks in the newspaper. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala felt it was important & timely that they did apologize. She emphasised the need to call out this behaviour when it happens. She added that this issue of the stereotypes that women face when they take on leadership positions, had been addressed in her book Women & Leadership, which she co-authored with Julia Gillard.
Most people are not surprised that a Swiss newspaper ran such a headline given the experience of the only black CEO of a fortune 500 bank just towards the end of 2020. Thiam Tidjane joined Credit Swisse when the bank was floundering in 2015 and in less than three years restructured the bank, making it profitable after it has been in the red for over a decade. Since he was ousted in October 2020, the New York Times did an article exposing how entrenched racism from the Swiss, made it impossible for the Ivorian to stay in the company; culminating in his ouster which was controversial at best.
Let’s compare women in leadership positions around the world
Around the world outside of Africa, having women in leadership positions is no longer a strange occurrence. There is the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardfern, who has been applauded on how she handled the Christchurch mosque shooting with dexterity including the Coronavirus outbreak. There is Estonia, the first country to have a concurrent president and prime minister who are women. There is Germany which had a female chancellor (Angela Merkel) who held the most important office in one of the strongest countries in Europe for over 12 years until she left office this year. Merkel saw the country through one of the country’s most turbulent economic periods in its history – the European economic crisis, and left it strong.
There is still the absence of women heading fortune 500 companies around the world, with women accounting for only 8 per cent of leadership positions. Women have reported how unconscious demotion affects their progress within companies and this often happens with women working in professions saturated mostly by men. This makes them develop imposter syndrome and feel they do not belong. Though the situation has improved from over a decade ago, it is still rather slow even though reports point that companies with gender equality and diversity usually outperform those lagging in this area.
But what can be done to bridge the gap?
The McKinsey Women Matter Report from 2016 mirrors some recent reports from other organisations which have studied this phenomenon. They all prescribe that companies should make gender diversity a top priority for CEOs and senior members of staff. There is a need to create a gender transformation strategy and address the unconscious bias that leads to women getting limited opportunities. When it comes to women of colour, their numbers are even more deficient. This could be addressed by reviewing hiring practices and holding managers accountable for diversity goals.
The world is changing and so is the perception of women in leadership positions. As much as there are more women in senior roles today, the numbers are still far away from reaching the levels required to attain gender equality. However, conservative attitudes still permeate the workplace and this means women have to overcome more hurdles at work to reach the top. In addition to being underrepresented and therefore having fewer advocates in the senior suites, women still face the motherhood penalty which curtails career progression tremendously. It has been established that motherhood affects the perception of women at work, leading to their abilities getting devalued and being denied opportunities constantly. This ends up penalising women’s careers.
On the African continent, progress is slower due to cultural factors despite the fact that the pay gap is slowly getting bridged. Women deal with a lot of sexual harassment at the work place. Rejection of such advances has led to the end of careers for some. Among some men, there exists the perverse idea that the workplace is not for women as they should stay at home to take care of the family. For women who crave financial freedom and independence, their ambition is seen as hawkish and they are branded feminist. The repercussions of the latter carry a heavy negative connotation and obliterate any objective reasoning. This translates to: the woman thinks she is a man or is trying to replace the man’s role in society as known in the traditional construct.
We are now in 2021 and we MUST do better.