On June 17, PREMIUM TIMES, TW Magazine, and US-based Parenting Resources and Initiatives organized a dialogue session on “Parenting for Nation Building” in Lagos. PREMIUM TIMES’ Ben Ezeamalu sat down with Amina Oyagbola, Founder, WISCAR and HR Executive, MTN Nigeria, as she spoke about how women can successfully balance work and family, the challenges, gender equality, women emancipation, and abusive relationships.
PT: Today we are having a session on Parenting for Nation building; in your view what do you think is the singular most important element in parenting?
Amina Oyagbola: For me, it’s attention. I think, being present, giving that quality time to show proper care and love, and the necessary guidance that children require. Before you can show care and love you have to be present in the lives of those children and you have to pay attention, and you have to be observant. So for me if you say just one singular word and I think it’s attention or in the alternative I will use the word presence, being present.
PT: Now you’ve talked about that presence as an issue. Now how do you balance your profession with that presence, as a working mother?
Amina Oyagbola: It’s a real challenge and it’s a dilemma. But the truth is that there will always be conflict and I think that is the biggest challenge most career women face, which is why you will find, at the top of many organizations there are very few women; because when you start your career, when you come out of school, you get in there competing with the men on equal footing, on merit and you’re getting into the organization at the same level. And one or two years later when you settle down, you then get married. If you are blessed you have children and parenting role begins.
And when that parenting role begins several issues arise, you have young children. Our laws provide that you are entitled to three months maternity leave, that’s the first challenge. You have a little baby, and then after three months, in some organizations you have an additional, perhaps, one month of annual leave, which you combine giving you four months. You have to leave this little baby at home with somebody to care for and nurture and look after, that is the first challenge.
For career women, what I was able to do, and I’m blessed; not everybody is that fortunate to have their mother alive at the point when they are having children, or to have their mother alive in the same location. And sometimes even if they are in the same location, maybe the distance is in terms of where they live, because they have their own household to look after. They may not be able to devote the time that you need. But I was fortunate to have my mother present where I was not able to be present. I was able to have my mother present and act where I was absent. That’s the first thing.
Where you don’t have your mother, you must put structures in place to ensure, as much as you can, that whoever is present in your stead provides the care, the love, the nurturing, the guidance, and the counselling that the children require, the supervision that is needed, if they are at a schooling age. So what does that mean? That means you have to have a level of means and resources, which means you need to now hire some help, some domestic support if you can afford that. If you cannot afford that then you look for your brothers or your sisters or your cousins who can but it’s your responsibility to make sure that whoever you entrust your children to will look after them in a manner that you want them to look after them.
And it’s not enough to just leave them in their hands. You must not abdicate that responsibility, even when you have your mother who brought you up, you must recognize that the parenting responsibility is yours and you have primary responsibility and accountability as a parent for those children. Which means you must prepare certain things before you go, leave instructions which you hope would be carried out, find a mechanism of monitoring and controlling and ensuring that when you come back you check that those things that you wanted done for those children had been done in that manner. And you examine your children, that they are not in harm’s way, that they have not been abused, that they have not been ill-treated. It’s very important. And the technology now, there are all kinds of tools that you can use to help in the monitoring and control, all kinds of apps that you can download. Put a video cam in the house so that you can view your children, see what they are doing when you are in the office, you have Skype, you can teach whoever is at home if you wanna make Skype calls. There’s Facetime. You can use digital tools, you can use mobile phones to supervise and to monitor more closely. Unlike in the days when I was growing up, we didn’t even have mobile phones then, in the 80’s. Today it’s a little bit easier. But the challenge of somebody else instilling the values, tutoring your children, teaching them manners, teaching them respect and all of that. Teaching them your native language, which is very important, still exists. These things can still be accomplished but you have to be determined and focused in ensuring that it happens.
And you must be very organized as a career woman, to ensure that it happens. Bottom line is that you can try your best, try and juggle as many balls as possible but the truth is some balls will drop, because you are a human being. And the tension in terms of work-life balance in ensuring that you perform optimally at work, ensuring that you fulfil your duty and your responsibility to your children and the rest of the family at home is going to be a lifelong challenge. The important thing for me, as a professional, is that whatever the situation and the choices and decisions I make must be one that will sit well with me and my conscience at the end of the day. And you have to also pray that God will bless the effort you are making so that the final outcome, both intended and unintended, is one that is palatable and one that you can live with.
