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Propelling women into top positions

Rose Muthoni @rosemuthoniN

For a woman to make her way to the C-Suite or run a successful entrepreneurial venture, she must shun societal norms.

It is common knowledge that culture, politics and religion have conspired to fit a woman in a certain box, one she must break free from to become a master of her trade.

But according to Barry Parkin, Mars Incorporated chief sustainability officer, the fight for gender parity in the work place has shifted from that against conscious biases and stereotypes to a subconscious one.

Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) Chairperson Flora Mutahi points out to the family resistance she faced when she wanted to start her business.

“I was told that starting a business as a woman is a move in the wrong direction. Women are expected to stick to employment and get married,” she said at a Wrigleys Women in Business Forum held on Tuesday. 

However, she would not let go of her dream. She set up a successful business, Melvins Marsh International Ltd and her family came round and supported her.

“You cannot give in. If in your heart you know that this is what you want to do, please do it despite all the pressure from society,” she said, adding that not only does Kenya need more women holding big offices in organisations, but taking up entrepreneurial ventures as well.

Subconscious messaging that women are subjected to all their lives, including the importance of marriage above all else, has also limited their capabilities.

“The biggest fear parents have is that their daughters will not get married especially if they are educated to PhD or Masters level, or if they run a successful venture. Their greatest fear is that a woman’s success will drive away a potential suitor,” said media guru Julia Gichuru who refused an early marriage to pursue a degree and subsequently a Master’s degree. 

But Gichuru says that women can have it all. “My career grew in leaps and bounds in the 10 years I was having my five children. No woman should have to sacrifice having a family for a career, but at the same time, you must get all the support needed to ensure that you are not forced to sacrifice your career or business to get married and have children.”

Parkin, however, pointed to a disturbing reality in the rigidity of most workplaces.

“For a woman who really wants to raise a family, the journey to the C-suite is 10 times harder as compared to her counterparts. This is because our workplaces are very rigid,” he said.

“Because an organisation that embraces diversity has a better bottom line, we must be deliberate in keeping women in the workplace. That means setting up breastfeeding areas for nursing women in our organisations and extending flexi hours to them as well,” Parkin added.

Going forward, however, Mutahi tells women to shun entitlement and prove their worth in the workplace if they want to get ahead.

“In as much as we are fighting to have more women at the top, we cannot chest thump and demand for contracts or tenders simply because of our gender. We must prove that we are up to the task. That means we have to step up our expertise to get ahead,” she said.

She stressed on capacity building, education and handholding as the main avenues to get more women to start businesses.

“Reach back and pull fellow women up with you. Women need to see their kind at the top to actually believe that they too can make it. So if you are able to help others on your way up, we will have more role models to push this cause,” she said.

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