African women must power up

What’s wrong with this picture: Most of the 40 panels at the African CEO Forum were dominated by men, with the exception of one: the women in business panel. (Francois Grivelet)

What’s wrong with this picture: Most of the 40 panels at the African CEO Forum were dominated by men, with the exception of one: the women in business panel. (Francois Grivelet)


The absence of women was palpable at last week’s African CEO Forum, in its eighth iteration, in Kigali, Rwanda.

The two-day forum at the Kigali Convention Centre hosted as many as 1 500 business leaders, shareholders, investors, as well as heads of state and ministers.

An outsider attending the forum could have been forgiven for assuming that this meeting was a gathering of African men.

Indeed, a colleague who attended was of the opinion that the delegates could fairly be described as a gathering of men with a just a “sprinkle” of women. This was more apparent during panel discussions, where topics such as banking, economic integration, digital transformation and healthcare were discussed by industry experts and leaders in different business spheres.

The forum comprised 40 panels and, with the exception of two, were dominated by men. The digital economy panel comprised three women and two men.
And by default, the women in business panel was made up of women only.

In some panels, women participated only as moderators.

And whereas in other discussions men filled the room, there were not more than five in attendance at the women in business panel. What does this say? Perhaps that men are not interested in learning more about women’s struggles or in seeing women ascend to power.

The panel discussed the challenges women face in reaching the level of corporate boards and sustaining their influence on them, and what tools can be used by states and organisations to enforce the feminisation of boards.

By not attending the panel discussion, men in that forum missed out on many opportunities, such as on hearing about how they can help women rise to leadership positions in their organisations; on learning about how they can treat women as equals in their organisations; and on discovering that women are equally up to the task and do not need to be baby-sat by men once they ascend to positions of power.

No more than five men attended the women in business panel (Francois Grivelet)

Panellist Christina Foerster, the chief executive of Brussels Airlines, said it has been a slow process to get more women on boards or in executive positions because “the people who have the power are holding on to it”.

And that could be one of the reasons the men at the forum were not interested in attending the panel. They are not interested in seeing more women in executive or corporate leadership positions: they see it as their space and they don’t want to share.

Another panellist, Afropulse Group chief executive Phumzile Langeni, argued that women should not be apologetic for wanting to get seats in boards.

“The one thing that is very evident about boards is that it’s very much a boys’ network and I think, ladies, we must make it a girls’ network,” she said.

“I think it is very important for all of us who sit in positions to support women … if
I’m not doing my bit in batting for a lady to sit on a board, to chair the board or be a CEO of a company then I feel I’m not doing my bit in representing the advancement of women,” she said.

Foerster added that, in order to see diversity in boards and executive positions, women need to push to get into the system but ultimately arrive at a point where they do not push any more because there is enough sustainable diversity.

“To get there, I think the women have to want it more and to see that power is a good thing and that having the ability to want to share it is also a good thing. It’s so slow because the people who have the power are holding on to it and I hope they will also realise that this diversity is good for everybody,” she said.

Recent research conducted by the International Monetary Fund finds that women make up almost half of the world’s working-age population of nearly five billion, but only about 50% participate in the labour force, which is still 80% male. The research observes that even of those women who work, only a few reach senior positions or start their own businesses.

In an article titled “Closing the gender gap: The economic benefits of bringing more women into the labor force are greater than previously thought”, Era Dabla-Norris and Kalpana Kochhar reveal, for example, that where there is gender diversity in the banking sector there is “greater financial stability”.

“Similarly, banks with higher shares of women board members have thicker capital buffers, a lower proportion of nonperforming loans, and greater resistance to stress, possibly because having more women in executive positions contributes to diversity and complementarity of thought, leading to better decision-making,” they write.

But even women who are already in these positions of power still have to work harder than their male counterparts, and continually have to prove themselves and demonstrate that they are equal to the task, whereas men “just show up”.

“So I would say for us ladies, we have to do more,” added Langeni. “We have to work harder and, more importantly, we don’t need someone to tell us we are good: we shouldbelieve that in our own competence, knowing that where required, we will prove ourselves … [but] we also have to learn the rules and play them better.”

Bongekile Macupe travelled to Kigali as a guest of the African CEO Forum

Bongekile Macupe

Bongekile Macupe

Bongekile Macupe is the education reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She is an award-winning journalist who has extensively covered both basic and higher education in South Africa. Her coverage includes #FeesMustFall, the case of Michael Komape and education in rural areas.  Read more from Bongekile Macupe

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