PT: Several gender activists have pushed for getting the male folks to participate more in parenting, that they shouldn’t leave it to women alone. Do you think that could be a way of surmounting some of these challenges you spoke of?
Amina Oyagbola: Absolutely. A woman does not make a child alone. It takes two to make a baby. And I feel sad, really, for men who do not take an interest in the development and growth of their children. Because they are losing so much. It’s such a wonderful journey. There’s nothing so rewarding and so fulfilling as bringing up your children and being close to your children. And when you grow old, and you’ve been able to bring them up to a stage where they can stand on their own confidently. You’ve taken them to the point, as my father would say, where they are no longer afraid and can do things for themselves. And you, in the course of your life’s journey God has blessed you with a long life, have become old and frail, own figure that protects the family and looks after everybody and provides for everybody. Then they take over and start looking after you and do things better than you and contribute meaningfully to society as respected citizens of the country.
But the truth is, if you look around, you’ll find women who have become very successful. I run a women’s NGO called WISCAR – Women In Successful Career. You hardly ever find a successful woman in a career who does not have a partner in her husband, doesn’t have a supportive husband. And when you say a supportive husband it means you have somebody who is sharing the burden of the family with you, that’s what it means, including bringing up the children together. It’s a team effort, it’s a partnership, for you to be able to do it successfully.
PT: How long have you been running WISCAR?
Amina Oyagbola: For several years now, I think we are in our eighth year now.
PT: What do you think about the proverbial glass ceiling?
Amina Oyagbola: (Laughs) The glass ceiling is there. I think that we have made progress when you go down the ages from where women have come. From the suffragettes and all the women activists and campaigners over the years, we’ve come a long way as women, from not even having the right to vote at one particular point in time to being recognized as people who can contribute equally to the socio-economic development of the country.
But I think that we still have a long way to go. There’s a clear acknowledgement that no country is going to develop fully if it has two hands and it ties one hand behind its back. We have a population in Nigeria of 184 million or thereabout, it just makes sense to enable the 50 percent that constitutes the womenfolk, give them the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the development of the country. But some of the constraints and challenges are still there. The glass ceiling is there, it’s still real. The statistics are there to show, in many corporate organizations, in public institutions, and in politics that female representation is not what it should be. There’s so much research out there that has shown and proven that when you create diversity in any organization, private sector, public sector, the political arena, the outcome is better, richer, and there is enhanced prosperity for all. So that has been scientifically proven and I think the message is now…the penny I think has finally dropped and everybody is now listening and beginning to realize that the whole campaign about gender equality is not just noise, you know, some minority groups trying to make themselves relevant. It’s about development. And it’s particularly important in the African arena, an emerging country like ours, we really should harness all the talents and all the resources that the country has. Especially now that we are going through such difficult times in our country, we really must pool all the resources, all the men and the women and the youth and the children together and give them an opportunity to contribute and take us into properity.
PT: Talking about gender equality, what’s your view on gender equality in Nigeria?
Amina Oyagbola: That’s what I’ve commented about. I think it needs to be more equal. My view on gender equality… I’m not an advocate of gender equality for equality sake. I’m in favour of gender equality for development and for future prosperity of the country. And I’m in favour of gender equality because it is a constitutional right. I’m also in favour of gender equality because it just makes business sense, it’s just common sense. What I want is meritocracy, not tokenism for women. So when you see a woman in a position, let it be that she has been given an equal opportunity to compete with her male counterpart. I don’t want a situation where the balance is now tilted and the men begin to feel excluded. I believe in inclusion for all and prosperity of all.
PT: When you look back, over the years, will you say we have made progress as far as gender equality in Nigeria is concerned?
Amina Oyagbola: I think in the political arena a lot more progress needs to be done. We are far far far behind, if you look at the statistics in terms of number of women in politics. The reasons are obvious, the political structures and systems and processes are designed to favour men. They are not designed to enable women, and that needs to be changed. Also, the funding structures of political parties as well make it very difficult for women to emerge. Because, over time, over the years, we were at the bottom of the food chain. So extraordinary steps need to be taken to ensure that the kind of outcomes we want to see are actually realized on the political side.
