Gender balance is key for East African region growth

December 14, 2013

After more than half a century of independence, most African countries are still grappling with gender inequality. Barely a month goes by without a conference somewhere in sub Saharan Africa focused on the poor representation of women in social, economic and political leadership. Take it or leave it, Africa is the global capital of chauvinism. Inaction on gender equality is not an option for the East African region and Africa as a whole. Apart from countries like Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda where mandatory quotas that has solved this complicated issue in a region where women plays second fiddle to men there are cultural factors that have blocked women’s pathway to senior leadership. East African political leaders, business community and women’s rights advocates need to develop a strategy to further empower women and strengthen their respective economic activities. East African region should also discuss the value of increasing women’s participation in the East African Community region’s economy and develop a road-map on how to reach their goals. In Western world, empowering women is not only the right thing to do but it’s their human right. Research has shown that there’s huge under representation at board tables across East Africa and there has been negligible improvement in the number of female directors despite the gender activist efforts over the past decade or so.

A critical route to board and chief executive positions is through line management and generally African countries have failed to focus on attracting more women into these roles. When it comes to senior management, women in East African region comprises less one in 20 executives making the region lags well behind other regional economic blocs like SADC and ECOWAS. With exception of South Africa, other countries in sub Saharan Africa have very few women in executive management positions and in most cases female executive managers are more likely to be in support roles, such as head of human resources or legal, rather than line roles such as chief operating officer or chief financial officer. The broad goal of gender equality in the region should be to provide economic integration of women in the East African region for the benefit of all members. Studies have shown that empowering women is crucial to the improvement of development outcomes for the next generation, which include poverty reduction, growth, education, health and productivity. Inclusion of gender equality within regional economic talks such as EAC is important to ensure long-term strategic results. The foundations of poverty alleviation are established in development planning and this is why it is important that gender perspectives be included. I do not subscribe to the so-called unique managerial structures and definitions within organizations that primarily set mandatory quotas to address poor representation of women in executive positions that presents practical challenges.

In my thinking, I would go for voluntary targets are the sensible alternative to increase representation in senior roles. Voluntary targets allow employers to set their own goals across their organization, based on what is realistic for their industry and their circumstances. Multiple studies have shown that setting targets is an essential part of managing business performance and I believe that gender targets should operate in the same way by setting objectives around a key management area of focus. African countries have made some notable progress towards narrowing gender gaps and even countries like Rwanda have already achieved the United Nation’s Millennium Development goals on equality. In East African region there has been significant improvement in access to education for girls from arid and semi arid areas. After enactment of a new dispensation in Kenya three years ago, there has been increase of female political representation in the national government, two bicameral houses namely the parliament and the senate but overall Kenya still has a way to go. In Uganda and Tanzania, there is need to put special emphasis on maternal health which is still lagging behind compared to other African countries like South Africa.

Gaps in access to economic opportunities between men and women also remain large in Africa and its worse in East African countries according to various studies conducted this year that found women continues to face minimal participation and high unemployment rates while gender-wage gap is the largest in the world. Limited access to financial and knowledge resources and un-rivaled discrimination in hiring and promotion practices are to blame for the widening economic gap between men and women. Organizations in East Africa are already being encouraged to set voluntary targets and these external pressure points appear to be working. Progress needs to be driven from the top by leaders who understand these issues and commit to change. Statistics shows that more than 30% of women aged 25 years in East African region and above are unable to read or write which more than triple the estimated 7% of men who are illiterate. I hope East African countries will offer important strategies to speed up the improvement in women’s status. Troubling issues like human trafficking that has become thorn in the flesh of security agencies in the region and which US state department recently named East African region as centerpiece of human trafficking need to be addressed. In order to establish effective policies and plans to address gender disparity and hence empower women, Tanzania Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda must ensure human rights are not lost in the rush for free trade and economic growth that have become the backbone of East African Community regional economic bloc. Capacity building for women and education on the legal and constitutional rights of women, especially for economic and political leadership must be tackled immediately.

Contador Harrison