Recap of AWiB monthly Event: Why aren’t women at the top leadership in Ethiopia?

The Addis Ababa Hilton Harrar Grill was packed with over 200 women and men, waiting eagerly for the panelist to start the discussion on ‘Who is responsible in Empowering Women? Is it women themselves, or the Government or the corporations?

To speak about the issue, the following well experienced personalities mostly from the professional world were invited:   Yusuf Reja of info Mind, a great supporter of AWiB. Yusuf‘s creativity and thought provoking nature is lesson for all of us to think critically in all our endeavors.  Selome Tadesse – of Emerge Leaders Consultancy and Training. Selome has served as a spokesperson for the government and she led Ethiopian broadcasting corporation former ETV with 1500 employees. Selome was a key person for the implementation and turn around programs that no doubt to this days the corporation uses. Nigist Haile is Founder and CEO of Center for Accelerated Women Economic Empowerment (CAWEE). Her recent venture includes organizing 1500 young female artisans with proper training to support major textile exporters in the value chain. 

The panelists were all with the relevant experience and have been involved in our country, taking different responsible roles that required them to work with professional and non-professional citizens of Ethiopia.   Much emphasis of the discussion was given to the professional women who are under-utilizing their potentials in big cities.  

Yusuf reflected on the question from the male perspective.  It’s not easy he said, having to comment about women to majority of women audience.  He said it is a broad subject but is an issue that knocks on every home.   Even though, the responsibility of empowering women falls on women themselves, it is also the responsibility of all at different levels but as it is without synergy, it often gets confused for being just the responsibility of one or another.  Yusuf also explained that government policy doesn’t have to be implemented for one to start doing something about empowering women.  That is a very primitive way to think one can only overcome this issue by tackling it from one angel, as it is the society that drives the thinking of many.  The contribution of the government and individual, best works if it is endorsed by the society.  The role that the society plays is significant says Yusuf.

In the southern part of Ethiopia, Yusuf continues, the husband works toward making a difference to the life of the family and is labeled as strong and great person.  However, if a woman has a major contribution as the bread winner, she will be given derogatory names such as “Aynawta”, “Defar” or “Asafari” to mean aggressive.

In explaining how the government can be involved and to what level, he tried to relate it with rules and regulations being implemented for the first time. People were very much responsive when policies are implemented, as disobeying leads to penalty such as what we witnessed with the case of seat belt laws in our country.  It is worn because there is a consequence of being penalized.  Yusuf said the government should declare a law that really obliges employers to empower women.   Then it will become a norm or a second nature.  

We should give value to women as they are 50% of the population. Women, asserts Yusuf are best at creating profit for corporations.  But just because they are given a priority they don’t need to be given a chance.  They have to prove that they can work and be successful in achieving the goals set by the organisation.  

In defining women’s responsible roles Yusuf explains, that it often requires extra work hours than proclaimed by the labour law.  To do so, however, is more challenging for women as they have family responsibilities.  In addition to the house chores, women are expected to do what it takes to be “successful” in the corporate world especially at the management level and CEO which requires at least 90 working hours.  

He recalled, long ago when he proposed to his wife, the first thing he told to her was that she had to be ready to accept his decision as he had a strong will to open his own business as that was his dream and often he may be late at work.  And she responded “I would rather see you late and happy with your business rather than being employed and miserable”.  That brought laughter to the audience as long hours and frequent business trips for business owners are realities.

He shared his encounter with a woman job applicant, who told on her interview that her husband would be supportive of her long hours that the position she was interviewed for required so she was selected for the post.  But as time progressed, she complained that her children were getting behind in their studies and the husband was unhappy about the whole situation but that she loved her post.  Yusuf, puzzled by the complaint, jokingly asked the woman what he was supposed to do: “look for another husband or another job that wouldn’t require much of a woman’s potential”.

Regardless of the obstacles, Yusuf concluded, women must choose to achieve their goals and do what it takes till the end. Therefore, the responsibility to empower women primarily lies in the hands of the women themselves.

The next speaker, Selome Taddesse said women often are given the name “yebeku” which in Amharic can have two meanings.  One is to say she is well suited but the other is to mean old.  As the term “yebeku” is used to signify best suitable candidates, it can easily be misinterpreted and be misunderstood for the latter. Arguing this point, she said “excellence is the task that pays off later.  For instance, what we have taken as a training of leadership doesn’t necessarily make us a leader; even at a nation level, no leader is leading because they have taken leadership training. Women’s movement is what really makes sense to make a difference.  But with it, there has to be a commitment to the belief and ideals of the movement; one has to participate in a democratic processes and to endure oppositions”.  And Selome doubted there was a women’s movement in our nation; she said she hasn’t witnessed one in her lifetime at least.

Selome rather put it out to the audience the best that’d serve women better is be to ask “What do we want”. What is our articulated agenda? She said women don’t take time to ask such questions; the thing to do is to see the gap and do something about it; that’ll be the first step. 

