Women are the backbone of most African economies and policy makers are starting to consider the unique role they play in society. Country development strategies are increasingly including gender themes that outline programmes for gender empowerment in health, education, business and property. Similarly, some countries, such as Kenya and Rwanda, have included gender mainstreaming in their new constitutions. But creating laws and institutionalising quotas for women is only one step towards reversing centuries-old stereotypes which continue to pigeon-hole women into industries like fashion, media communications and marketing.
Precisely because women are so important for development, it is almost as important that successful female African entrepreneurs reach out to younger African women following in their footsteps. The truth is that in business, as in most things in life, women and men are not always treated equally. As a female African entrepreneur I find that I have to work twice as hard to get the right kind of attention from my male peers. As a young female African entrepreneur, the quest to be taken seriously is even more daunting. Not only are we not taken seriously but it is sometimes also the case that more established female business leaders are less than eager to trade secrets with their “little sisters”. In those rare instances when they do engage with us, they are prone to donning their patronising hats and asking, “Young girl, how old are you again?”, thereby implying that we have not yet eared the right to have a conversation (of equals) with them. I believe that just as men tend to have an “oldboys club”, where younger men are groomed into future leaders, successful women, too, should reach out to those younger than them.
Early this year I attended a UN-funded, high-level conference on Africa. Out of about 30 participants there were only eight women, three of whom were considered young. From the very beginning of the conference, we – the young women – respectfully sat together, while our young male counterparts blended into the crowd. During coffee breaks, the young women split up and tried to integrate with the rest of the group, sometimes joining a group with another young participant hoping to blend in as much as he. But the conversation would always end up at the same point, where the same question was asked: “So, young girl, how old are you?” I can’t help but wonder how come no one asks the young men this question?
A few weeks ago I attended another business conference, part of a delegation of young female Africans. This time, I decided not to sit with the other young women conversations with both men and women. While talking about my experiences in fragile states, one of the men said, “You can’t possibly be old enough to have such experiences.” Another conversation I initiated with an elderly lady ended abruptly when she advised me to ensure I focused on starting a family as “we women” only have so much time to procreate. I could not help but wonder why, of all things she could possibly have advised me on, she had to pick the one function that separates women from a men. So here we are, young female African business women, too young to be taken seriously in our careers and soon too old to have children. While I applaud initiatives that recognise female leaders and I inspire us to pick up the torch, there is a genuine need for these women to provide mentorship to their younger sisters rather than shun them at opportune encounters.
Fortunately, all is not lost. I recently met a leading female African executive with whom I was able to have a normal conversation. We shared our views on a variety of topics, both global and regional. After our conversation, I felt comfortable enough to ask her if we could stay in contact, should I need advice in the future. She quickly gave me her business card and took mine. Not long thereafter I emailed her for advice, half expecting my letter to go unanswered. But to my surprise she responded. Her first line read: “Young lady, sometimes, it’s okay to be seen as a silly young little girl but only when you choose to.”
Written by Manka Angwafo, founder of online library of African research, Hadithi