Roberta Annan writes…… Women in Leadership: Achieving an equitable future in a COVID-19 world

Roberta Annan

The recent announcement of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the new Director General of the World Trade Organisation will forever be remembered in the annals of history – the first woman and African to be chosen as Director General. Achieving this feat did not come easy, as it was fraught with a number of challenges.

Her appointment as the WTO DG was received with so much euphoria across the globe, especially for women and Africans – finally, a woman had been given the nod to lead WTO’s efforts in implementing reforms and policies in a bid to revamp the global economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic. More significant was the fact that this powerhouse is an African.

Unarguably, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has built an enviable track record in a career that spans over three decades in trade, finance, government, international relations and diplomacy, among others. Having had the rare privilege of meeting her a few years ago, I have witnessed first-hand her brilliance, tenacity and passion for Africa’s growth.  A woman of many firsts, her rise didn’t occur by mere happenstance.

In a world where women are sidelined and overlooked, she has had to ‘fight’’ her way through. Having spent a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, she was the first woman to run for presidency at the World Bank. She also served two terms as Finance Minister of Nigeria under President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Good Luck Jonathan respectively.

She was the first woman to serve as the country’s finance minister, the first woman to serve in that office twice, and the only finance minister to have served under two different presidents. In 2005, she was named ‘Global Finance Minister of the Year’ by Euromoney.

Oftentimes, women have faced a lot of criticism and backlash in business and leadership simply because they are women – and it gets even worse when they are women of colour. Women face a lot of stereotypes when they take on leadership positions. They face varying challenges including lack of support and intimidation. Okonjo-Iweala’s story is no different. Several attempts were made by certain factions to thwart her candidacy for the top job at the WTO; her credibility was questioned, and her capabilities undermined.

Vice President Kamala Harris’ candidacy was also questioned and even ridiculed at several points during the US presidential campaign trail. From snide and unsavory remarks about her identity and competence, Harris – America’s highest-ranking female official in U.S. history and the first African-American and Asian-American Vice President – has also been a victim of racism and injustice. Despite these challenges their feats have brought hope to many people, especially young women and girls across the world, to dream and believe it’s possible.

There is a need for more women to assume leadership roles to build a stronger post-pandemic world. According to U.N. Women, only 22 countries have an elected woman head of state or government, while 119 nations have never had a woman leader.

Data also indicate that at the current rate, parity will not be reached in national parliaments before 2063, and in ministerial positions before 2077. At the beginning of 2020, only 14 countries had Cabinets in which women held at least half the posts. They included Rwanda, Finland, Canada, Colombia and Peru. Currently, America’s Cabinet is one of the most diversified and gender balanced.

In an article published by the World Economic Forum, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka – who made history as South Africa’s first female deputy president in 2005 – noted that gender-balanced Cabinets made better decisions not just for women but society as a whole.

It is sad that even in these modern times, women continue to face social injustices, racism, sexism, cultural appropriation, micro-aggression, gender inequality, entrenched social norms, police brutality among others. Many African women and those within the BAME community and other ‘minorities’ have experienced several incidences of discrimination, and have been denied access to a lot of opportunities simply because of the colour of their skin.

The issue of diversity and inclusion has become an all-important discussion as the world intensifies efforts in the fight against gender disparity and inequality. While I was undertaking my MSc in Biotechnology a few years ago, I observed a very worrying trend – my experience in academia mirrored my experience in the corporate world to a large extent.

On several occasions, I have found myself as one of the few women in the room – a bad narrative that needs to be challenged.

Regrettably, the level of women’s representation across the sub-Saharan region is still at an all-time low. While the region has seen an increase in the representation of women in certain fields, they are yet to break through in certain areas that are widely seen as male-dominated sectors.

Growing backlashes and the many other barriers women face in leadership, governance, politics etc. continue to pose serious challenges. It is a normal occurrence for men to be considered for managerial positions as against women.