In the American women movement history, there were milestones.  These were 1st wave and 2nd wave.  The right to vote was the 1st wave.  The 2nd wave was movement for legal rights.  But it shouldn’t be the case with legal right as it is human right, which is the same as the right to live and speak.  Selome further said that negotiation and radical women movement is the way to address the issue as we can’t sit and expect things to change. As culture plays an important role we have to tackle the shock wave.   Furthermore she said the women were divided into two.  There were those who believed in negotiation and the others who believed in getting their points across through the legal system and legal reinforcement. So she summed up by saying, “we can’t wait for anyone to do what we need to do; we will have to do it ourselves”.

Nigist, with business background, was the last speaker to share her perspective. She says she often encounters fresh graduates who lack the capacity to produce and be better in the working place simply because they have not been groomed in school.  Schools often times encourage girls on house chores, sewing, and tasks in the kitchen.  In contemplating the roles media play, she says films and theatres often depict women as having an inferior role than men. The result we are encountering in this day in age is because of the damage due to the upbringing and the educational curriculum.  Nigist said if we don’t tackle these problems arising from the school system, which is the foundation of sound society, both men and women will think to go in directions that are portrayed by the school system.

Nigist also added that women are treated as less equal because we have not brought our men to treat them with respect and dignity.  It is the responsibility of every citizen to shape our men and women to have a better and equal understanding of both genders.

The other perspective is for women to work on themselves.  We all have to understand that it is what we do today that will have an impact in the future; if we invest in the young generation today, we will get the profit later and we can change our world.  What is becoming more common Nigist says, is defamation of women by women themselves, without giving much attention to what a woman to be defamed has accomplished!  Much is said and preferred to what a woman has: her boyfriend, her public attire and her personality if she is assertive, as ‘Hailegna nat’ meaning she is tough and arrogant etc. When a woman excels we rather find ways to get her down.  So supporting Nigist’s perspective, the audience asked, should we blame the past generation or us? 

Questions on degradation of women through movies and theatres and how to help women stay focused and be more productive and set their agenda in order to get in big positions were raised.

While reflecting on the questions, Nigist said ‘WOMEN ARE FOCUSED AND WE HAVE TO FIRST ACCEPT THAT’.  It is for that reason that women are given responsibilities that over burden them, but still manage to come out of it intact.  She recalled an incident that took place in her company where she trained women in building their capacity to be competitive in the export market.  They were given a chance to showcase their products.  She managed to acquire them a big order of one container but unless they cooperate there was no way that they will be able to meet the quantity individually.  Finally they failed to negotiate amongst themselves and they lost the order as they couldn’t meet the quantity.   This is failure to cooperate.  Unless we cooperate we miss opportunities, we cannot succeed and we pay the price for not doing so. 

Selome shared what is given to the acronym Ph.D. by men in the professional world, if it is a woman holding the qualification as “PULL HER DOWN” is simply the term used to discourage women.  This may seem funny to many, but she said the more we laugh and say it, the more we become “like” the statement.   On supporting one another, she said it’s typical to us all minorities universally not to want to come together. If we don’t like ourselves, it is natural we dislike everything that looks like us.  That’s why we witness “Black on Black” or “Poor on Poor” attack.  One’s self esteem is important she added. If a woman says she is a diamond she will always shine wherever she goes.  She not only shines but her rays will also help others shine. The impact that she makes on others will be even greater!

Yusuf said what women often times think is that they are on a biological tick and seem to be bothered when they focus on their career.  There will come a time when they have to set their priorities and having babies may be it and the career may take a back seat. Yusuf seems to be of the opinion that you can’t have it all. You have to choose your priorities and focus on that no matter how unconducive the environment may seem. What counts in the final analysis is that you set out to do what you wanted to do and succeed. The rest will fall into places ones you achieve what you want – your goal. 

It was commented from the audience that most women don’t manage to get to the top due to lack of self confidence and self-esteem.  This is because they don’t stand out when they recognize their potential.  Family plays an important role: having supportive spouse and encouraging surrounding matter. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook has said that the most important career choice you‘ll make is who you marry.  It is an important piece of advice an aspiring professional woman must pay attention to.

The audience was a bit puzzled by a repeated comment that a woman must work 90 hours a week to be considered as a leader but Selome on the other hand said just because we are women we don’t have to think that we are part of the problem.  We have to lead by example and we don’t have to do everything. She said a leader is like a DJ; she doesn’t dance but her role is to play the music and see the others dance. If one works that many hours, Selome concluded, that person is not a good delegator, therefore disorganized.

The moral of the story is there should be a women’s movement and we shouldn’t always look for confirmation or appreciation.  We have to set a road map, through awareness and training. We can learn from Senedu Gebru’s movement. She was a leader in the house of parliament and paved the way as a lone woman parliamentarian. We have to follow her path and honor all women past and present and be counted as a major force that we are in our society and beyond.

Therefore the case of women to be at the helm is nobody’s responsibility but women themselves…of course the policy makers need to hear the women’s shout and move accordingly.


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