March is a transition month. In many parts of the world, it represents the true end of year-end festivities, and the beginning of other sets of celebrations, viz Easter, Eid, etc. For firms, it is the end of a quarter and a time for intense stock-take and performance reviews. It is a launch-pad period that sets the tone for the financial year. Companies are, therefore, eager to start well, as this may ensure that they finish the year, strong.
Beyond these, and critically, it is the month for women, when the world salutes and celebrates close to 3.5b women, worldwide. On March 8, every year, the world marks the International Women’s Day, a day set aside to advance the agenda of gender equality; promote economic empowerment of women; as well as commemorate the strides of women in governance, the polity, the economy, and society in general. It is also marked as a public holiday in some countries. And as much as men may desire, and in spite of the fact that there are about 21 female heads of states and governments, out of the 196 countries in the globe, we are not likely to have Men’s Day, as distinct from Father’s Day, any time soon. That is the power of women!
In some countries, it is a day when men step aside, lay low and women run the show, and March 8, or Huit Mars is celebrated with aplomb. My first encounter with Women’s Day was in Cameroun, and subsequently in some other African countries, where I observed the dedicated and elaborate activities outlined to mark Women’s Day or la journee de la femme on March 8, by individuals and corporate organizations. Each year, national dress designs are selected, and later mass-produced by designated textile companies. Corporate organizations provide female staff with the selected colourful fabric, which is then customized and sewn in different designs and patterns, and worn on the special day. Women proceed to the stadium, or the commemoration venue, for speeches, march-past parades, with flying flags and banderoles, of their different institutions, and with targeted emblazoned messages. The next phase are celebrations. Companies use meeting rooms, event centres or even hotels, where speeches are made, and thereafter, merriment viz music and dance; feasting and partying; fashion shows and beauty contests and other exciting events, take place. It is therefore aptly called fetes du femme or Feast for Women! Significantly, the events provide platforms for workforce mobilization, employee engagement, bonding and agenda setting. You also learn that adaptation, integration, and the espousal and retention of good local practices and nuances, are strong variables in promoting diversity and inclusion, and are critical enablers of survival and success, for multinational firms in foreign climes.
Today, women constitute about 50% or more of the population in many countries. Therefore, any company, community, country, or continent that holds its women back, holds itself back. It is akin to running a marathon with one leg. Rather, society must consciously engage, mobilize and leverage on the ability, skills, and resources of women, as there is an established positive correlation between the education and economic empowerment of women, and overall societal development.
In an interesting study, Henrik Cronquist and Frank Yu in Harvard Business Review of November 2015, compared the Corporate Social Responsibility ratings of S&P 500 companies with information about the offspring of their CEOs, and concluded – that CEOs with daughters run more socially responsible organizations, and that when a firm was led by a CEO with at least one daughter, it scored an average of 11.9% higher on CSR metrics and spent 13.4% more of its net income on CSR than the median. Beyond CSR, other metrics where those firms outperformed the median firms were: Products, Diversity, Employee Relations; etc. This shows that while it is taken for granted that parents’ guide and influence children, the children do not just absorb, but also influence parents, in ways that parents may not be aware of, or even readily admit.
But women’s inclusion and equity consciousness is on the rise. Besides constitutional guarantees of non-discrimination on the basis of gender, etc, some governments, professions, and firms, have instituted affirmative mechanisms with varying statutory stipulations on minimum parliamentary, board and management roles for women. This is to elicit maximum benefit from the capacity and resources of women, in the workplace and in the larger society.
In Nigeria, the Central Bank, under its Sustainability Principles developed a 3-year programme, focused on reserving 40% of all Board positions in Banks for women. In Kenya, a Presidential directive in 2013, stipulated that 30% of all government procurement contracts be awarded to women, youths, and persons with disabilities. A Public Procurement Oversight Authority was mandated to monitor implementation. This will, no doubt, strengthen economic empowerment, and build capacity in the country. Work still remains to be done. The ILO, in Women on Boards in January 2015, indicated that only 44 or 9.5% of the 462 boards seats out of the 55 companies listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange are held by women.
In political governance, while there were 21 female heads of States and governments in 2015, 22% of parliamentarians, globally, were women. In Africa, the AU’s Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance, expressly advocates, as one of its key principles, the “promotion of gender equality in public and private institutions”. This is resonating loudly in many African countries. In Tanzania, the draft constitution has a commitment of 50:50 in gender parity, while female parliamentarians have reached 36.5%. In Uganda, 133 women represented 34.3% in the 9th Parliament, according to The Women in Public Service Project, launched in 2014, making Uganda rank 17th position in the world, in women in the legislature. In Rwanda, which has had a key focus on gender equality, women won 64% of the seats in the Parliamentary election in 2013, making the country, the global leader in female parliamentary representation. The Affirmative Action Bill, in Ghana, also seeks to promote gender equality in the participation and representation of women in governance, through legal systems.
A meeting of the Ministers for Women and Gender Affairs, under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, in February 2017, decided that the Council of Ministers of the regional economic community will now be mandated to pursue the implementation of gender equality. In this regard, a presentation will be made on gender issues in West Africa, at the periodic meetings of the Summit of Heads of States. This decision, will expectedly, make gender equality a front burner item in socio-economic and political discourse, at the governance level, in the region.
Also, to co-ordinate a focus on gender and rights, South Africa created a Commission for Gender Equality, backed by the constitution, with the responsibility of “monitoring and evaluating the policies and practices of government, the private sector and other organisations to ensure that they promote and protect gender equality”
Some African institutions are already walking the talk. United Bank for Africa, a leading pan-African financial group with presence in 19 African countries, the US, the UK and France, has strong representation of women, on its Boards, as Country CEOs, and as executives in key roles, across the Group.
In Europe, the tendency is the same. Two Reuters reports on France and Germany palpably illustrate this trend. In January 2011, the French Parliament approved legislation compelling companies on the Stock Exchange with over 500 employees or revenues of over Euro 50m to allot a minimum of 40% of board seats to women, all within a 6-year period. About 2,000 companies will benefit from the legislation. Prior to that, a
Parliamentary report revealed that 15% of board members, in the CAC 40 Index 2010 were women. While in Germany, in March 2015, just in time before Women’s Day, the German Lower House, recognizing the paucity of presence of women in corporate organizations, passed a “quota system” law mandating the largest companies in Germany to designate
30% of seats on non-executive boards to women. In an irony, though Germany has had a female Chancellor, Angela Merkel for over a decade, there is no female CEO yet, in the top 30 blue chip firms in the country.
On balance, with all these recent national and international affirmative actions, we recognize the great strides made by women all over the world, in history, and in current times. Clearly, with involved, mobilized and economically empowered women, we all can do more, and society marches farther, faster.
Finally, companies, communities, and countries must continually create the enabling environment, structures and engage in actions for women to do more and advance to higher heights. So, beyond the International Women’s Day, the world stands in reverence to all mothers, sisters, wives and daughters! Everyday!! Everywhere!!!
*Emeke E. Iweriebor is Executive Director and Regional CEO UBA East & Southern Africa Region