As part of growing ‘corporatization’ of’ International Women’s Day, companies have photoshopped wigs on Mark Zuckerberg and a hijab on Aliko Dangote; they have portrayed a woman holding out her debit card on a date and have put a giant lipstick side by side with a double-ended spanner all to signify equality.
Each year on 08 March, the International Women’s Day celebration is marked by corporate entities all over the world rolling up their sleeves and putting on a performance of allyship, and Nigerian companies are not left out. Every year, women accuse these companies of missing the mark with the messages they put out in their Women’s Day ad campaigns.
It seems as though there is an attempt by organizations to out-worse each other’s horrible campaign while simultaneously beating the absurdity from the previous year. Companies have photoshopped wigs on Mark Zuckerberg and a hijab on Aliko Dangote; they have portrayed a woman holding out her debit card on a date and put a giant lipstick side by side with a double-ended spanner all to signify equality.
Last year, the Wema Bank copy which featured a woman holding out a debit card with an obvious masculine name on a date, received backlash on Twitter and the bank had to explain their ‘intentions’ in a thread; but what is the point of wasting all that time explaining when they could easily have avoided the backlash by only tweeting ‘Happy International Women’s Day’ or some other derivation of the message.
First Bank, whose chairman until 2021 was a woman, found a way to centre men in the 2022 #BreaktheBias campaign by putting out posters of some of their male executives and a caption appreciating ‘He4Shes’. Before that, the bank had reminded us in an email on International Men’s Day that it was indeed not International Women’s Day. This was problematic because it suggested the existence of a rivalry; even if unintentionally, it diminished the purpose of the International Women’s Day observance to just being about men vs women.
HOW INCLUSIVE IS THE WORKSPACE?
The foregoing weak attempts to show inclusivity bring to the fore, questions about how represented women are in the spaces where the decisions to publish these campaigns are made. They also force us to wonder how empowered women are (if they are present in such meetings) to speak up against the flagrant corporatization of the single day set aside to celebrate female achievements and to highlight the plethora of obstacles that stall the advancement of women’s rights.
Since these campaigns have to pass through levels of approval before they are released to the public, it is safe to assume that the problem trickles down from the top, where even though there are a growing number of female corporate leaders, women remain relatively underrepresented.
Let’s look at the numbers: reportedly, the participation of Nigerian women in the workforce is nearing parity. In 2020, data from the National Bureau of Statistics noted that women made up 42.10 per cent of the total number of employees in federal ministries, departments and agencies, and 31.97 per cent of them were on the highest-ranking levels (grades 15–17).
In a 2021 assessment of the top thirty companies listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) reported that in terms of representation of women in leadership positions and the workforce in general, Nigeria performed fairly on the global scale. According to the IFC, Nigeria had eleven per cent more female board chairmen, three per cent more women in executive positions, and only four per cent fewer women in the total workforce than the global average.
The numbers look good overall, maybe even progressive, if you ignore sexism and institutional misogyny in the workplace. A UN perception survey shows that 93.73 per cent of Nigerians hold at least one sexist bias against women; and these biases transcend across all aspects of society including the workplace. Among these barriers, Jobberman reports, are near absence of gender specific organizational policies and the failure of existing policies to account for the highly patriarchal nature of the Nigerian society. As a result, women are left to waddle through culturally imposed prejudices that undermine their abilities. Overt sexism enforces not only the notion that men are more suited to hold leadership positions, but also that women lack the desire and drive to do so, hence, are given less opportunities to participate in leadership development programmes that are critical for career advancement.
The proportion of women in the workforce starts to decline, moreover, as we progress up the corporate ladder. The World Economic Forum reports that Nigerian women make up over 64.6 per cent of skilled workers but only 30.3 per cent in senior corporate positions. This disparity lays credence to the barriers that hinder women’s progression to leadership positions. According to the International Labour Organization, the barriers holding women back from career progression also relate to discrimination and unconscious gender biases, not just overt sexism. Stereotypical beliefs like lack of ruthlessness and ambition, cultural restrictions that prevent them from socializing and building networks, and prioritizing domestic responsibilities are some of the highlighted factors that hold women back.
Organizational practices, like project assignments based on perceived ability, can rely heavily on these stereotypical impressions. Merit-based performance evaluations based on unfailing availability and high mobility, according to McKinsey & Company, puts male employees at an unfair advantage in a society where women remain primary homemakers and are forced to combine domestic and professional responsibilities.
A DIVIDED CAUSE TO CELEBRATE
The International Women’s Day celebration takes its origins from political and social activism, birthed from the activities of labour movements in the early twentieth century. Today, International Women’s Day is celebrated worldwide with a focus on the progress toward achieving a gender-equal world.
The United Nations’ theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality, to recognize the contribution of women in the digital transformation as well as highlight the need for inclusion and protection of women in digital spaces. However, why is the corporate world running with the theme ‘Embracing Equity’ or equality?
