For too many women in leadership roles, they are the only one of their kind at their level. While many organizations are working to create leadership opportunities for more women, they are simply not doing enough. A huge gap still exists between men and women in leadership in most industries, pointing to the fact that a lot of work still needs to be done.

According to research, women leaders are still a minority in the business world. Men outpace women in leadership roles across every sector in the world: corporate, non-profit, government, education, medicine, military and religion. This is more surprising when you realize that there are just as many women in the workforce as men. So, it’s not that women aren’t working, they just aren’t getting the opportunities to advance themselves into leadership roles.

Many factors contribute to this gap, including societal and cultural expectations, gender bias and stereotypes, pay inequality, a lack of mentors and role models as well as sexual harassment and microaggressions. For women to succeed at the same pace as their male peers and have equal access to leadership opportunities, intentional actions need to be taken and policies put in place.

I spoke to four women leaders in diverse industries about what they thought needed to be done for more women to enter leadership roles.

Here’s what they had to say.

Gbeminiyi Shoda, Company Secretary/ Legal Adviser, VFD Group Plc

For women to have more access to leadership opportunities, they must be educated to aim higher and know that it is okay to want more and be more without any form of limitation or ‘guilt’. This is very especially important considering our societal background and culture that teaches women to shrink themselves. Women also need to build and develop their capacity, competence and confidence such that they are ready and equipped for such opportunities as they present themselves. Organizations must provide women with enabling work environments, for example, flexible working hours, provision of crèches for mothers and other benefits that could enable women to thrive in their chosen fields. Women should be given equal opportunities regardless of age, gender, and marital status. A woman’s ambition or opportunity accessed should only be determined by her competence and ability. Finally, I also think that women who make it through and get into these positions should pay it forward and leave the door open to younger women and ensure they have it easier.

Olabukunola Williams, Executive Director, Education as a Vaccine

Photo credit: (Tolu Onibokun/ Malala Fund)

I think there are 3 things we can do to ensure women, especially young women in all their diversities, have access to leadership opportunities. The first is creating an enabling environment. There is this need to tell women especially young women that they must wait their turn and suffer through harassment, discrimination and trauma to become leaders. We tell them to lean in, grow a thick skin, choose their words, be strong and so many other things. We do that instead of creating an environment where they grow and thrive as leaders. I have learned from women who supported me, gave me advice, shared their experiences and space and time to become a leader. That’s the environment that ensures we get different types of leaders, diversity of leadership and service. Change won’t be possible if we keep forcing women especially young women into adopting the one leadership style fits all. We all lose.

The second is addressing negative gender and social norms: this is at the root of it all. We live and work in societies that remind women from a young age daily that they can’t and shouldn’t be leaders. We use religious texts and so-called traditions to remind women and girls of their place in society. And when they don’t listen, we reinforce the lessons and reminders with threats and very often violence. We must dismantle these structures that restrict the leadership of women to homes and women-only spaces. This is especially true of women and girls who are queer, live with disabilities, migrant, displaced or live in rural communities. We can’t keep dealing inadequately with symptoms without addressing the root cause of gender inequality at all levels. Our struggles as a continent to be free of oppression, poverty and injustice are directly linked to the freedom of women and girls in Africa.

Finally, we must share power. We have done a lot around mentoring and sharing knowledge. It’s now time to share power, platforms and resources. It’s now time for access to opportunities. We need to stop telling young women that they are not ready. The best way to learn is to do. It is time to do. And we must build intergenerational spaces to learn and grow because this is not about telling older women to leave the space. It’s about coexistence, learning and sharing. The world is changing, the needs are great, and all skills and expertise are needed. We should not buy into the white supremacist and capitalist models of scarcity, leadership and movement building. African feminists are building models of community, leadership and mobilizing. We are imagining the future we want, and we must move in the directions of our dreams and that is only possible if we share power.

Seun Runsewe, Vice President of Growth, SoftCom Africa

I think one thing that needs to be done to get more women in leadership positions is targeted messaging. I think that women need to be conditioned that there is space for them and they should be okay with taking up space in leadership positions. This messaging and conditioning have to come from the companies that are hiring. They also need to be clear about what they do to include women and help them grow in their careers. Another important thing is telling more stories. Representation matters. We need to be telling more stories so that younger women can see women like them doing amazing things in different fields. This helps women who are coming up to know that they can take up space in leadership in technology or whatever sector they choose. Finally, I’ll encourage companies to tap into women communities. These communities, like WIMBIZ or She Code Africa, exist to elevate women. If you have opportunities, send them to these groups and communities, and you’ll find really good female leads for those positions.

Chiamaka Oguonu, Youth Leadership Development Expert

For me, it’s a 2-way street for women to access positional leadership opportunities. The first is, an intentionally supportive environment that allows them to be expressive and on the other hand, women need to also present themselves and show up for these positions. In the first case, organisations need to be more gender aware in their policies and practices in terms of representation across the board to always highlight a balance (not skewed in favour of any gender). This encourages the female employees to stay mindful of stepping up and be ready to take on these opportunities when they arise.

In the second case, women need to disabuse their minds of being incapable of leadership positions. In my experience, most women self-sabotage by counting themselves out under the guise of not being prepared enough or often having competing priorities which they would typically choose over the available offer. There are also the cultural stereotypes of women being bad bosses and therefore less liked that some have grown to believe. Unfortunately, all these rob us of the uniqueness that women bring to the table as leaders. In this context, I always encourage women to show up, develop their leadership skills and as Sheryl Sandberg puts it in her book, Lean In, ‘Don’t leave before you leave’, i.e., keep preparing yourself and choosing those opportunities till you are no longer able to handle them physically or mentally. There are often workarounds and growth plans that can be worked out if women ask for help.  Again, goes back to the environment. Finally, women should choose allies – could be men or women in their workplace, same or similar professions; and a support system of fellow ‘girlfriends’ (could be peers/ seniors) to cheer one other on, on the journey.

Phidelia is a writer and communications manager based in Lagos. She loves chopping life, and spends her free time thinking of new ways to enjoy life. Tweet at her @the_phidelia if you enjoyed reading this.

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