In her recent memoir, “Becoming”, former American First Lady Michelle Obama perfectly articulates the value of self-reflection, personal drive and the overarching importance of defining yourself. She also speaks about the dangers of being a woman in today’s world.
As a wife, career woman, mother and well-respected public figure, Mrs. Obama is considered a role model by millions of young girls and women around the world; a woman who has not only shown herself to be graceful even in the face of extreme bigotry, but one who stands as a constant reminder that women, even when they look like they have it all, have to work harder than men to enjoy the same benefits and opportunities. In her words: “Women cannot have it all…not at the same time.”
This year’s International Women’s Day theme, “Balance for Better”, is a call to action to change the status quo and lay gender equality as the foundation of a sustainable future. The theme challenges the widely held belief that men are breadwinners, while women are – and should remain – caregivers. It also serves to remind us that around the world, women are shouldering a double burden: desire for career growth and opportunities equal to men’s, and the expectation of them to be “good” wives, mothers, homemakers and caregivers.
Although we still have a long way to go before we can achieve true gender equality at home and in the workplace, there are many examples of institutions and countries crafting a new narrative, and people are acknowledging the value that women bring to the table. As noted by Forbes, a study of over 400 public companies headquartered in California found that those with the highest percentage of women executives and board members registered an astounding 74% higher median return on assets and equity in 2015.
Closer home, Ethiopian Airlines’ inclusivity policy is well documented. The airline, which is Africa’s most profitable, is the only carrier in the world to fly cross-continental using an all-female crew, from the navigator, to engineers, flight attendants to first officer and captain. Sounds about right for an airline whose CEO, Tewolde GebreMariam, is celebrated for his stance on gender equality and is widely quoted as saying that “women are the continent’s greatest untapped resource.”
It’s an approach mirrored at Safaricom, where the company’s diversity and inclusion agenda is making more room for women in leadership, and leveling the playing field in a society that often fails to acknowledge that a woman’s rise to the top is requires a bit more maneuvering around culturally assigned duties expected of women.
“Inclusivity and the reduction of inequality is not purely about philanthropic approaches, which is more traditional. It’s about how business can use its technologies, services, products and its advocacy and thought leadership position to drive social and economic change,” says Sanda Ojiambo, Head of Corporate Responsibility at Safaricom.
This social and economic change also refers to the inclusion of women through a broader approach to fighting inequalities, which at Safaricom is guided by a clear focus on new areas of business that drive innovation towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In 2016, the company began to integrate nine out of the seventeen SDGs into our corporate strategy, including SDG 10 (Reducing Inequalities). But why didn’t Safaricom include SDG 5, on Gender Equality, despite an often repeated commitment to achieving a 50/50 gender split in staff numbers and leadership representation by 2020?
“We did a prioritization of all 17 goals against our strategy. It’s not to say that Goal 5 didn’t show up, it did. But the approach we took is that there are very many inequalities in the world, some of those income-related, class-related, or unconscious bias, access to assets, and gender inequality. We felt that, because of the role our company plays in terms of products and services, advocacy, leadership, it would be better to take a broader goal, that’s why we settled on Goal 10 instead of Goal 5. We were looking for a broader, more encompassing approach,” says Ojiambo.
She adds: “The goal allows us to look at inclusivity in many different ways; disabilities, refugee rights, inclusivity in terms of simple things like device prices. Do we have inclusive prices that allow things like access to the internet for example? We know that women use phones differently from men, so if we have inclusive prices, what opportunities does this open up for women and girls?”
By taking on the broader issues, Safaricom is developing a fully encompassing approach to fighting inequalities, an approach that has given the company a new lens in which to look at business opportunities.
“This has given us aspirations that the solutions to our long term challenges are within our reach and we’re also able to track our achievements in order to achieve transparent reporting both internally and externally. We believe that what gets measured, gets done,” says Ojiambo.
“When you look at gender equality, it’s not just the percentage split between men and women, it’s things like attrition, like salaries. So there’s many layers in which you can look at in the gender breakdown, and by setting this aspiration we’re able to look at it with more precision, and have it be part of a discussion point, openly and transparently.”
These discussions are what led to greater investment in the company’s employee benefits, which include longer maternity leave on full pay (four months), flexi-time, access to on-site facilities such as the crèche and clinic, as well as the creation of professional forums where women can interact with each other, mentor and coach each other for personal and career growth.
The commitment to supporting women throughout their work cycles is paying off. Last year, Brighter Monday named Safaricom the best company to work for in Kenya. Forbes, in its annual Global 2000 list, rated Safaricom the best employer in Africa – and 67th in the world – in its ranking of 500 publicly-traded companies from 60 countries.
“This organisational commitment has allowed us to dig deeper into what this women ecosystem is. It’s given birth to a couple of initiatives, like Women In Business, which aims to bring more women into Safaricom’s supply chain, and Women in Technology, and it inspires a lot more confidence in the organisation. As a female working in Safaricom, I feel a lot more comforted by the fact that there are some initiatives to make sure women feel valued, to make sure they are aware of the opportunities within,” says Ojiambo.
It’s not just a women-led thing: men are joining in the conversation too through initiatives such as HeForShe, which aims to raise awareness on the importance of male support in the push for gender equality. It’s how open conversations about feminism, for example, are making it into the workplace.
“I think every single man should identify as a feminist, based on what feminism represents,” says Martin Njuguna, a Senior Manager at Safaricom.
“I would love to see my daughter thrive, and for the community to be able to provide the infrastructure for her to do so.… If we have ideologies, or infrastructure, or policies that prohibit one segment of society from achieving (their full potential), that can never be fair,” adds Njuguna.
Like many other companies around the world, Safaricom is still navigating the intricacies of achieving real gender equality, especially higher up the leadership hierarchy. But a strong commitment to helping women find that often elusive balance between career growth and all the other roles thrust upon them as caregivers and partners, is one step towards achieving this goal.