The website www.internationalwomensday.com, credited for the second theme, is the top result when you search ‘international women’s day’ online. The site makes no clear reference to its owners but has established itself as a dominant force in the fight for gender equality, even though it has no real authority and has reiterated that no one organization owns International Women’s Day.
On the homepage, the website days:
Imagine a gender-equal world, a world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that‘s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together, we can forge women‘s equality. Collectively, we can all #EmbraceEquity
While there is nothing inherently wrong with the messaging, it is worrying that these vague, short, catchy, and corporate-friendly calls to action gain precedence over the United Nations themes. Last year’s theme for UN Women was Changing Climates: Gender Equality Today for a Sustainable Tomorrow, while the other website’s theme was ‘Break the Bias’. This year, the corporate world put out photos and videos of people is hugging themselves in honour of International Women’s Day. To me, it came off as performative.
UN Women as an entity was created in 2010 to face the challenges of gender inequality and foster women empowerment. It has since become the global power in the advancement of women’s rights. UN Women could be said to represent women all over the world, and the theme for the women’s day celebration aligned with the priority theme of the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW-67): ‘Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls’.
Understanding that there is a gender divide in the access to digital technology which not only limits the ability for girls and women to access opportunities but also contributes to widening economic and social inequalities, the UN Women theme offers strategic action plans for the safe digital inclusion of women. Globally, two out of ten people in STEM are women and one in every five girls has reduced their access to the internet due to harassment. Girls are also five times less likely to consider a career in STEM as there is a lingering bias that the STEM fields are masculine. With the global job market requiring digital skills, the UN Women’s theme increasingly presents a much needed push towards closing the gender gap.
The theme being promoted by the internationalwomensday.com, while not unimportant, gives room for different interpretations. There’s no explanation offered by the site and experts have noted that #EmbracingEquity theme missed the mark this year by among other issues failing to seize the opportunity to educate people about the difference between equality and equity.
Beyond lapses in managerial support, women are subjected to implicit biases backed by patriarchal hegemony determined to ‘keep them in their place’. These unconscious biases manifest as seemingly harmless stereotypes masquerading as jokes, being imposed with emotional labour and extra (unpaid) responsibilities undergirded by traditional gender roles; while sexual harassment remains an insidious problem.
In 2021, Nigerian NGO, the Stand to End Rape Initiative, reported that 85 per cent of the participants who had experienced at least one form of sexual harassment were women. The report further highlighted the organizational practices that fail to provide support for women in these instances. More than half of the 493 participants were not aware of the sexual harassment policies in their organizations, and among those who reported sexual harassment to official channels, 59 per cent reported that no disciplinary action was taken against the perpetrators, 81 per cent said they received no form of support, and 23 per cent of the offenders that did receive disciplinary action only received verbal warnings.
Feminist women are rewarded in the workplace for their strength, resilience, assertiveness, ability to force their voices to be heard, and ability to strategically demand credit for the work that they do. In contrast, their male counterparts are offered a seat at the table without having to bother with any of these.
Despite how good the numbers look, shattering the proverbial glass ceiling is not an easy feat for women on any level of the corporate ladder. A 2022 McKinsey article reported that American women are stepping away from corporate leadership and the workplace in general because, despite the progress being made toward equality, they still face barriers to the advancement of their careers, including microaggression and paying penalties for having family responsibilities. According to the World Bank, the number of Nigerian women who participated in the labour force has declined by over two per cent since 1991.
Countries around the world are making legal reforms to address gender inequality in the workplace, but the gender and equal opportunities bill proposed to the Nigerian senate has failed to be passed into law twice, and the existing regulations are not widely implemented. The Central Bank of Nigeria mandates that the boards of commercial banks comprise at least 30 per cent women, and the Securities and Exchange Commission recommends that publicly listed companies consider gender when selecting board members, but neither of these is strictly enforced. In 2020, PWC reported that only 30 per cent of commercial banks in Nigeria adhered to the Central Bank’s policy. No law mandates equal pay for equal work done, and the provisions for criminal penalties for sexual harassment provide no countermeasures to protect women against the negative aftermath of their careers.
Out of the 30 companies surveyed by the IFC, only 16 published an anti-sexual harassment policy; six offered flexible work hours; three offered up to 14 weeks of paid maternity leave for primary carers; and none of them had achieved gender balance at their senior management level or had a documented strategy to address the gender wage gap.
Now more than ever, it is crucial for the management of these organizations to focus on facilitating an empowering environment for women to thrive. A good place to start is to go beyond these public performances and commit to accountability and purposeful initiatives to address the inequitable representation of women in their organizations.
It is great that corporate organizations participate in International Women’s Day, but muddying the waters with commercial spins distracts from the more tangible messages and substantial actions non-corporate actors typically address the problems faced by women of all socioeconomic standing, in or out of the workforce. The corporatization of women’s day also distracts from the fact that in many organizations, women still face sexist and discriminatory practices that affect their career progression and, in many cases, their personal lives⎈
The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].