Management Consultant Mike Eldon

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.