Ideas & Debate

Gender can unlock Africa potential


Guests follow proceedings during the launch of report by New Faces New Voices and Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE), on Gender Equality in Kenya / Assessing 60 leading companies on workplace equality on November 13, 2019 at Serena Hotel in Nairobi. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU

Gender inequality remains high in Kenya and across the continent. This is a major missed opportunity. New research from the McKinsey Global Institute and McKinsey & Company in Africa has found that if every country were to match the progress toward gender equality of the African country that has progressed the fastest over the last five years, Africa could add $316 billion to its collective GDP in six year. That is about 10 percent of current GDP.

Right now, however, this scenario seems only a distant possibility. Progress towards parity in most African countries - including Kenya - has been disappointingly slow. At the current rate of progress, the continent will take close to 140 years to achieve gender parity.

The McKinsey research looked at 15 indicators of gender inequality in work and in society and found that progress on one is not possible without progress on the other. In work, Africa has higher female participation in labour markets than any other region. However, most women work in low-paying jobs in the informal sector with low levels of education and skills and little opportunity for advancement or fulfilment.

Some countries like Kenya, Botswana, Rwanda, and South Africa have made headway in getting more women into executive committees and company boards.

At least 25 percent of board positions across the continent are now filled by women, which is higher than the global average of 17 percent. But this needs to trickle down to lower levels - the share of women in middle-management roles has actually fallen over the past four years. This does not bode well for the future pipeline of women for board and exco positions.

In society, Africa’s progress towards parity is poorer in comparison to other regions. It has the highest average maternal mortality rate of any region in the world, and high levels of violence against women. Women’s education, financial and digital inclusion relative to men are also lower than that in most other regions.

The performance on political representation is mixed. At 25 percent, African women's overall representation in Cabinets and parliaments is higher than the global average (22 percent), and has risen by six and three percent respectively in recent years. However, this progress has been driven by only three countries: Ethiopia, which has a female president, Rwanda and South Africa - all of which have achieved gender balance in their Cabinets. In 12 countries, women's political representation has retrogressed since 2015.

If Kenya is to seize the economic dividend that will come from empowering its women, then government, businesses and community leaders need to work together. The research indicates that targeting five priority areas can reinvigorate progress towards gender parity.

First, Kenya needs to invest in girls’ education. In Sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than 90 girls are enrolled for every 100 boys at the lower secondary level, and that number drops to less than 85 at the upper secondary level - and in developing women’s skills. There are programmes in Kenya that are beginning to tackle this issue for example, the African Centre for Women & ICT works with “high potential, disadvantaged women” to improve their access to leadership opportunities. Since 2011, the organisation has trained 25,000 women and young people.

Second, Kenya needs to create economic opportunities for women in both the informal and formal economies. This includes integrating women-owned businesses into supply chains and ensuring workplaces are environments where women can thrive and develop.

Not only do companies need to recruit more women, but they also need to ensure that they have the flexibility they need to juggle their work in the home with work in the labour market. Research suggests that mothers are more likely to use formal childcare arrangements and enter the labour force when free or low-cost childcare options are available.

Third, Kenya should build on its existing efforts to use digital and mobile technologies to increasingly open doors to economic opportunity. Safaricom has signed the GSMA Connected Women Commitment to increase the share of women in its mobile money and internet customer base. It has also partnered with organisations including Google to provide affordable phones, furnished relevant content in its phones, and developed “how to” guides to reduce knowledge gaps. As a result, Kenya’s progress on women’s digital inclusion is one of the highest in Africa and this is spawning further innovation. For example, an app called An Nisa Taxi is tackling the issue of harassment and insecurity that women sometimes face when travelling by enabling them to find and connect with female drivers, thus ensuring that their trip is safer.

Fourth, deep-rooted attitudes about women’s role in society and work, which underlie many aspects of gender inequality, need to change through campaigns and advocacy.

Kenya’s YWCA already partners with the #rightbyher campaign funded by the European Union to realise and extend women’s and girls’ rights across Africa. The #menendFGM campaign rallied men to end female genital mutilation and contributed to the eventual signing into law of the Prohibition of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) Act in September 2011.

Finally, African women need the support and protection of the law - and where laws exist that theoretically protect and enable women, these need to be enforced. It is encouraging that the Office of the Chief State Prosecutor has a unit that enforces policy on gender-based violence and female genital mutilation. The country needs to build on these gains.

is a Partner based in McKinsey’s Ethiopia office. Sun is a Partner in McKinsey’s Nairobi office, and Jayaram is Senior Partner based in Nairobi.