Feature- WIMBIZ: Celebrating Legacy at 20

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by Dotun Adekanmbi

“Women who have the capacity to influence must begin to advocate the kind of change they want to see, else there is no need to complain.”

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–          Dr. Adedoyin Salami.

It used to be the case, at least until the recent past, that each time a woman attained a position of eminence either in the private or public sector, she almost always got asked: ‘How did you succeed in breaking the proverbial ‘glass ceiling?’ A follow-up question usually was: “How do you maintain the work-life balance of the home front and the workspace? Almost always, too, these questions were patronising, even if the interviewer did not mean them to be so.

Much of the time, the questions were by-products of experience grounded in history, politics, business and, to some extent, the academia. Those were the days when names like Madam Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Madam Margaret Ekpo, Hajia Ladi Kwale, Chief Abisoye Tejuoso, Prof. Grace Alele Williams, Chief Bola Kuforiji easily resonated. They truly broke glass ceilings and tore to shreds the stereotype of women as ‘tea girls’ among men of immense power and wealth. But their number was arguably negligible and oftentimes these individuals rose to prominence decades apart.

By the beginning of the 20th century, however, it had become increasingly difficult, if not embarrassing, to pose those questions to high-flying Nigerian women without sounding ill-informed. Much of the re-think arose from the accomplishments of amazons like Chief Mrs Folake Solanke (SAN), Chief Mrs Nike Akande, songstress Onyeka Onwuenu, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Agbani Darego, Chimamanda Adichie, Mobola Johnson and the late Prof Dora Akunyili. Many more joined the queue by the dawn of the 21st century. They were women who stood tall, so much so that their husbands, regardless of their levels of achievements were more known as ‘the husband of…’

The development in the financial sector between 2018 and mid-2021 when an unprecedented eight women emerged as chief executive officers of major banks whilst one – Mrs. Aishah Ahmad leads as Banking regulator in her capacity as CBN, Deputy Governor – FSS; made the nation more acutely aware that the women were not just coming, they were ‘arriving’ in numbers without the toga of feminism with which people often tried to downplay the quality of their achievements. The strides of Miriam Olusanya (GTBank); Nneka Onyeali-Ikpe (Fidelity Bank); Tomi Somefun (Unity Bank); Yemi Edun (FCMB); Bukola Smith (FSDH Merchant Bank); Ireti Samuel-Ogbu (Citibank); Halima Buba (Suntrust Bank) and Kafilat Araoye (Lotus Bank) completely changed the narrative in a sector well known for having only one woman left standing at any given time to slug it out in the C-suites in a male-dominated sector. Recall Sola David-Borha at Stanbic IBTC Bank or Cecilia Ibru at the defunct Oceanic Bank.

What changed? A lot, brought on first by observing women at work and deciding on the imperative that more of the gender needed to be consciously positioned for leadership to align with the universal notion of building strength in numbers. Women in Management, Business & Public Service (WIMBIZ), a non-profit Non-Governmental Organisation was thus born. In 20 years, the seed had borne fruits with more women effectively calling the shots in the boardrooms. Today, only a few enquirers would ask these amazons questions that they ordinarily would not ask their male counterparts without sounding ridiculous.

For 20 years, WIMBIZ, a non-profit organisation, has continually championed the cause of increasing the number of women in leadership positions in the public and private sectors. Statistics back this fight. According to a 2016 Mckinsey report, Women Matter Africa, only about five percent of women in Africa occupy CEO positions despite evidence that organisations with more gender-diverse boards tend to perform better financially. In Nigeria, it is a tough battle regardless of the fact that women account for about 50 percent of the population, put at approximately 101.67m (up from 17.6 million in 1960) compared with 104.47 million that constitutes the male population. The National Assembly clearly demonstrates the under-representation of women in leadership with eight women senators out of 109 that make up the Red Chamber and eleven female representatives out of 360 in the Green Chambers of the House of Representatives. Yet, the legislature is the body that is constitutionally empowered to discuss and pass laws that discourage gender discrimination.

The lop-sidedness of representation clearly explains why the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill introduced in 2016 by Sen. Biodun Olujimi, one of the female senators, has yet to see the light of day since it was first introduced in 2016 and re-introduced in 2019. The bill, if passed, would, among others, guarantee the rights of women to equal opportunities in employment and protect them against gender discrimination in political and public life.

