By David Wanjala
One of the misconceptions that have endured the test of time in gender relations is that women are weaker.
Jackson Mue, the director of Field Services at the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), for instance, confesses that for a long time, based on his early acculturation, he believed that women were not destined for tough, technical and bold responsibilities. That is what he was told, and what he believed over time. However, as Mue grew older and gained more experience, he discovered, like most men do, that this was not only a lie but also an extremely retrogressive mentality.
Mue was speaking at Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development at a recently-held women leadership forum for EACC’s female mid-level management dubbed Leadership in Pursuit of Greatness with the objective to boost teamwork, strengthen and promote personal empowerment and ensure wholesome career development for women.
The forum, whose keynote speaker was Central Bank of Kenya Deputy Governor, Sheila M’Mbijjewe, brought together a majority of the Commission’s female employees from across its directorates, including Investigations, Legal Services, Ethics and Leadership, Preventive Services, Field Services, Finance and Planning, and HR and Administration. It also drew participants from both the Commission’s headquarters at the Integrity Centre and from the regional offices.
Alluding to the abilities and talent of the women that constituted the forum he was addressing, Mue acknowledged that indeed, that mentality belonged to the past.
“True to it, none of the women in this room, under the sound of this microphone, subscribe to that lie. Therefore, I had no option other than to orient myself to the realities of today’s career woman,” Mue said.
In today’s competitive world, Mue called on women, particularly career women, to recognize their strength and potential and position themselves to work hard.
“My earlier myth no longer applies. We live in a world of competition, and because we have great potential, all what we need to do is recognize it and position ourselves to work hard so that we can accrue greatness through hard work and not sympathy.”
Mue’s belief about women being soft and destined for responsibilities that are not tough, technical and bold has indeed been the prism through which the masculine world has viewed women for a long time.
Dr Elizabeth Mary Okello, Kenya’s first female banker and a leading educationist, for instance, recalls how, even after the struggle of allowing women to open and own bank accounts, she could not, for a long time, withdraw money from her account without being accompanied by her husband. The war on financial inclusivity, as one of the girl child’s emancipation fronts, has its own dark history.
According to the EACC CEO, Twalib Mbarak who also graced the occasion, people should not take it for granted that today some organizations have more women than men in some of their departments. It has been a long, winding journey. When the CEO joined the military as a cadet in 1984 for instance, only three out of the 69 officers in his group were women, of which only one, now Major General, Fatumah Ahmed survived. The other two were forced by circumstances to leave the military not long after their enrolment.
“At that time, it was an offence for a lady in the military to get married, or even give birth. If you got pregnant, you had to resign. That is where we’ve come from,” Mbarak said.
Mbarak takes pride in the fact that the Commission’s staff compliment is 40 percent women and that EACC is alive to fact that besides their academic qualifications, women needed mentorship from role models to excel in their duties.
“Women are honest and very articulate, virtues on which the Commission places a premium. Our business here is investigation, prevention, public awareness and it requires very serious people. We are very proud with the big number of women that we have,” Mbarak said, adding that most of EACC’s big cases in the courts of law are the work of its female staff.
He challenged the Commission’s female staff to be open-minded when it comes to transfers to outer stations adding that it is the Commission’s desire for the women to not only take up the challenging roles of regional heads but to also strategically aspire to move into top leadership positions at the institution.
“When I retire to Kilifi, I’d love for the next CEO to be a woman. It would make me extremely proud and happy.”
According to M’Mbijjewe, the idea that women don’t a have a say in most affairs is an old one. It is not something that changed recently. It goes back in history. In a book she had read recently by a lady activist about the Greek Odyssey, men would always go out to war, at some times, one war after the other and they would leave their wives to look after the children and the male children would ‘develop’ over that period. In this particular story, a mother, Penelope, overhearing her teen son sing was unimpressed and advised him to change to another song and the response was typical; condensing as it was unbelievable. “Mother, go back to your quarters and take up your work, the loom and the staff… speech is the business of men, all men, and for me most of all: for mine is the power of the household.”
M’Mbijjewe also recollects the spectacle, about 30 years back, of a friend of hers who had just qualified to practice the law exams of Kenya. “I recall that incident so distinctly because we went out to Karen to her family home to celebrate this great achievement and her father was just distraught, horrified about how his daughter would stand up in public, in a courtroom and argue with men.”
Having spent much of her time as a woman in a man’s world, M’Mbijjewe has quite some experience to share. In one of her very first tasks at the Central Bank, she went to Mombasa for a regulator’s conference where, as usual, she was the only woman in the room. When the time to give prizes came at the tail end of the function, she was ‘given’ the chance to preside over that section of the event but flatly declined. “I am not a flower girl, I am far too old (for that). Find somebody else.”
When she took over as the first woman finance director in an executive position at a local bank some years back, the man she replaced asked her when they met at a cocktail party some time later how she was coping in his big shoes. “I told him I wear high heels.”
The Deputy Governor stresses on the need for career women to mark their territory and recognize their identity. “Don’t legitimize anybody who wants to exclude or gradualize women. Don’t do it anytime, anywhere. Don’t allow it.”
M’Mbijjewe says that more often than not, power is more a statement of excess, which she loathes, and advises women to be careful not to allow power to get into their heads when they get to positions of authority. She particularly abhors arriving to work or events in an entourage, with chase cars and bodyguards carrying the hand bags of power wielders. “In fact I told my aides to never ever touch my handbag,” says M’Mbijjewe.
“If you ever get to these positions, you must be careful. I had a friend whose husband was in a very senior position and the year before his exit she got rid of everything including the drivers and guards and on the day of exit she was perfectly comfortable. I have learnt from smart people,” M’Mbijjewe advises, noting that she declined to move out of her house when she was appointed, as she wanted to maintain the normalcy of her life. “The luxuries of power were meant to support those in office to execute their mandate successfully, not to promote and expand one’s ego.”
To become leaders, women need to be heard, which M’Mbijjewe advises women to approach purposefully. “Choose where you want to be heard and what you are going to say. Do not be casual about anything but rather be very purposeful.”
“I came back from the UK when I finished my studies and went to work with Deloitte Kenya in Westlands. I changed jobs and went to Kenya Bus in Eastleigh and my mother cried for two days, but that was my choice… If you want your career to progress, don’t get comfortable,” she offered.
M’Mbijjewe maintains that she neither targeted to be a public figure nor a director, and only focused on her security and safety, and her personal recognition.
She also asked the women to purposefully support other women and to treat their daughters as they do their sons in as much as they are different, failing which the next generation of women would have the same cultural and mental biases that exist today.
Women constitute 50 percent of Africa’s population and they play a key role in the Sub-Saharan Africa economies where they produce 80 percent of the continent’s food.
Africa leads all other regions globally in the proportion of females on company boards at 30 percent and Kenya leads all other regions globally in the proportion of females who chair boards. Even though Kenya’s score is reasonable, the statutory 30 percent is still elusive. For M’Mbijjewe, for women empowerment efforts to bear fruit, those efforts must move from having a few determined individuals to encompass enlightenment and change of the cultural template that disempowers women. (