Ethiopian Women’s Reluctance to Visibility/Leadership? Fact or Myth?

On June 30, 2017, AWiB and Earuyan Solutions presented a seminar on the involvement of Ethiopian women in leadership—“Ethiopian Women’s Reluctance to Visibility/Leadership? Fact or Myth?” The seminar, 3rd in the Dearth of Women in Leadership in Ethiopia seminar series and supported by the Austrian Development Agency, aimed to examine the factors that deter or propel women into key leadership positions and make meaning of facts and myths used to explain their absence. 

The session opened with an introduction by Ms. Billene Seyoum formEaruyan Solutions of the moderator, Ms. Selome Tadesse, founder of Emerge Leaders and Consultancy. Ms. Selome summarized the core questions of the session and revisited a question addressed by a previous seminar on the Dearth of Women’s Leadership in Ethiopia: Is it elitist for Ethiopian women to ask to share power? This question, according to Ms. Selome, had led them to ask what responsibility Ethiopian women have to level the playing field. Consequently, this forum investigates whether we as women want to be visible, whether we want to come to power or, according to the commonly held assumption, whether we are reluctant to assume such positions.

Following the introductions, Ms. Tsinu Amdeselassie from Earuyan Solutions gave a short presentation that summarized the results of a survey that had been conducted prior to the panel discussion. The survey targeted women in the public, private and NGO sectors in Ethiopia and attempted to investigate their supposed reluctance to assume leadership positions. 175 responses were collected, mostly from women in middle management positions. Respondents were asked if they had actively sought decision making positions throughout their career, what challenges they had encountered in seeking these positions and if they see a lot of women in key leadership positions in their sectors. Respondents were also asked what they wished to see change in relation to women’s access to leadership and decision-making opportunities.

After the presentation of findings, Ms. Selome addressed the first question to Mr. Seifu Bogale, VP of Human Resource Management in Commercial Bank of Ethiopia: “One response I saw in the survey claimed that ‘a lot of bank employees are women because banks want to hire women.’ Is that true?” Mr. Seifu replied that that statement was generalized and CBE believes in giving equal opportunities to everyone. In response to the question of whether CBE is doing anything different, Mr. Seifu said that CBE does not implement affirmative action to support women: hiring and succession is competency based. Even though the number of male employees is still greater, compared to other organizations, as Mr. Seifu pointed out, there are more women in leadership position in CBE. Ms. Selome’s follow up question was whether Mr. Seifu regards the assumption that women are reluctant to assume positions of leadership as a fact or a myth. Mr. Seifu was quick to reply that he doesn’t think it’s a fact. After implementing their competency-based strategy, CBE has offered employees, both male and female, the opportunity to grow. Women in CBE are willing to take team leader positions and hold 20-27% of total job titles. Mr. Seifu asserted that this is not due to any intervention but because of their competence; however, he pointed out that he doesn’t think there’s a good movement in the organization that actively encourages women.

The next question was directed to Mrs. Hana Atnafu, Manager of Corporate Communications in Ethiopian Airlines: “What encouraged you to assume a leadership position?” Mrs. Hana started by admitting that it’s been a challenging journey but that the main reason that drove her was the question she asked herself: “What’s my vision? Where do I eventually want to go?” After discovering that she wanted to work in management while working as cabin crew, Mrs. Hana thought about what she needed to make that happen, realizing that she needed to develop her knowledge and experience. She went back to school, started working in HR, working on the same level as employees with just two years of experience even though she had reached the highest level as a member of the cabin crew. She emphasized her efforts as the main reason for where she is now. Behind her story was the strong belief that women need to work to get where they want to. However, Mrs. Hana didn’t pass without acknowledging the added burden of family management and household chores that women have to deal with in addition to their career. She said that all women need family that understands the challenge of work-life balance, which she luckily does.

Ms. Selome was quick to seize on the emphasis Mrs. Hana placed on the personal effort that women are required to make: beyond the necessity of personal effort exists the question of how supportive the institution is. She related that she had heard that from the board members in Ethiopian Airlines, which total 14, only one was a woman and asked what that tells us about the systemic challenge.

