While there are increasingly more African women in leadership roles, they are still significantly under-represented, including in the business and technology sector. However, there are a number of things businesses can do to change this, write Sinit Zeru and Ebere Okereke of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
This International Women’s Day, the United Nations theme “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality” could not be more timely, given that we live in an increasingly digital world – whether that’s through our jobs or our access to services like healthcare.
While digital tools and trends may be new, barriers for inclusion remain widespread. Many digital processes that shape our lives and define the ways that organisations work are driven by biased historical data , propagating those biases and giving the impression that these digital tools are objective and fair. Where gender and race intersect, this becomes a double jeopardy for African women.
We know there is an abundance of talented women across the continent. We see incredible women like Dr Magda Robalo, who led transformative reforms of the health sector as Minister of Public Health in Guinea Bissau and provided strategic leadership to the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Ethiopia, State Minister Huria Ali and Digital Advisor to the Prime Minister, Myriam Said, are driving the country’s national digital strategy, and there are amazing entrepreneurs like Kemisola Bolarinwa, who invented a smart bra to facilitate breast cancer detection.
Yet women leaders in organisations remain under-represented at the most senior level. This is not unique to our continent: just 23 percent of executives around the world are women.
This is because women globally face several gendered barriers and are disproportionately impacted by poverty. These barriers exist at key life stages for women – in access to health care, education, and access to jobs, particularly in traditionally male dominated sectors like tech and financial security.
We see from social media that there is a backlash against those calling out the under-representation of women in leadership roles. Much of this backlash comes from the misunderstanding that men will suffer in a zero-sum game. But this isn’t the case at all. Quite the opposite in fact, because men too face gendered challenges – for example they carry a disproportionate burden in supporting their families financially, and face stigmatisation when they suffer mental health challenges.
The under-representation of women in leadership matters even more given that the digital world is rapidly moving and expanding into all areas of our lives.
Without checks and balances, the exclusion of women is destined to exacerbate toxic gender norms and further to disenfranchise vulnerable groups. It will also consolidate power and wealth in the hands of the small number of people who design and own data, who happen largely to sit outside of Africa and are thus buffered from democratic and legal obligations to ensure inclusive and fair practices.
Gender equality at all levels – at work and home – is about justice. Re-addressing the role of both men and women in the private and public spheres is critical for the well-being of our ever more interconnected society. Businesses have an important role to play in proactively addressing the issues that exacerbate discrimination on the basis of gender and race, and recognising that African women are dealing with a double disadvantage.
There are many reasons why African women add value and are critical to have in leadership positions: organisations significantly benefit from diverse thinking and a bigger talent pool, and services are much more likely to be inclusive and deliver impact in communities if women are involved in designing them.
Ultimately though, it’s our right as women to be at the decision-making table and our absence should be a problem to everyone committed to democracy, equality and justice. We need to move on from continually justifying why 50 percent of the population in Africa should have fair access to opportunities and be served inclusively.
For organisations committed to a fairer, more just society, the good news is you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are fantastic initiatives underway targeting barriers at different life stages, and in targeting those most vulnerable to such barriers, they are enabling our communities to ensure all individuals can thrive.
Here are some recommendations for what businesses and organisations can do to tackle this:
- Getting girls to study science, technology, engineering and maths at school in order to grow the future female business, health and tech pool. There are lots of great initiatives and it’s vital that businesses support them through funding and internships.
- Career development initiatives that target women in mid-career to help them become leaders are essential, especially in larger organisations such as management consultancies. Many are doing this already, including our partner, the Oracle Careers Blog, and the Boston Consulting Group. Get in touch and learn from them.
- Organisations should proactively research where and why women leaders fall away in their organisation or sector and address hurdles, including setting up fair maternity and paternity leave plans and combining transparency on gender and diversity representation statistics in senior roles with a clear, concerted effort to ensure balance. This should be a standing agenda item in annual board meetings and reported in annual reports.
- There needs to be more investment in women-founded and led start-ups and programmes to support their development – particularly where these businesses unleash positive changes for women and other under-represented groups.
- And finally, we need to create platforms to highlight and enable women in business, health and tech leadership roles. This will ensure that we are showcased as role models and women leaders are seen as normal rather than an exception.
Sinit Zeru is director of the Technology and Development Policy Unit and Ebere Okereke the senior health advisor at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.