A routine audit of a multinational manufacturing company in Nigeria found something illegal: women working on the production line at night. The company was penalized for breaking the law – in Nigeria, it is illegal for women to work overnight undertaking manual labor.
The manufacturing managers felt under pressure to meet the company’s diversity targets. At the same time, they wondered how they could promote a woman to be in charge of others if she had not been in the trenches with them, on the nightshift, at some point in her career.
The law was biased against female candidates, reinforcing cultural beliefs that already discourage Nigerian women from pursuing manufacturing jobs. As a result, women remain underrepresented in the sector, and most occupy sales or administrative jobs. One Nigerian human resources director wondered why the country’s laws would make it harder for women to work than men: “If companies can guarantee the safety of women in the workplace at night, what reason is there to restrict the jobs they can work?”
This is not just a question of fairness, but of economics: A recent analysis estimates that Nigeria’s gross domestic product could grow by 23 percent by 2025 if women were to participate in the labor force at the same rate as men. And the International Monetary Fund suggested that Nigeria could make its vulnerable economy more stable by improving its low levels of gender equality (it ranks 122nd among 144 countries on the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index).
Companies benefit, too – greater gender diversity on executive teams is correlated with profitability and value creation, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. It found that companies with more diverse workforces are more likely to perform better financially: They are better able to attract top talent, are more customer-oriented, have higher employee satisfaction and better decision-making processes. Companies gain even more when women executives are responsible for the core revenue-generating part of the business – as opposed to support roles such as human resources or I.T. services.
But for Nigeria’s companies, the law still impedes the appointment of female executives in core manufacturing roles. Until women have experience of all jobs on the production line, managers remain loath to promote them, and companies suffer for it.
The labor law that restricts women from working night shifts should be changed, as should several others. This is just one of the legal barriers that Nigerian women face when looking for work – they are not protected from gender discrimination in employment and have no guarantee of equal pay for equal work. If sexually harassed at work, women have no civil remedies available to them. If women take maternity leave, they are not guaranteed an equivalent position when they return to work. On these barriers, Nigeria is not alone – according to a recent World Bank report, most countries still have laws that make it harder for women to work than men.
Governments around the world are beginning to understand and limit the cost of women’s inequality in the workplace. More than 110 countries in the past two years have reformed laws to improve women’s economic opportunities. These changes have ranged from stronger sexual harassment laws in Afghanistan to increased maternity leave in Peru. The Democratic Republic of the Congo recently removed some of the same barriers that remain in Nigeria today, permitting women to work at night and prohibiting gender-based discrimination in hiring and promotions.
Companies should do more to promote legal reforms that increase women’s economic participation – after all, it benefits women and corporations alike. Even in the absence of such reform, companies can better foster inclusion. The McKinsey Global Institute found that with committed leadership and thoughtful strategies, companies around the world have succeeded in improving the diversity of their workforces – and have profited from it.
Nigerian companies are starting to understand the benefits of gender diversity. Some have instituted their own nondiscrimination policies, even though those are not legally required, and are fostering corporate cultures that – unlike Nigeria’s society – encourage equal opportunities for women. Some have programs to sculpt the next generation of managers, and have ensured that half of the participants are women. Such actions have translated to more women working in manufacturing than ever before, without compromising standards.
Laws in Nigeria and around the world should enable, not impede, women who want to break barriers and do things that their parents did not do, from working the night shift on a production line to rising to the top of a company – not just for the benefit of them and their families but entire economies.
Nigeria can make its vulnerable economy more prosperous by reforming the laws that prevent women from fully contributing to society. Until then, it is in the hands of companies to lead the way.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women’s Advancement Deeply.