Predominantly, this is as a result of discriminatory social norms which have tended to be informed by perceptions of leadership being considered as solely reserved for men. These norms continue to shape organisational cultures and practices. Additionally, many women face challenges balancing their work with other responsibilities; and in some situations, some have been forced to choose their family – causing implications for their prospects of career progression.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed the immense contributions women have made toward combatting the pandemic’s ravaging effects. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s Angela Merkel have received worldwide praise for their approach and response to managing the COVID-19 crisis.

The crisis underscored the essence of their contributions and the disproportionate burdens women face. Undoubtedly, women leaders have demonstrated their capacity to effectively lead in the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts worldwide. The pandemic has also highlighted the role of women leadership in promoting the diversity and inclusion agenda toward developing an effective pandemic response approach.

This will help us re-emphasise the importance of advancing women’s leadership and participation in decision-making as a key component to advance the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially in addressing the potential long-term effects of COVID-19.

More women need to be given the opportunity to lead, take charge and build a more resilient world – especially in these times. We need to steer conversations targetted at promoting women empowerment, women inclusivity and leadership. Diversity and inclusion have proven to be key drivers for sustainable growth and the game-changer for a well-functioning market economy.

We need to position women in diverse business ecosystems to gain access to opportunities, access finance and assets, establish and lead businesses, and participate in critical decision-making processes. As stakeholders, the duty lies on us to discuss practical strategies that can enhance women inclusivity within Africa and beyond.

There is a need for inclusive participation by policymakers, civil society, activists, academia and other stakeholders to contribute in achieving gender equality and women empowerment, both locally and internationally.  The Commission on the Status of Women, dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women, will be hosting its sixty-fifth session to discuss the theme of how women can actively participate in decision-making and work toward eliminating violence against women and girls.

How can women secure meaningful representation, participation and leadership across multiple challenging sectors in this increasingly uncertain world? How can we as stakeholders change the narrative and advocate for a more equitable future and inclusive world?

Countries need to make room for women to take up more leadership roles by introducing quotas for more female representation. Getting more women involved will make a huge difference. Having a more gender-balanced government will promote inclusive growth.

Governments need to criminalise violence against women and impose sanctions against perpetrators of such crimes. According to a 2016 study, four in five women parliamentarians have experienced psychological violence linked to their job; one in four physical violence; and one in five sexual violence.

Recently, Aargauer Zeitung suffered an intense backlash when it published a derogatory article about Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in its newspaper. The newspaper was forced to retract its statement when the UN Women Leaders and 124 Ambassadors in Geneva signed a petition on calling out the racist and sexist remarks made by the newspaper. We need to hold people accountable for their actions, and the media, especially, has a duty of care to project the right information to the world.

Roundtable discussions for women leaders to share their experiences, perspectives and expertise can help in building more inclusive post-COVID-19 economies. Finally, it is vital for us to show support, collaborate and celebrate the tremendous efforts and accomplishments by other women across the globe. Only then can we see the progress we need. A challenged world is an alert world. Collectively we can achieve more.

>>>Roberta Annan is the Founder & Managing Partner of Annan Capital Partners, a sector agnostic specialized boutique investment and advisory firm in sub-Saharan Africa. She is also The United Nation Environment Program (UNEP) Supporter for the Creative Economy, and the recipient of several leadership awards. Roberta has spoken on major international platforms such as Concordia Summit, Private Equity Africa Summit, The Global African Investment Summit and others. She has also been featured in The Huffington Post, Forbes, Financial Times, WWD, Vogue and many major publications. She is the Co-founder and Managing Partner of Impact Fund for African Creatives (IFFAC) – a €100 million impact investment fund which will be based in Luxemburg aimed at supporting the creative and lifestyle industries across Africa. An avid philanthropist and impact investor, Roberta is passionate about creating women’s development opportunities across Africa. She is also the Founder of the African Fashion Foundation. Connect with Roberta Annan via Instagram:  @roberta.annan Twitter: @robertaannan LinkedIn: Roberta Annan, Email: [email protected]

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