Pray tell, where are the women in Africa’s corporate boardrooms?

UN Office Nairobi director-general Zainab Hawa Bangura speaks at the 2022 World Women’s Day commemorations.

Stanbic Bank Foundation board chairperson Ory Okolloh and Stanbic Kenya CEO Charles Mudiwa look on as UN Office Nairobi director-general Zainab Hawa Bangura speaks at the 2022 World Women’s Day commemorations at the Villa Rosa Kempinski on March 8. 
@DNation Caption:

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The African Development Bank reports that women occupy only 12 per cent of corporate board seats in the continent.
  • To address the gender gaps, a “whole of society” approach is needed to challenge individual and societal biases.
  • It’s imperative to continue championing gender equality in the workplace.


A successful career that leads to leadership at the highest decision-making body of an organisation is a lifetime goal for many working professionals.

But even in the most gender-equal countries, this dream remains elusive for women more than it is for men.

Companies reportedly benefit from greater shareholder value, corporate governance, financial performance, return on equity, customer and employee satisfaction, investor confidence and market reputation from a gender-diverse board.

Women leaders are role models and often play a positive role in the workplace by creating an inclusive adaptable culture of teamwork and collaboration.

But only 21 per cent of women in Sub-Saharan Africa are in wage employment. With a low female labour force participation rate, fewer women than men make it to the first step of manager level, impeding progression.

The African Development Bank reports that women occupy only 12 per cent of corporate board seats in the continent.

In 2015, Kenya was leading, at 19.8 per cent, followed by Ghana (17.7) and South Africa (17.4). In 2021, Kenya’s diversity in its boardrooms was 36 per cent, from 21 per cent in 2017, the Board Diversity and Inclusion Survey show.

Despite the commendable efforts, a 2019 “Equileap” report shows that none of the 61 publicly listed companies on the Nairobi Securities Exchange has achieved gender balance across their boards, executive leadership and workforce.

And the number of women on boards or holding the chairmanship and executive director positions (the most powerful) is as low.

Only three publicly listed companies (five per cent) have a female chairperson and seven firms (12 per cent) have a female CEO.

The absence of woman executive directors shows an inadequate pipeline of senior female managers.

Changes in these metrics will signal a meaningful difference in the corporate culture on women’s participation in senior decision-making and leadership roles.

To address the gender gaps, a “whole of society” approach is needed to challenge individual and societal biases (conscious and unconscious) that inhibit the realisation of the full leadership potential of the female workforce.

Promote inclusive leadership

Governments can take the lead in championing initiatives and implementing policies that promote inclusive leadership, such as quota systems and gender diversity disclosure requirements for institutions.

That has worked in India, Malaysia, Brazil, Germany, Norway and Israel with great success. The UK and the US have also used voluntary targets for gender diversity on boards successfully.

Companies can adopt corporate governance codes that promote equal opportunities at work, and which disclose information on the gender diversity of their boards.

They can attract and retain qualified, talented women through gender diversity strategies for their unique environment and needs.

Civil society has the mandate to hold the government and private sector accountable and embark on initiatives that enlighten and empower women.

Institutions can develop the pipeline of board-ready women by providing sponsorship, mentorship, training, visibility and networking opportunities. 

Lastly, we need committed leadership by male leaders to identify and nurture female talent. This is not a fight by women alone.

It’s imperative to continue championing gender equality in the workplace.

We should strive for a world where women and men enjoy equal opportunities to rise to their full potential; gender diversity and inclusion are recognised and rewarded, women’s leadership at the CEO, board, chairmanship and other senior leadership positions are normalised, and women can be judged fairly based on their skills, talent and leadership potential and not held back for their gender. 

Unless we empower women, who, lest we forget, account for half the global population, to achieve their full economic and leadership potential, Africa’s economy will not attain sustainable and inclusive development.

Ms Muhoro is a senior development officer and the head of the development unit at UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for Southern Africa. [email protected]

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