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Women rising in the workplace

On women in the Kenyan workplace, I am confident that the glass is not only far from empty but that it continues to fill at a reasonably rapid pace. With the exception of the contact sport of politics, there is increasing gender balance at all levels, including in senior management and on boards.

Sure, there’s plenty of scope for further improvement, but I never like seeing the gloomy picture portrayed by over-focusing on the dearth of women in elective offices.

We have so many well-educated, articulate women here, both technically competent and emotionally intelligent, that employers are able to up their gender balance without any thought of affirmative action: for anyone to claim they “can’t find suitable women candidates” is simply unjustified.

In so many places I see women in leadership positions – including filling the roles of both chair and CEO. The 2021 survey conducted by the Kenya Institute of Management, together with Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa) and the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) on board diversity and inclusion showed that gender diversity in the boardroom now stands at 36 percent, from 21 percent in 2017.

By comparison, the global average of women holding board positions stands at 23.3 percent, up from 20.4 percent in 2018. Then, women here constitute 21 percent of board chairperson appointments, whereas the global average is three percent. And female representation in C-suite roles in Kenya constitutes 37 percent compared to 21 percent globally.

Even in organisations dominated by technical staff, the proportion of women is on the rise. A good example is Davis & Shirtliff, where I am a director. When I first joined the board nearly two decades ago there were very few women among its ranks – not surprising, as the vast majority of employees are engineers and until not long ago this discipline did not attract women.

Over time, however, not only has the number of women among the annual graduate intake significantly increased, but those who preceded them have been rising steadily up the organisation.

Also, in running my workshops on change management and culture strengthening, I have observed that it is disproportionately the women who not only contribute more but also more impressively.

Contrary to many studies that show women are less vocal, my experience is the opposite. Their competence is matched by a well-earned self-confidence, which leads them to articulate in ways that show they are headed for higher leadership.

In disciplines like HR and company secretarial, women have for long been prominent, and as these functions have moved more centre-stage those within them have been increasing their circles of influence.

When in 2019 Evelyn Mungai published her book on women’s empowerment, From Glass Ceilings to Open Skies (full disclosure: she is my wife, and I was the book’s editor) it gave women encouragement that the glass ceiling is disappearing, at least for educated urban women.

And to retain the mindset that it is still blocking their progress may be more a self-defeating choice than a rational judgment.

The onset of Covid, resulting in the spread of home-working, part-time working and flexible hours, has brought new opportunities for women in the workplace.

More organisations are now providing lactation locations and onsite nurseries, plus also back-to-work programmes for women re-entering the workforce. Those that do will attract and retain the best female talent, having them be productive and happy.

The rise of so many strong, competent women in this country is indeed encouraging. But it leaves us with concern for an increasing number of their male counterparts. In some workplaces, leaders are already worrying about the men being left behind. The aspiration is not for women to be included at the expense of men.

Rather, each person, irrespective of gender, should be nurtured to develop both their technical and non-technical skills so they may fulfil their own potential while maximising their contribution to the broader group objectives.

That is when we will no longer need to be talking about the struggle to include women in the workplace.

It will be as much history as giving women the right to vote or to have a bank account.

Do women in boardroom improve performance?

A few months ago I wrote a column about my session at a Women On Boards Network (WOBN) event on building one’s brand as a board member, and today I share the views I expressed at the recent WOBN annual conference on how the presence of women on boards influences board governance and performance.

Over the last few years significant research has been carried out on this subject, with varying conclusions. Some (including one by IFC) found a positive correlation; others (like one carried out in Taiwan) reached an opposite view; and more saw no distinct impact, either positive or negative. Studies have also been carried out to see how the presence of only one woman differs from when there is more than one, creating a critical mass for the feminine voice.

As I have read the literature on the subject a number of questions kept nagging me. The first was to do with attributability. OK, performance was more this way or that way when women were members of a board, but how do we know it was their gender that made the difference? Couldn’t other factors have been the determinants – like the board focus on strategy and innovation as well as oversight; the qualities of the chairperson; the relationship between board and management?

Finally, how do we judge performance? Merely by growth and profitability? Or also taking into account other desirables, such as culture, purpose, sustainability?

I was almost amused to read in one study that found women are more conscientious in reading board papers and in their attendance at board meetings. Plus that where women are on boards the attendance of the men on those boards is also higher.

Another variable to consider is the effect of women directors who are either executive – with managerial positions; or non-executive – independent. And here the Taiwan-based study concluded that it is the non-execs who add more value, thanks to their broader and higher-level perspectives. Fair enough… as it would be for their male counterparts.

Generally, what we should be looking for among our board directors is previous experience – a portfolio of operational and board leadership positions; their ability to prevent and resolve conflicts; their networks; and other capabilities that reach beyond their gender… or how many degrees and other formal qualifications they have.

For sure we should enjoy the benefits of diversity on our boards, bringing in a collection of directors who together cover the spectrum of needed knowledge, skills and attitudes. And among these of course there should be a gender balance, just as there must be ethnic and generational balance.

My big conclusion, the consequence of my personal experience on boards and working with boards over many years, is that we should not over-generalise. I feel quite uncomfortable when I hear statements like “women are more emotionally intelligent” or “more spiteful”; or – as one study found – that they are “less economically oriented and more philanthropically focused”; or, as the IFC study showed, that “women are not as great risk-takers as men”.

Prior to addressing the WOBN conference I had a long conversation with my wife Evelyn Mungai who has been on many boards, and on not a few as their chairman (as she liked to be described). As I was already aware, her experience was aligned to mine, also leading her to an avoidance of gender stereotyping.

Let’s judge each individual on their personal merits. Let’s select board members, including women, who add needed value. Certainly there should not be tokenism, with flower girls merely decorating the boardroom. We equally disapprove of the “Old Boys’ Club” from which women are excluded. (Evelyn has smoothly entered some of those too, as an invited and welcomed member.)

What I – and my wife – want us to move to more fully is a situation where women are appointed to boards neither because of nor despite their gender. We look forward to a world where people ask: “Men? Women? So what? What difference does that make?”

Here in Kenya and elsewhere, she and I have been seeing that where boards are composed of innovative, responsible, progressive directors they will naturally include women among them, including as their leaders. Because they are good people. And don’t tell us you can’t find any.