DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania – Study after study has shown that companies with a strong female presence in leadership roles perform better than those led by men. But the message is slow to reach the boardroom: At the world’s 500 largest companies, just 3 percent of CEOs are women.In Tanzania, the rate of women at the top is only slightly higher than the global average – women make up 8 percent of the country’s CEOs. Working women and equality advocates often point to the same deeply rooted patriarchal traditions and outdated corporate cultures that keep women out of high-level management positions everywhere. Now, employers’ organizations are trying to break down those barriers with programs that promote equality in the workplace while raising awareness of discrimination against women.
Nenyuata Mejooli is a 45-year-old financial analyst who works as head of branches for NMB, one of Tanzania’s largest retail banks. “I analyze business trends every day, establish their root cause and, when needed, take appropriate action to increase sales,” she says.
A few years ago, Mejooli was working as head of banking operations at NMB. Then she joined hundreds of other female middle managers in the Female Future initiative, a course designed to prepare women to take up leadership positions in the country’s major corporations. After going through program, she landed her job at NMB in 2016.
“I have learned to understand myself, the team I lead and that the workings of the business environment around me are key.”
The program, which is jointly run by two independent advisory organizations – the Association of Tanzania Employers (ATE) and the Eastern and Southern Africa Management Institution – helps women climb the ranks in business or politics by offering them the kind of leadership training they would have trouble accessing on their own.
The scheme, which launched in 2015, targets candidates who are nominated by the organizations they work for, all of which are members of ATE and have signed a memorandum of understanding obliging them to work to lift more women into high-level positions.
“We recruit at least 80 candidates annually, out of whom about 60 will climb higher on their career ladder,” program coordinator Lilian Machera says.
In six months of training, women are taught about networking, personal branding and self-promotion, identifying their strengths, and how to balance power and trust in a leadership role. They also learn the basics of board competence, including business ethics, codes of conduct, corporate governance and financial management reporting.
“The training has helped me to build my self-confidence,” says Mejooli. “I have learned to understand myself, the team I lead and that the workings of the business environment around me are key.”
Campaigners hail this type of training as key to promoting gender equality in management. “This is one of the best ways to crush male chauvinism, especially at workplaces,” says Gema Akilimali, a women’s rights activist and member of the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme. “We should have many similar initiatives at all levels of leadership.”
Amina Ally, 43, was a senior researcher at the Social Security Regulatory Authority before she entered the program. She says it gave her the confidence she needed to get a promotion to policy analyst.
“With my new skills, I was able to grow professionally,” she says. “My performance has improved remarkably.” Believing that women need role models to help them progress on their career paths, Ally uses the skills and knowledge she acquired on the program to mentor junior colleagues as they build their careers.
An Opportunity, Not an Obstacle
Female Future is just one in a group of initiatives Tanzania has launched to help women gain decision-making powers and participate in the workforce.
In 2015, the Tanzania Women Cross Party launched a program to help women politicians improve their campaigning skills and teach them their rights as candidates. That included showing women how to report abusive tactics, such as male party leaders insisting they trade sex for a spot on the ballot. When the country held its general election that year, a record 9 percent of the candidates were women.
“Success means having the skills, confidence, knowledge and experience, yet it can be an uphill struggle for some women to achieve those.”
At the same time, more than 3 million women from families considered extremely poor have received financial support to improve their livelihoods under the conditional cash transfer program run by Tanzania Social Action Trust Fund (SATF).
Salima Muhsini, a widow from Vikindu village in Tanzania’s coastal region, got 455,200 Tanzanian shillings ($200) as part of the program two years ago and started a small business selling charcoal.
“I could hardly afford a daily meal to feed my children, but when I got the money I established this business. My life has completely changed,” says the 37-year-old mother of four.
SATF targets people living below the poverty line, which, according to the country’s statistics body, includes 13.5 million people countrywide.
“Cash transfer programs are effective tools for improving the lives of poor and vulnerable families, as well as linking them to income-generating opportunities,” says Albert Zeufack, World Bank’s chief economist for Africa. “They are cost-effective and more efficient than food or other types of aid.”
Through her own experience, Mejooli, the head of branches at NMB, has seen the benefits of initiatives that strive to help the country reach gender equality. But she also recognizes that given the male dominance in Tanzania’s top management, even with training, it’s easy for women to get intimidated as they work to progress in their careers.
“Success means having the skills, confidence, knowledge and experience, yet it can be an uphill struggle for some women to achieve those,” she says.
Women have to stop looking at their gender as an obstacle and instead see it as an opportunity, she says.
“We need to have healthy, fact-based conversations [about equality] with men and strive to overcome our fears,” she says. “And when climbing the corporate ladder or starting any business, we need to remember the benefits of being female, as we are unique.”