By Josfyn Uba
Mrs. Aminat Oyagbola is the founder of the Women in Successful Careers (WISCAR), a non-governmental organisation that mentors entry/mid-career professional women in public and private establishments.
Recently, she told Daily Sun more about her quest to motivate and burnish the skills of talented women who face gender biases and imbalance in the corporate world.
According to Oyagbola, equal opportunities should be given to women with career goals and drive to actualise their dreams and flourish. She revealed her plans to push for a paradigm shift that would ensure that women in the corporate world get a fair deal to excel in their careers like their male counterparts.
Why did you make mentoring career women your priority?
I have been a career woman for over 31 years. I started my career as a lawyer working in Chief Rotimi Williams’ Chambers for five years. I went into corporate Nigeria in 1990. I worked at Crystal bank, and moved to UBA, then Shell and MTN. So, I have been in corporate Nigeria all my life.
I understand the professional workspace very well. So, I thought, if I am going to do something and do it well, then it should be centred around what I understand. It must be what I have done and had lots of experience at. That was why I decided to focus on women in careers.
What factor prompted you to start WISCAR?
It was in 2008, after I finished the Africa Leadership Initiative Programme. It was a two-year programme and one of the outcomes was that we should come up with an impactful project. That was when I sat down to think of a project. I sought out my passions, my strengths and thought how my project could impact on the society positively. That was how the idea of WISCAR came about.
How exactly do you assist career women on the WISCAR platform?
I would have left the workforce when I was at Crystal Bank in 1994 because one of my children was continuously ill. It was becoming too much strain on my work, and I don’t like giving excuses at work. And I would have put in my resignation, and my career would have taken a completely different turn, but for the strategic guidance and counselling, not from a formal mentor, but from informal mentors that happened to be my sisters.
If I didn’t have sisters who also understood work life, I probably wouldn’t have got that advice. It doesn’t mean it would have been a bad turn, but it would also have been completely different.
When you have somebody who has talents, gifts, passion and is on course in that regard, you don’t want that course truncated because the enabling environment was not created and the right policies were not instituted to enable that person to perform. That is why at WISCAR the importance of keeping talented, progressive women in the workforce is important. When we mentor them, we give them guidance. We have honest conversations and give objective advice to help women excel in corporate setting.
Lack of confidence is also an issue in career growth. How do you deal with this?
When it comes to speaking up confidently, women tend to be silent because, as married women, when you are sitting in a family meeting they would always say you mustn’t say anything. This forms part of our cultural practice and the man does all the talking.
And in the boardroom where majority of them are men, and they are discussing an issue, even when a woman has the best idea, most of the time she wouldn’t voice it out. At best, she will whisper it to the gentleman sitting next to her.
The man would confidently put up his hand and present it like his own idea and becomes the star, while the woman is left out.
This is common, and it starts with engaging the top executives in organisations on the need to make gender diversity a priority. They need to begin to address some of the unconscious biases and the attitude and the behaviour inside the organisation, for the men to understand and appreciate why gender inclusion and diversity is important. Instituting targets must be merit-based.
I do not believe in tokenism, where you just put a woman somewhere for the sake of balance. It must be merit-based, so that when you put a woman there alongside a male counterpart, she can compete and even outperform.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Funding is our biggest challenge and then working around the timetable of these working women. We are there to help them succeed and perform well. So, we have to work around their work hours. It is only when they close from work that we can start our programme. The basic factor is funding to sustain the programmes, the WISCAR structure, to pay salaries and do what we need to do.
With these challenges, where do you see WISCAR in the next 10 years?
I see us taking forward the vision we have devised for ourselves. We have developed a model, which we have been implementing. We developed the model essentially in three tiers. We have only touched on two tiers of that model: the entry and mid-level career women. We haven’t actually touched on the senior management level simply because we have not finished addressing the other segments.
The goal of the WISCAR programme (and our vision) is to be an advocate for instituting gender-friendly policies in organisations. I have always talked about some culture limitations and female progression and barriers to female progression.
We hope to be able to engage with the leadership of corporate Nigeria and the public sector to make them aware because a lot of these things are not deliberate. It is called ‘unconscious bias.’
An example is a boardroom full of men taking policy decisions (which is what you find most of the time), the female perspective is not taken in. The conversation around the crèche is very unlikely to be raised by a man, but if a woman is on the board, she is more likely to raise it.
Many have the notion that a woman’s place should be in the kitchen and ‘the other room.’ What would you say to people with such notions?
I am a Northerner, from Kogi State. I have been fortunate to have been brought up by an open-minded father. My father didn’t distinguish between male and female children in the house. He believed in investing and giving us all the best education.
I think that is where we should all start from because education is the most powerful tool with which you can transform and change the world. So, the first thing is education.
Once you have educated the woman, I don’t think you have to worry about anything else. She can take care of herself no matter the situation.
What is important also for the career women in corporate Nigeria, is that it is very difficult for a woman to be successful if she is not married to the right partner. My husband supports me 100 per cent. I have been through all kinds of challenges in my career. He has been there for me through thick and thin, encouraging and advising me.
What is your candid advise to young women on this issue?
When a woman is getting married, it is important for her to ensure that she is marrying somebody that would help her thrive.
Choose a partner who will speak positively towards you, encourage you and give you the power to be. Settle for someone that would unleash your talents, catapult you, and be your biggest cheerleader. That is key in every relationship.