In corporate Nigeria, again we’ve built up structures and systems over decades based on men. So even the design of structures and the facilities in many structures… many years ago I was in the oil industry, and when you get into the oil industry it’s mostly male, very small percentage of women. It has improved slightly now. And if you are looking for something like the female toilet, the male toilet will be a stone throw away, you have to go to some remote location, you have to walk and walk, just because women were an afterthought. So it’s going to take time for the structures that we built to be inclusive of the needs and requirements of women. Things like if we were thinking about the female population when we are building a facility, it should have a crèche, because we have to fulfil inherent natural calling which to bear children, for the survival of the race. And we should be able to do both – have a family and pursue a career.
Do you know what’s interesting? Most organizations that invested in crèche, guess who uses them more? The men. Because these are their own children too. They may be working in a place where there’s crèche, their wife may be working in a place where there’s no crèche, they will hand the children over to their husbands and check on their children at break time.
So all of these things we are advocating for women will profit and benefit both women and men, will profit the family unit. And when it benefits the family unit, it benefits the community and benefits the society at large. I think we need to go a lot further in terms of changing the statistics and the ratio of men to women in corporate Nigeria. I have to say that the organization that I work for, MTN, is a very gender friendly one. I mean, the statistics there in terms of the ratio is one that I’m very proud of. I think the percentage of women to men across the organization in MTN is probably now about 35 percent, which is very very high compared to many other organizations. It’s not because we even had any, you know, direct diversity policy. We are just an equal opportunity employer, and we don’t discriminate. And it’s a meritocracy, so you just look at merit. Right at the top, at the executive level, we have three female executives in MTN, and all the way down the line. And that’s how it should be.
In many corporate institutions today, even those that have a large ratio of women to men, go and find out where the women are sitting, in the administrative roles, in the roles that they think they’ve profiled for the women. Whereas women are as capable as men, sometimes, in my own opinion, even more capable. Because anybody who can multi task the way women can – manage the home, manage the children, perform at work, all together; clearly the person has organizational capabilities, to be able to keep all those balls in the air at the same time.
PT: You see women in top management positions in a lot of companies, how do you think young girls can be encouraged to attain such heights like yours?
Amina Oyagbola: Well, I think it starts from the home, from the nurturing, from the parenting, from the values that are instilled in them by their parents, and the confidence they are given. Parents helping to build their children’s self-esteem, that is really really important, I’ve come across a lot of girls who have very low self-esteem and that comes from home. But beyond that… I must not forget to talk about the importance of teachers because the parenting is a combined thing between the parent and the teacher. Before the child reaches school age, it is solely the responsibility of the parents. But when they get into nursery school, primary school, secondary school, it’s a partnership between the parent and the teacher. That is the reason why we set up WISCAR, Women In Successful Career, which is a mentoring programme for women, to be able to provide strategic guidance and support to young career women. And that support and guidance will be provided by experienced female professionals, women in successful careers who had gone through that journey and that path themselves. And within that programme we have a particular event which we call the Meet-A-WISCAR event and we do that twice in a calendar year. It’s really a role modelling platform where we invite successful women to come and sit in a chair in a very informal setting with the mentees and they come and tell their life stories. And after they’d done that we open floors for questions and answers and the mentees can actually ask them questions around issues that are of concern to them. The whole idea is to inspire them, let them know that we were once like you, we had the same fears, the same concerns, we wondered whether we could do it. But because somebody encouraged us, and in many cases it was men that actually encouraged many of those women who became successful over time but we are now trying to say that successful women actually have a responsibility and a duty that they pull the next generation up and help in their development so that they become successful.
So that role modelling programme is very powerful, which again was why I was so excited about the Hilary Clinton news because it’s about role modelling, it’s about inspiring and what she’s been able to achieve, other women can look up and say ‘wow.’ This lady, she had not only broken the glass ceiling, she had actually shattered it. If she could do it, then I can.
PT: A lot of these mentoring programmes tend to focus on people in our big cities; does WISCAR plan to reach out to the women in rural areas?
Amina Oyagbola: The truth is you can’t do everything when you want to embark on something. They are an extremely important constituency and that is why everybody should try and do something, everybody who attains should try and give back in one or the other. But if you think you can do everything, you will achieve nothing. So what we’ve tried to do in this case is to say this is the area we’re gonna focus on. And the area we have chosen, there are so many women empowerment organizations doing wonderful things. But what WISCAR has chosen to focus on is on strategic mentoring. And we decided to start in Lagos. You know we are very busy women struggling with life, struggling with our families, struggling with our children, and struggling with work. This is an additional responsibility which is done purely on a volunteering basis by all of these wonderful women on the advisory board of WISCAR. So we’ve started in Lagos, we’ve been doing it for 7 – 8 years, we’re still trying to consolidate fully in Lagos but the design of the model is such that it is scalable, it’s such that we can take it to other locations. The aspiration is that sometime in the future we should be able to do that, God willing.
