Austin Okere


By Austin Okere
In commemoration of this year’s International Women’s Day, I would like to honor our womenfolk by sharing the essence of my keynote at the last annual WIMBIZ conference at the Eko Hotel in Lagos, aptly themed UNSTOPPABLE YOU: REINVENT & REINVIGORATE.
To start with, I was deeply impressed by the preparation leading up to the event and by the attention to detail during the event; starting on time, to the full attendance and seamless coordination. No small feat for an event of over 2,000 participants. Well done to the Board of Trustees and Executive Council of WIMBIZ. Having said this, Women do not seem to be making it in any large number to the top of any profession anywhere in the world, even though the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number five is Gender Equality.
The numbers tell the story quite clearly: Sahle-Work Zewde, Ethiopia’s first female president is currently Africa’s only female head of state; of 190 Heads of State in the world, only nine are women; of all the people in parliaments in the world only 13% are women; in the corporate world, C-Level Jobs and Board Seats, only 15% are women; there are only two female CEO’s in the banking sector in Nigeria; even in the nonprofit world, where you expect more women to be in leadership positions, there are only 20% of women at the top; last year just 2% of Venture Capital funding went to startups founded by women, this is not surprising, since women comprise just 9% of the decision makers at U.S. Venture Capital Firms; and the numbers have not moved very much since the turn of the 21st century.
The other problem that women face is having to make tougher choices between professional success and personal fulfillment. A rent survey in America showed that of married senior managers, two thirds of the MEN had children and only one third of the WOMEN had children. Verna Myers, an African-American Diversity Consultant once told a revealing story at a TED talk; Verna was on a long-distance flight; and having settled into her seat, the voice of a female pilot came over the public announcement system. Wow! she thought to herself, we women are indeed breaking through the class ceiling. We are now rocking stratosphere! With that she settled into a book. Not very long after, the plane went through some very severe turbulence. The first thought that came to her mind was “I hope this sister can drive this thing”. And then she caught herself. What bothered her was that this thought will not at all have crossed her mind at all if the pilot had been male; and these are the hidden biases that many of us carry and have been carrying for centuries. We are mentally associated with the male as competent, and successful.
In the work place men seem to be overwhelmingly our default. Rightly or wrongly, we trust the strategic roles to men, cementing stereotypes and prejudices in which we have been schooled over and over. I usually get this from our womenfolk in the workplace. “I prefer to hang with the guys because…” Well, this is who you feel implicitly connected to; that is your default. Do not be hard on yourself for falling into this category because a lot of research on implicit association test, which measures unconscious bias seem to suggest that our default are indeed men. We need to get out of denial that these stereotypes exist and rather look within; and be willing to change ourselves and who we trust and feel connected to. Scientists tell us that instead of denying our gender biases, we should be changing our mental associations of who women are; by staring and memorizing the faces and names of the most awesome women we know. This helps us to dissociate the automatic associations that happens in our brains. It helps us to relearn a new awesome trust and break the stereotypes associated with women.
When we see a woman in a successful role, say a leading role in a hit movie, our thoughts seem to drift to “who did she have to sleep with” but we hardly ask that of successful men. Unfortunately, both men and women are guilty of these associations, whether inherent or expressed; implicit or explicit. Biases are the stories we make up about people before we know who they actually are; but how are we going to know them without being willing to embrace them? This is why we need to get disconfirming data that proves that our old stereotypes are wrong. While I do not entirely agree with all her viewpoints, I daresay I admire the good work done by our own Chimamanda Adichie to greatly move the needle forward in this regard. To break the gender divide, we need men and women to walk towards our discomfort by expanding our social and professional circles and embracing complete gender diversity in our networks. We need to build the type of relationships that reveal the holistic person and goes against the stereotypes. Wherever you are, ask yourself who is here and who is missing.
How many authentic relationships do we have with aspiring young women? How many do we have in the Boardrooms and in top management positions? How many do we have in politics? We need to get off the fence and become actors and advocates in this journey of diversity and gender equality. We must call things out when we they are wrong because the other people who see, and perpetrate these stereotypes are our children. Biases are planted and nurtured by none other than us. Children are born with a mind that is a clean slate, and most of their developing years are spent with their mothers. What do we write on these slates that so strongly reinforces these biases and stereotypes between the genders?
