Can a career woman have it all? And what does it take for a woman to have a well-functioning family, a well-paying job, time off during maternity or to enjoy whisky with friends or sing in a Church choir?
Embracing equity in the workplace can make it easier for women to have a fairer playing field and flourish. But decades on, many corporates are struggling.
As Kenya joins the rest of the world in marking International Women’s Day, top executives speak candidly about the challenges of climbing the career ladder.
Gladys Some was having a flourishing career as a news editor with a local radio station until she got pregnant. Her employer, a Faith-based media organisation, asked her to resign.
“As a Christian organisation, they were not going to have an unmarried, pregnant woman working for them,” recalls the now Kenya Re Corporate Affairs Manager, during an interview with the BDLife.
This was however her blessing in disguise. It pivoted her career into the corporate world where she has worked for various government corporations, then as a diplomat along the way, but says this highlights the discrimination women go through in the job market.
“Men get to move on with their jobs and lives, but as a woman, you have to battle losing a job, motherhood, and the thought that your career might come to an end. And sometimes, this can break one to the point of thinking that it’s the end,” she says of the experience that happened in her 20s.
“It is very unfortunate that women are victimised in terms of progressing their careers for doing what is natural,” says Patricia Kingori-Mugendi, Corps Africa founding country director who sits on three boards including Kenidia, Tanzindia Assurance Company, and is a commissioner on the Kenya Meat Commission.
One of her former bosses blocked her promotion because she was a woman, and another loathed employing young women because he viewed it as a drawback, that they will be on maternity leave while drawing salaries.
“Nowadays you find women hard-pressed to have children later in life because they want to have that competitive edge at work,” says Dr Mugendi adding, “Which is also not fair because when you’re young and strong that is the time you have the energy to have children.”
“I had to delay marriage to get to where I am,” says Dr Mugendi, who got married at 50.
“I went overboard in terms of work, which is not a good thing because life has to be a balance and I couldn’t get that for a long time. I feel I skewed too much toward my work. At some point, my doctor had to give me sleeping pills and put me on bedrest due to burnout.”
“Mothers who do not have support systems, feel the impact of slow growth the most. And it is even harder for single parents to find that balance. As a single mother to my son I have always wished I’d spent much more time with my child, but it couldn’t just work. Those are the challenges of being the sole breadwinner and parenthood. When you have shared responsibility it kind of cushions things.”
Caroline Ndung’u, Jubilee Insurance’s head of marketing and corporate communications, recollects her experience around the issue of motherhood. “When I was getting my second born I had lots of accumulated leave days and had sought to take my three months and add onto that my two months annual leave.”
“But my then boss scoffingly said, ‘unless you plan on retiring.’” She adds, “I don’t think there’s an intention to be mean to women, it’s just that we’ve not built these things into societal conscience.”
“And these are some of the things that national laws need to address. Because a HR policy is highly influenced by the leadership of a company…but if something is in the labour law…it doesn’t matter how you feel as a boss or a board member. So, if the policies are legislated and they become law, then organisations have to align…they have to toe the line,” says Dr Mugendi.”
According to these women leaders, today exemptions around circumstances surrounding maternity complications are done depending on how empathetic a boss is but not necessarily as part of a company policy.
Christine Mwai-Marandu, the country credit director at Absa Bank Kenya Plc, was lucky to have an empathetic male boss who made an allowance for her to stay away from the workplace when she was having a difficult pregnancy.
“In 2011, my doctor asked me to choose between the baby and my career. She advised I take a break. It was scary because the bank was laying off at the time. I thought ‘I could easily be let go’. But my company allowed me to stay home for close to eight months.”
Ms Ndung'u, a mother of three, also knows about the bias that comes when pregnant woman have to stay out of work.
“Unfortunately, remote working is still not fully embraced in Kenyan workplaces and economy,” she says, adding “This is the first place I’d say we ought to start.”
She says with the existing advances in technology, adoption of work-from-home policies ought to work for women.
“We’ve evolved so much. We have computers and the internet now. We can work remotely while still raising our young ones, especially if the work is not reliant on physical presence at the workplace,” says Ms Ndung’u, adding “Corporates have to say, ‘let’s make it so she thrives’.”
Ms Marandu is one of the women who counts the gains of working from home.
“I still work from home some days, it’s given me the opportunity to integrate my life better...and for my daughter to find me home most times even though sometimes I have to wave at her because I’m on a call.”
The presence of lactation rooms and crèches, which allow women to bring their babies has helped, but not all organisations have conformed.
“It’s about putting in place structures around motherhood and giving birth, and allowing women to make their contribution in the economy in a way that doesn’t compromise their own outcomes professionally and those of their children and families,” Ms Ndung’u points out.
She says that even though there is much to celebrate, female professionals' lived experiences still tell a tale of exclusion, vulnerability and self-deprivation.
“We can say it very nicely that we are creating a more equal and fair world for career women to thrive but when push comes to shove, what does that actually mean?”
For these women, they have had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to prove themselves and earn leadership positions. Pay disparity also continues to plague most workplaces to the detriment of women.
“Looking at many organisations, almost to the first tier of leadership or management, you’ll find that the male and female representation is almost 50-50, but then as you go up to the executive committee (Exco), then you notice the conspicuous absence of women. This happens not necessarily because of qualifications but because of these gender biases.”
'Tea girls' on boards
While some stereotypes have shifted over time, many remain static.
“The whole view of women as warembo (beauties) means women are not taken seriously. There’s some sort of permission to lighten the role of the woman in the room. Things like being asked to take the notes, or serve tea or even pray, just because of your gender. It is commonplace for ideas by women even in the boardroom not to be taken down, sometimes men repeat the same ideas and they’re applauded,” says Ms Ndung’u.
Dr Mugendi adds, “When you’re the only woman in a room full of men, you have to be very deliberate. People will objectify you as a pretty face in the room. Do not give them room by dressing lasciviously. I don’t mean you deny your femininity…but don’t dress in a way that makes it likely for you to be objectified since it’s a challenge you’re likely to face. Sometimes, we’re labelled as being ‘aggressive’ for demonstrating the same qualities that might be described as ‘persistent’ or ‘driven’ if it were displayed by a man.”
“Boards are still very male-dominated,” says Dr Mugendi, “And chairpersons of boards need to be very deliberate on including women.”
“Just because boards are affirming the 30 percent representation does not mean that they pick up any woman. It is the prerogative of a woman to qualify for it. For me to have gotten into a board, I had to take a six-month course offered by the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE), on sitting on boards. You can’t sit and assume that because you’ve been a manager for so long then automatically you should sit on a board. I had that vision that one day I’d want to be on a board.”
“If you want to grow in the corporate world, networking is very critical. It is in the networks that get information and hear of opportunities,” she says and adds, “women should also set goals with a direction of where one wants to go.”
Dr Mugendi says women often exclude themselves from opportunities by entertaining career-limiting mindsets which impede their ability to go up, what Absa’s Ms Marandu, describes as women’s tendencies to ruminate and pussyfoot.
“Supportive policy can be there but women have this tendency to ruminate, get caught up in inaction. They want to please and to be liked…being indecisive because they fear being wrong but it’s hurting their careers. We’ve got to unlearn these things and start making decisions, you could be wrong but along the way, you’ll make corrections.”