Mrs. Hana confirmed that although the institution was supportive, there’s no affirmative action. Only personal initiative is considered and rewarded. For instance, the company was very encouraging when Mrs. Hana proposed the all-female flight idea, where a flight was operated by an all female crew. However, Mrs. Hana added, it was not the men in the organization who proposed this idea, the women had to do it themselves. “As long as we have initiative,” she said, “I don’t think anyone will hold us back.”

Mrs. Frehiwot Worku, Secretary General of Ethiopian Red Cross Society commented on whether she thought women are actually reluctant and if the institution encourages them to assume leadership positions. Mrs. Frehiwot mentioned that she used to work in Ethiopian Airlines for a long time and coming from a competency based work environment, the old fashioned system in Red Cross presented a difficult adjustment. She reiterated, like Mrs. Hana, that the main reason for her success was her own personal effort even though she admitted that a woman would have to put in double the effort that a man would in order to succeed.

The next question concerned the different management styles of men and women. Ms. Selome pointed out that institutions are tailed to men’s leadership styles from the get go. She asked the participants if they saw any difference in leadership style between men and women.

Mr. Seifu replied that women in CBE perform better when it comes to governance and that a lot more women employees are present in their IT projects. In general, however, women perform better in some branches and men in others. Mr. Seifu emphasized the competency based structure of their organization, which Ms. Selome took as an opportunity to underline that, while competence is a requirement for professional growth, what this forum wants to do is examine the gap between men and women when it comes to how far they can progress professionally. She followed up this observation with questioning how women’s leadership style works within a man’s institution. She also asked both female panelists whether they make conscious efforts to encourage women to assume leadership positions and whether women in such positions have a special responsibility to do that.

Mrs. Hana pointed out that women have more emotional intelligence while men lean towards a dominant style of leadership. With regard to encouraging other women, she said the main question was whether there are women who are interested and women who are not. She related her experience with a female member of her staff who told her that she doesn’t want to change positions or progress in her career; she claimed that she was happy with her current position and did not desire any change. While Mrs. Hana admitted that she couldn’t invest time on such employees, she involves other members of her staff in all her activities and gives them responsibility. She mentioned that Ethiopian Airlines also has a mentoring system.

Mrs. Frehiwot agreed that Ethiopian Airlines has a more refined system when it comes to encouraging female employees. In her current organization, there is no such system and her main challenge is finding female employees who are competent enough to occupy positions of leadership.

After a refreshing tea break, the panelists were back to receive comments and questions from the audience. A participant was eager to point out that our conceptions of success for men and women are different, citing as an example how women tend to dress and act masculine the higher the position they assume because feminine traits tend to be interpreted as signs of incompetence or weakness. She also mentioned that having to choose between work and family bothers her, as does the added burden of feeling like she’s representing all women in her capacity as a public speaker.

An important question raised in this half of the session was whether, when we talk about competency based hiring and succession, if we ask what prevents women from being competent. Mrs. Hana’s answer to this was to reemphasize personal effort. She admitted that as women, we sometimes think that we are not competent enough. However, to her it is a matter of how we manage our time and what part of ourselves we work on. “Which dog did you feed?” she asked, after introducing an analogy in which a black dog and a white dog each won in a competition against each other depending on which one the owner had fed.

Ms. Selome again made it a point to emphasize the distinction between personal and systemic ways of thinking about the problem. She pointed out that the discussion had mostly centered on the personal. Needless to say, one has to make the necessary effort to reach a certain position. We should, however, question what needs to change within the system to accommodate us: how can we change the system? She astutely pointed out that when it comes to Kebele positions, there is no problem: leadership positions are available to women. But as the position gets higher, it becomes a question of sharing power as the gender question is a political question, to which another commenter added that the system has been run by men for so long and that power is not so easily relinquished.

The only male commenter firmly stated that there’s reluctance among women to assume positions of power. “We need to hear from women more,” he said.

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