Life & Work

Are investments in women alienating male co-workers?

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Today’s career woman is a force to reckon with. She is a business leader and a board member who sits at the company's decision-makers table. Thanks to years of promoting women rights of equal opportunity and pay, she also earns as much as her male peers.

On the flipside, some professionals argue that there has been too much emphasis on women issues, often at the expense of men issues at the workplace. Some men have been edged out by women who are becoming more empowered and more aggressive as competition for space grows ever tighter.

Do men think corporates are biased against them? What do women think about their own empowerment? Is it true that HR prefers women to men? How can parity be attained at the workplace without neglecting either gender?

The BDLife engages professionals at different levels to find out.

Eugene Otieno, a data scientist, says the corporate scene has become more competitive for men, and that it is easier for women to thrive than it is for men.

‘‘I think sometimes it has to do more with the organisational culture of where one works. Employers are also keener on gender issues than before. There is more emphasis now on women affairs. This goes beyond professional circles.’’

Mr Otieno, 28, says it is also about how good one is at any given role, whether man or woman. ‘‘How hard do you work? What different opportunities do you take up?’’

Does he think, then, that women are more aggressive in their careers nowadays? ‘‘In the work environment, you see women wanting more and going for more than their male colleagues. The empowerment has emboldened them to take more chances.’’

He adds: ‘‘As a man professional, you do not want to appear like you are standing in their way or being gender insensitive.’’ This also has to do with how women are brought up, he says.

‘‘I have two daughters, both younger than seven years old. I teach them to be assertive, to ask tough questions and to go for whatever they want.’’

But others argue that there are instances when women have been disadvantaged and even subjected to sexist statements in the workplace and earn salaries that are lower than for men. There is also the issue of job promotions when women take career breaks due to maternal responsibilities.

Mercy Mwirigi, a senior human resource officer at the Judiciary of Kenya, however, argues that incentives for women such as Affirmative Action is to correct historical gender discrepancies and is, therefore, critical. ‘‘Women have always been at a disadvantage in most areas, including professionally, where the environment has not been fair to them.’’

Ms Mwirigi does admit, though, that recruitment is ultimately based on one’s competencies. ‘‘For a human resource manager, the question is never about whether one is a man or a woman. But our Constitution requires us to be deliberate in promoting women and other marginalised groups to give them an opportunity on those platforms.’’

East African Breweries Limited (EABL), Safaricom and Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) are some of the Kenyan companies that are heavily elevating women issues as part of their Environmental, Sustainability and Governance (ESG) policies.

In May, EABL promoted Anne-Joy Michira as its director of marketing in the region, a high-ranking role that will drive innovation for the business as in its next 100 years.

EABL chief executive officer Jane Karuku says: ‘‘We lead in diversity and inclusion. Forty percent of our leadership is women. We are recruiting women in universities where we run a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) programme.’’

The beverage maker’s rationale is simple. ‘‘Traditionally, women have not featured so prominently in these (STEM) areas,’’ says Ms Karuku, adding: ‘‘We are disrupting this space by having more brewers [and distillers], especially female ones below 30, in our plants in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.’’

From women-only awards to training, promotion, story grants, mentorship and fellowships, the media in Kenya has been leading from the front in recent years. Women are now coming up strongly, taking up different senior editorial and managerial roles.

Nancy Booker, a media lecturer at Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Journalism, says this elevation is deserved and timely. She acknowledges, though, that while steady, the rise has been slow.

‘‘It is not a competition. Women are trying to catch up with their male counterparts. What we must do is to complement the representation of both genders in the newsroom and to put them at par because that has a bearing on the issues that we [report] on,’’ she says. Prof Booker notes that women inclusion translates to diversity.

May Nyaga, the head of human capital at Faulu Microfinance Bank, notes that increased mobility on the women’s side of the gender divide in the country’s corporate space is testament to the gains being made in promoting diverse workplaces. It is also part of the wider agenda on attaining equality by businesses globally.

‘‘It is the direction the world of work is moving in where flexibility and diversity are embraced. That said, it is important to understand why men are feeling that way about employer support. At the end of the day, learning and training, perks and promotions are all equal.’’

On when are men likely to feel alienated at the workplace, Ms Nyaga says this often stems from having the wrong structures at the policy level. ‘‘If initiatives at the workplace are discriminatory and there is too much emphasis on one gender, then the other gender may feel neglected.’’

She, however, does not think that increased competition on the corporate scene is edging men out. On the contrary, she believes that those leaving are doing so for their own reasons, such as to go into consultancy.

‘‘It is a personal choice. It could also be because of changing career needs and aspirations. Some professionals also choose to go into other areas of their career that they are passionate about,’’ she observes and adds that restructuring could also be the reason men are leaving the corporate world.

Are there instances when employers expressly seek to recruit female candidates? How often does this happen?

Perminus Wainaina, a senior recruiter and CEO of Corporate Staffing Services says that employers may make such requests for some roles such as customer service management, human resource, and client service head because ‘‘they consider female candidates more ideal for these roles.’’

Mr Wainaina, though, says not all employers ask for female candidates for certain roles. ‘‘The majority of employers are keen on the skills that one has and not necessarily the gender.’’

Women are also considered ‘‘more virtuous than men’’ which makes them more attractive candidates to hire and to promote.

‘‘In finance, some employers consider female employees to have more integrity compared to male candidates. There is also the assumption that women are more relational than men, which make them more preferable in client-facing and people-oriented roles such as customer service, HR and sales.’’

On gender trends in recruitment in recent years, Mr Wainaina observes that many employers are keen on hiring women for managerial and even top executive roles.

He says: ‘‘There is a belief that female employees who are beyond the childbearing age are more stable [to run an organisation] than their male colleagues. The latter sometimes are involved in side hustles because they still need to provide for their family, which may take away their attention from leading the business.’’

The recruiter does not think the Affirmative Action is necessary in the corporate world. ‘‘It is necessary at the education and training stage up to university level. Beyond that, it is up to the candidate’s skills, attitude and work ethic that should determine how high they can rise.’’

For years, there have been a significant gap in both compensation and career progression opportunities between men and women professionals, even when their competencies and drive were at par.

Men tend to ask for the highest pay and perks they can get from a role. Women are either reserved or do not know how to navigate salary negotiations. Yet women are as are competent and as self-driven as men.

On men support at work, Ms Nyaga says that most professions have networks for both men and women that benefit participants. Ms Mwirigi believes it is possible to promote interests of both men and women at the workplace without neglecting either gender.

She notes: ‘‘If you are filling up a fifth executive position where there are already three or four men or even women, it is natural that the pick is of the opposite gender. This influences decisions at the policy level because there is diversity of views. You need a woman to propose creation of a lactating room in the office, for instance.’’

The HR practitioner says certain facilities are necessitated by the unique needs of the target group. ‘‘Men rarely have unique needs. Any environment that meets the occupational health and safety standards is ideal for a man. The baseline is a good, supportive work environment. In most cases, men have no unique needs.’’ She adds: ‘‘It is up to men to point out some of the things that would make them better.’’

Does Mr Otieno think any special type of support would give him a forward thrust in his career? ‘‘That would obviously be very useful. Mentorship is important for men like me in the early stages of our career. But we (men) like to find our way out of situations by ourselves.’’

Prof Booker argues that support for media practitioners should be universal. ‘‘It does not matter if you are male or female. You have to work across platforms, to engage technology and to be innovative.’’

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