The elephant in the room is how are we going to fix this? I will make bold the following suggestions: Firstly, stand up to be seen, speak out to be heard – keep your hands raised. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook tells the story about a talk she gave, and after that a young lady in the audience came to see her backstage. She was upset because Sherly said she would take only two questions more. The lady (and all the other women in the room) put their hands down after the two questions. But guess what? the men kept their hands up; and guess what else? Sheryl took more questions; and all from MEN. Perhaps this is how the men get ahead. Secondly, claim your place at the table. Beyond giving the glory to God, do not look outside yourself to explain your successes. I find that Women systematically underestimate their own abilities. This matters, because no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the sidelines. No one gets the promotion if they do not believe they deserve their success. Perhaps this is not unrelated to the fact that while success and likeability are positively correlated for men, they seem to be negatively correlated for women. People seem to love to be around successful or powerful men. They however, seem to hold successful women to be difficult bosses and not fun to work with. But that should be their problem and not yours. You owe yourself to be the best you can be; but certainly not be a dollar bill that is liked by everybody.
According to the Great Physicist Albert Einstein, Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work. If you’ve worked hard for it sister; enjoy it! People may say for instance, that Serena Williams is a Tennis World Champion because she was coached by her Dad. If you watched Serena’s interview with a reporter when she was barely 13, you will realize that this could not have been the only factor in her success. When Serena was asked which tennis Great she would like to be like, she said no; I want to be the greatest tennis player so that other players will like to be like me; how aspirational! Secondly, make your spouse or partner a real partner. Even with all the shocking statistics, women seem be doing much better in the workplace than in our households. In a home where both spouses work, the woman does much more, because she comes back from work to cook and do the housework. We tend to put more pressure on Boys to succeed than Girls. We generally do not welcome men in hospitality and in caregiving. Do you notice that when men go for Parent Teachers’ Association meetings or other such events which have been traditionally performed by women, the women do not talk to him or make him feel welcome? He feels like a misfit, even though his action choice goes a long way in alleviating gender imbalance; it seems that we are not sure where we want our menfolk. Just imagine the look on the face of your Mum or Mother-in-Law when they come to visit and see your husband in the kitchen sweating over a cooking pot, perhaps because you have a very important project to turn in at the office the next day. And they are women!
We must make it as important a job in the home as it is outside. The man should not be perceived as a low flier if he opts to do the job at home. We must learn not to feel ashamed of him if this were the case. We must make it comfortable for both sexes to choose to contribute fully in the workforce or at home. The partners that have understood this have a much healthier relationship. Thirdly, do not leave before you leave (i.e. mentally quitting before you actually quit to go and start a family). In other words, keep your foot fully on the gas pedal at work until you are finally decided and ready to leave. Do not start leaning back because you are planning to get married and start a family. Remember that the thought and the action could be quite far apart. Success is never going to be easy. As Denzel Washington says; fall down seven times get up eight. Without commitment you will not start, and without consistency you will not finish.
Borrowing a page from John Maxwell, I made the following tradeoffs in seeking to leave my footprints in the sands of time: Firstly – Exchanging Affirmation for Accomplishment – I stopped being a people pleaser. Secondly – Exchanging security for significance – I changed my attitude towards uncertainty. Thirdly – Trading Immediate Victory for Long Term Sustainability – I stopped measuring my performance solely in terms of immediate results. In doing these, the three Ws that sustained me were: Way power – aptitude; Will power – attitude and Wait power – patience. Perhaps you may also find these helpful.
My passion for gender balance opportunities has led me to co-facilitate the SDG Africa Centre’s 100 women CEO Mentorship across 10 countries, as well as set up a the Ausso Leadership Academy to mentor entrepreneurs and business leaders towards institutionalization and geometric growth. I urge you to take advantage of these programs. I am an advocate because I believe that a world that has 50% of men and women involved in running Counties and Businesses will be a better place for all of us. I wish to conclude by on the following note of caution; the future should be about equal opportunities for both men and women. We don’t want to make the same mistake by just flipping the gender problem. We truly need both men and women working together to create a world that works for us all, and for our future generations.
At this anniversary of the International Women’s Day, I encourage our women to be reinvigorated, reinvented, and truly unstoppable. Always remember that candle losses nothing by lighting other candles. When you get to the top, please remember to send the elevator back down.
Austin Okere is the Founder of CWG Plc, the largest ICT Company on the Nigerian Stock Exchange & Entrepreneur in Residence at CBS, New York. Austin also serves on the Advisory Board of the Global Business School Network, and on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Innovation and Intrapreneurship. Austin now runs the Ausso Leadership Academy focused on Business and Entrepreneurial Mentorship






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