Olujimi believed that things had not worked out well because, as she said at a WIMBIZ event: “We have not worked hard enough as women,” stressing, “When women were elected deputy governors in the last regime, we felt we had arrived and didn’t need to push each other again and so we were taken for granted.”

If, five years ago, the Senator had a correct reading of the situation in the political arena, today, her position cannot be so strongly extrapolated with what obtains in Corporate Nigeria, where WIMBIZ in two decades has ceaselessly been advocating for parity in male/female representation in leadership positions. This is based on its mission “to inspire and empower women to attain leadership positions in business, management and public service.” Of particular interest is the cradle to maturity plus everything in-between strategy adopted by WIMBIZ. This coheres with its vision “to be the catalyst that elevates the status and influence of women and their contribution to nation-building.”

In the quest to ensure that Nigerian women take their rightful places at tables in various boardrooms, WIMBIZ instituted several initiatives that, even as a man, I find not only interesting but instructive. First is the ‘Big Sister Programme’ that is essentially a hand-holding initiative to mentor teenage girls in government secondary schools by connecting them to accomplished women chosen to light their paths. In 2016, the programme trained 1500 girls across three states of the federation, with beneficiaries in Lagos State accounting for 800 participants in about 14 schools. The other participants were trained in Niger and Rivers States. The Winning Without Compromise (WIWIC) – a campus outreach programme – took the initiative a notch higher by targeting students in tertiary institutions. The package also includes a business plan competition in which participants pitch their business ideas to win some seed capital. By following the lead of their mentors, mentees were expected to understand the language of power and money more easily and, with these, build self-confidence to take on the world. And win!

For women entrepreneurs, the WIMBIZ Capacity Building Project (WIMCAP) was instituted to imbue businesswomen with “the skills and tools for building sustainable businesses that will create jobs and attract investment.” WIMCAP not only trains female business owners across different functional professional areas but also includes robust business clinics that offer opportunity for focused interactions between business owners and consultants.

If anything, the rise in the number of female CEOs in Corporate Nigeria could be attributed in part to the extensive advocacy work undertaken by WIMBIZ through its WIMBOARD initiative that focuses on increasing the number of women on corporate boards. Although this write-up does not by any means suggest that all the new appointees are members of WIMBIZ, the argument could be stretched that the awareness created by WIMBIZ has encouraged organisations to become a lot more receptive to the idea of increasing women representation on their boards. It is instructive that WIMBIZ not only trains women for leadership, but it also maintains an executive database of qualified board-ready women, which provides a ready pool from which organisations could draw.

With over 17,000 women in its database, WIMBIZ has influenced over 216,000 women from its contributory associate pool of 1057 accomplished women in management, business and public service. In 2016, the NGO was adjudged the winner of AXA Mansard Insurance AXA Empower Women contest, which was a fitting tribute to the efforts of WIMBIZ to help women find relevance while leaving a mark of their achievements for posterity. In 2018, WIMBIZ became the first Nigerian NGO rated by NGO Advisor and ranked as 428 worldwide. WIMBIZ is also the only African/Nigerian Affiliate partner and representative of the International Women’s Entrepreneurship Challenge (IWEC) Foundation.

These achievements notwithstanding, the mistake must not be made to think that the fight for inclusion and gender parity has been won. No.  Though WIMBIZ has demonstrated its capacity to influence national discourse to advocate the kind of change envisioned for leadership in Nigeria, a lot of introspection is still needed while ‘Celebrating Legacy’. For one, much still must be done to engender increased membership, for there really is strength in numbers. For another, there is need to create more awareness of it vision and mission with a view to securing public buy-in into the ideals of WIMBIZ. Importantly, since networking is at the heart of the activities of WIMBIZ, one cannot stress too much the importance of engaging public officers, especially legislators with a view to interrogating issues and ideas before they become policies. In Nigeria, being reactive is not only expensive, it serves no useful purpose in the long haul. After 20 years of hard work, WIMBIZ truly deserves to roll out the drum for its achievements thus far. With all hands on deck, the future looks bright and rewarding.

Dotun Adekanmbi, author of The Will To Win: The Story of Biodun Shobanjo, is a Lagos-based media trainer and public communication strategist.

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