The highs and lows in the empowerment of women in Nigerian business

The empowerment of women in Nigeria’s corporate world is steadily turning the tide in a male-dominated business environment, says Dianna Games.



The number of female CEOs and top executives in Nigeria’s banks, oil companies and other sectors is growing, showing the results of steady succession planning, increasing skills and leadership development.

The shift is providing role models that are catalysing further empowerment in this patriarchal society. The financial services sector has long been a leader in this trend and continues to dominate corporate empowerment in the country. Most recently, one of Nigeria’s biggest financial services groups – Access Holdings – appointed its first female CEO, albeit for now in an acting capacity.

Bolaji Agbede, who had been with Access Bank since 2003, took over the hot seat after the sudden death of the bank’s co-founder, CEO and banking icon, Herbert Wigwe, in a helicopter crash. His are big shoes to fill. Already, nine out of the country’s 24 commercial banks are headed by successful and accomplished women. These institutions are GT Bank (Miriam Olusanya), First City Monument Bank (Yemisi Edun), SunTrust Bank (Halima Buba), Fidelity Bank (Nneka Onyeali-Ikpe), FSDH Merchant Bank (Bukola Smith), Unity Bank (Tomi Somefun), Union Bank (Yetunde Oni), Lotus Bank (Kafilat Araoye) and CitiBank Nigeria (Ireti Samuel Ogbu).

These outcomes are due to a process of succession planning in these institutions. Women corporate leaders have been groomed for success and enabled in their journey to the top of the corporate pile.

Intentional and managed progress

Bola Adesola, former CEO of Standard Chartered Bank for Nigeria and West Africa and current chair of West African banking group Ecobank, says the increase in women leaders is attributable to the fact that progress has been intentional and managed. In a special feature on empowerment in Nigeria’s financial services sector in Women’s World Banking she says that the increase in women leaders “is a testimony to how, in the last 20-25 years, we’ve been able to build a pipeline and bench strength”.

She says these women have been enabled in various ways through training and supportive workplace practices, and have male champions to nominate, support and push them. It is indeed no accident. In 2012, the Central Bank of Nigeria committed to improving gender diversity with a directive to ensure 30% minimum female representation on boards of the commercial banks and 40% in top management positions.

By 2021, women made up almost a third of CEOs of financial institutions. This has had a catalytic effect. They are role models who give other women the courage to shoot for the stars and who can empower others through assertive mentoring and training.

Women in energy

Another male-dominated sector in Nigeria in which women have asserted themselves is oil and gas. Role models here include the founder and vice chairman of Famfa Oil, Folorunsho Alakija, and Catherine UjuIfejika, CEO of Britannia-U Nigeria, an indigenous petroleum company. There are others: a number of oil companies are run by women with their husbands, such as Falcon Corporation, Bovas Group and Rainoil.

Many initiatives are underway within large indigenous companies to uplift women. The Seplat Awesome Women’s Network (SWAN) has been created at one of Nigeria’s biggest indigenous oil companies, Seplat, to drive gender equality. There are women in other sectors who have crashed through the glass ceiling such as Owen Omogiafo, president and group CEO of one of Nigeria’s largest conglomerates, Transcorp; and Stella Chinyelu Okoli, CEO of Emzor Pharmaceutical.

However, the reality is that despite being on the right trajectory, these examples are a drop in the ocean in the overall picture of female empowerment in Nigeria’s business world. The trend of female directors being appointed to company boards is also moving slowly. According to advisory firm PwC, by 2020, the percentage of women appointed as directors to boards in Nigeria stood at about 12%, below the African average of 14% and below countries such as Kenya, Ghana and South Africa. Also, women own only 20% of enterprises in the formal sector in Nigeria.

The higher, the fewer

In its 2020 report, Impact of Women on Nigeria’s Economy, PwC says that in Nigeria’s formal business sector the split between men and women is roughly 50:50 at the lower levels – but the number of women decreases on the higher rungs of the corporate ladder. This is corroborated by the World Economic Forum, which reports that Nigerian women make up more than 64% of skilled workers but occupy just 30.3% of senior corporate positions. This highlights the entrenched barriers for women in business despite the positive optics in the sectors described above.

Olatowun Candide-Johnson, a seasoned professional and lawyer, says it can be lonely at the top for women in business as they tend to operate in silos, instead of forging networks, sharing business opportunities, doing deals and supporting one another as men do all over the world. This has held them back. To address this gap, she launched an exclusive private members club for professional businesswomen, GAIA Africa, in Lagos.

But uptake was slow in the beginning, with women unused to the concept. She says that despite the progress Nigeria is making in empowering women, it is still largely business as usual. “A mediocre man is more likely to be promoted over a more intelligent and dedicated female employee. This is not sustainable, it is inequitable and unfair.”

At the informal and small-and-medium-enterprises end of the economic spectrum, women are well represented, accounting for 41% of ownership of micro-businesses, according to PwC. But the majority of such women-owned businesses are not savvy start-ups with growth potential. They are mostly enterprises that enable women to survive in an environment where formal jobs are scarce. The picture is similar across most countries in Africa and advisory firm McKinsey & Company says that only 5% of professional women make it to top management in companies in Africa.

Even those who succeed may not wield any real influence in male-dominated societies.

Changing social norms

Tackling mindsets is a critical component of this shift, and changing social norms regarding the role of women in the home and workplace is a critical factor in unlocking effective empowerment. Women, in patriarchal societies such as Nigeria, tend to hold themselves back, often choosing to remain in middle-management jobs due to cultural and historical factors, say analysts. Education is another factor. Men are encouraged to pursue technical and professional services training and to enter a pipeline to the top in sectors such as oil and gas, mining and financial services.

But the new role models, successful and powerful women business leaders, are helping to change the trends in Nigeria, slowly but surely. Uju-Ifejika says self-confidence is key to succeeding. She says she is not a geologist and had never worked in exploration and production before setting up Brittania-U Nigeria.

“The only thing I know is how to take something that is nothing and create something out of it that you can see and appreciate… not being an engineer or a geologist was immaterial.” She has learned the trade along the way with the key factor, in her view, being her ability to “rise above my fear level”.

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