Women in Africa claim seat at table

Africa may be leading the world in terms of women chief executives, but at 5%, it’s nothing to brag about.

It’s been found that having more women in leadership positions directly correlates with better financial performance, but changing attitudes remain an uphill battle. Top women chief executives still speak of the prejudices they suffer in the workplace, from falling pregnant to having patriarchal husbands.

The Africa CEO Forum gathers every year in Europe or Africa and brings together more than 1 200 African chief executives to share business lessons and forge partnerships.

Madeleine Berre was at PwC Gabon with a clear vision of becoming partner in the highly reputed firm. Then she fell pregnant.

“I was withdrawn from projects because I was seen as ‘delicate’,” Berre said at the forum, held in March in Geneva, Switzerland. Having hit the dreaded “glass ceiling”, Berre joined a competitor and climbed the corporate ladder before becoming her country’s minister of trade and industry.


Female representation at executive level in Africa stands at 23%, according to the 2016 McKinsey Women Matter Africa survey, but varies significantly by region. In Southern Africa it’s 20%, but only 9% in North Africa.

The variance between sectors is even starker, with healthcare holding the highest share of senior managers at 39%, and heavy industry only 9%.

The report found that the higher women climbed up the corporate ladder, the lower their representation.

“In my experience, the higher you get, the more alone you are. Lower down there’s more of us but not many of us will advance,” said Nigeria’s First Bank chair Ibukun Awosika. So she joined a group to address gender disparities in companies.

Inspired by a women’s conference hosted in South Africa, a group of 13 women and one man started Wimbiz, Women in Management, Business and Public Service.

Tired of hearing the excuses for the under-representation of women in organisations, Nigeria-based Wimbiz started identifying potential leaders, partnering with a Madrid business school to send women for training in management and other skills.

Sixteen years later, the organisation has helped to equip hundreds of women for leadership positions. In Nigeria it is often called on to recommend board members to serve in the private sector.

The network also lends its accrued business equity to women who wish to enter the corporate world.

Training workshops also touch on spousal attitudes to women’s advancement in the workplace. “There are countless women who are handicapped by who they’re married to. If a man’s not comfortable in his own skin, the woman would have to succumb,” warns Awosika.

At the women chief executives’ panel in Geneva, a number of panellists said one of the greatest obstacles to their advancement was pregnancy.

“The number one cited barrier by women is ‘limiting attitudes’ towards women, the assumptions that take place,” said Tania Holt, a partner at McKinsey and co-author of the Women Matter Africa report.

Sahara chief executive Tonye Cole said he was oblivious to the lack of gender diversity in his own group of companies until he was confronted by a competitor. His companies have since started to address the disparity. Since then, he’s found that the women in his group bring stability and loyalty, and are not driven by financial incentive but rather by a sense of purpose and a need to succeed.

Holt says it has become apparent that most organisations did not keep count of the number of women they employed at various levels.

For many of the women who ascend to the highest ranks of business, the experience is isolating, “because we don’t behave like we’re there yet”, according to Awosika.

Unlike her generation of pioneers, she hopes in future more women will be better prepared to lead in the business world. “Because when you get a seat at the table, you’d better show up,” she says.

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Beauregard Tromp
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