PT: What do you think Hilary Clinton’s nomination by the Democratic Party in the US means to Nigerian women and to you in particular?
Amina Oyagbola: Hilary Clinton’s nomination is amazing. For me, Clinton is a WISCAR. In other words, she is a woman in successful career. History was made on the 7th of June when she emerged as the first woman to become the presumptive presidential nominee of a major American political party. Amidst everything, the elation, the awe, awakening, and the obvious opposition and challenge that followed her achievement lies a very profound question by both men and women, young and old, near and far alike: How did she do it? How did she accomplish it? She answered the question herself when she said to every little girl who dreams big, you can be anything you want, even President. For me that is powerful. Her rise in politics has been steady, purposeful, but no less challenging. First, as two time First Lady of the state of Arkansas. Then two time First Lady of the United States. Junior Senator of the state of New York. Presidential candidate for the 2008 US election. And most recently, the 67th United States Secretary of State. Do you see hard work and consistency and staying the course, perseverance in that narrative. So over the years, Hilary Clinton has prepared, she has proved herself, she has improved herself, and as President Obama said, “I really do not think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office.”
Whenever I see women achieve, I don’t to even need know them, I don’t need to have met them. I take time to pause and I celebrate them and I recognize them because they are so few and far between. And I seize the opportunity if I do come across them, and even if I don’t, in social media we can reach one another, to say thank you. Thank you Hilary Clinton, because when America’s 240 year old glass ceiling is shattered, definitely other ceilings are sure to follow.
Even locally here we have some inspiring stories, inspiring role models. Alooma Muktar, who is a patron of WISCAR, was the first female Supreme Court justice of Nigeria, the 13th Chief Justice of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. We are proud of her accomplishments. We have Professor Sonaiya who was a female candidate who competed in the last presidential election. And so many others. We track all those stories and they inspire us and they should inspire women all over the globe.
PT: What is your advice to women who are in abusive relationships and marriages?
Amina Oyagbola: This is a very sad, quite painful topic for me to talk about. I think everybody has a right to be happy in life. Nobody should be subject to abuse in any form. But the easiest thing is to say if you are in abusive relationship then leave it, but it’s not as easy as that. Just like people will say if you are not enjoying your job and you don’t like your line manager, leave the job. It’s not easy to do, because there are other considerations. You have to think about sustenance, you have to think about your children, you have to think about education, you have to think about how you can feed and maintain yourself, you have to think of shelter. So this whole issue of economic empowerment and empowering the woman to be able to stand on her own is very important. I’m not an advocate for separation, I’m married myself, I’ve been happily married for 30 years. But if the relationship is not working and it’s abusive and it’s not in anybody’s interest, it’s better for the people to go their separate ways. But what I want to say on abuse is really that because it should not happen, we have existing laws that are designed to protect the rights of the Nigerian citizen, both women and men, including this form of abuse. But the issue is enforcement, and again sometimes in order to exercise your right you also need to have means. And a lot of the women at the bottom of the food chain who are suffering this kind of abuse do not have means. A lot of them are not even enlightened, are not educated, they don’t even know where to go. There is a lot of support, counselling, legal support required and I know that a lot of wonderful people through various NGOs are doing a lot to educate and to provide legal assistance free of charge. I think the answer is we need to create a lot more awareness so people know where to go if they are in trouble, a safe haven to go and talk, to go get guidance, to get support and my advice for people who don’t want to go that route is if you are going through something, anything unpleasant, don’t just sit there and suffer, you only have one life, share it, share that burden with somebody else. We all live in a neighbourhood, there must be, either a Muslim or a Christian community, if it is a church the church must have a church community, you must have a prayer community maybe in the mosque. There are communities that you can go to, there must be a network that you can draw on, use it and unburden yourself because maybe that is where help and succour will come from.
Then finally I believe in prayer, I believe in the power of prayer. God said ask and you shall receive, knock and the door shall be opened unto you. God also said help yourself. So you can’t just sit down there for help to come, you must be seen to be doing something for help to come.
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