Thursday, November 13, 2008

Getting women on board

I SPOKE recently at the Women In Management & Business (WIMBIZ)'s 7th annual conference, on the topic, "Getting Women on Board", within the context of advocating more opportunities and roles for Nigerian women in the project Vision 2020, our country's avowed aspiration to achieve the enviable status of being among the world's Top 20 economies by the year 2020.

When I was asked to speak on this topic, a number of questions occurred to me: Are we implying that our women are not already on board? Is it a matter of not enough women being on board or lacking the support and resources to stay on board? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes", then I think the logical follow-up enquiry would be 'why?' and 'what can we do about it?' The concept of Women's Empowerment, especially in developing societies such as ours, means different things to different people. And this is more so when you place it within the context of our diverse, sometimes complex, religious and cultural tendencies.

I believe that as women we are fully conscious of our pivotal roles in society as mothers, bearing and nurturing our children to grow up as useful and productive members of society, as the major pillar of the smallest, yet most important social unit - the family - and also as contributors/engines of the economy and business community. So, the issue of empowerment for women in our society, and indeed any human society for that matter, is not about the why. It is about the how.

It is important for us as women not to look at the issue of Women Empowerment as an abstract, theoretical concept. It is something that we, by virtue of our rich African heritage, already possess. Women in Nigeria have a long history of being economically active. Many of our female ancestors were traders. In fact, many even owned property in their own name. Today, many Nigerian women remain economically active. Next time you drive around any of our major cities, check out most of the people who are trading at the roadsides, oftentimes till very late into the night: they are women -women who support themselves and very often their families. While many women are economic actors in some capacity, they often work in informal sectors of the economy and lack the opportunities they need to fulfill their full economic potential.

My experience as a management-level staff at Mobil Producing Nigeria reinforces the fact that the way to have the most sustainable and lasting impact on the communities where we operate is to work in partnership across sectors - with governments, with NGOs like WIMBIZ, and with other donors, to address issues that relate to women empowerment. Most importantly, we find that there's need to work in close collaboration with those who understand these issues best - local communities and the women themselves.

Our focus on women and girls is not just a philanthropic endeavour, it makes good business sense. Our business thrives when the communities where we operate thrive, and there is abundant research to prove that investing in women's education and leadership leads to positive, long-term economic and social growth.

Everywhere around the country today, and even in the international arena, we see our women at different levels of social, economic and political endeavours giving a very good account of themselves, and pride to womanhood. We are proud and inspired by their achievements, and the real challenge for us is to rapidly grow this group of female icons and role models, for the benefit of our women in general. At the end of the day, we must come to the realization that our destiny, as women, lies in our own hands. While it is important to come together at conferences to share best practices, it is really through actions that we will help break down the unique barriers that women and girls face. We can only imagine all the positive results we will see in the years ahead if we can just help more women and girls reach their full potential!