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Lynda Madu is the Associate Director, Corporate Development and Services, Nestoil Group, and also a member of the Advocacy/CEO and Policy Makers Interactive Series Group of the Women in Management, Business and Public Services (WIMBIZ). In this interview with ZEBULON AGOMUO to commemorate the 2020 International Women’s Day (IWD), Madu speaks on a number of issues, including, the role of organisations in the sensitisation of the populace on the true meaning of gender equality. She also speaks on the expectations from this year’s IWD campaign with the theme: #EachforEqual. Excerpts:
By way of introduction, may we know who Lynda Madu is?
I am the Associate Director of Corporate Services and Development for Nestoil Group. In the late 90s, I started my career as a consultant with Arthur Andersen, which later became Andersen and then KPMG. I have a background in Mathematics and Computer Science. I am a wife and a mother, of twenty-two years and counting.
At KPMG, I did Business Consulting, providing services for clients across various industries and sectors of the economy. From there, I left in 2010 to work for MainOne Cable Company, the year it launched its operations. The CEO of the company, Funke Opeke, was a previous client and project sponsor on one of my assignments a few years earlier. I was quite fascinated by the MainOne story and decided to join in it, worked there for a little more than eight years before I left for Nestoil.
Since the focus of this interview is on women; at what point did you begin to speak for women and women matters?
I would say for as long as I have been a woman. Of course, as we get older and more mature, we get more and more conscious of it. It is something I am very passionate about. I have four daughters, and perhaps that even makes it more of a passion for me. Some of the challenges are quite evident in the corporate world, coupled with cultural issues and societal pressures. And I know for sure that it is not just a Nigerian or African issue, it is a global one; I have read several books and articles on it and have also related with other citizens from across the globe, especially women, that confirm this. So, as you get into it, it is right in your face; you have discussions with people and can relate with the issues, and therefore, you are encouraged to make your own contribution at whatever level, particularly if you think you have the opportunity to do that.
Feminism has become rather controversial. What does it mean to you?
Feminism, for me, simply means that you recognise and treat me as a person, first. Consider my work purely on its own merit and based on my results and the quality of my output. As a woman, it is a quest for fairness, even if we know the world is not necessarily a fair place. You are probably right to say issues about feminism could be controversial but that is because sometimes people, including women, subconsciously have their own idea of where the woman should be, and so see feminism as a threat to that ideology.
I do not think that women are asking for any special favours or such. Women are simply saying, see them first as human beings, judge their work based on quality and not gender. As women, they are entitled to their human rights. We are saying ‘remove the biases and judge my work especially in the corporate environment based on its merits, and please do not deprive me of my rights, just because I am a woman’.
Over the years, International Women’s Day (IWD) has been marked in Nigeria. In your assessment, can you say it has achieved or it is achieving the purpose for which it is being marked?
It is a work in progress. We may not be where we want to be yet, but the awareness is being created and people and corporations are taking necessary actions. There are still a lot of required interventions: at the global level, at national levels; and even within organizations in Nigeria and everywhere for that matter. Year on year, people are more aware of the relevant issues; they see attempts to fix some of the issues, they know that something can be done about them, and so are encouraged to change styles and approaches and even define processes and policies that address the gender issues.
It is reflected even in the way certain organisations now hire. They know the benefits of gender balance and personally, when I have to make the choice and all things being equal, I am more likely to select a qualified (quality cannot be compromised) woman over an equally qualified man. And that is because several studies have been done on the impact of women in management and business. McKinsey, in a recent one (study), showed a clear correlation between gender equality and an increase in GDP. Countries like Japan are, therefore, beginning to make deliberate efforts to fix gender inequality knowing the value that brings to the economy.
Some other countries and organisations insist on gender quotas, both in management and Boards. Even in Africa, Rwanda is doing very well in that regard, ranking in the top 5 countries for gender equality. South Africa also has a very good representation of women in government and in their parliament. There is great value in gender balance. And by that I do not mean equal, absolute, numbers like 50-50; no. That would be unrealistic in many places.
Looking back at your career trajectory and social standing; do you think being the other gender would have made any difference in whatever you have achieved?
No, not necessarily. I do not think that growing up in my career, that I got any special favours or particular deprivations just because I am a woman. Of course, many times in my life, I have been blessed with a lot of favours and also sometimes have faced difficulties/challenges and did not get certain things I wanted at the time, but those did not happen because I am a woman. And I say this because there were also other women in similar circumstances who perhaps, did not get the favours or those deprivations.
I think a lot of this stability had to do with the sort of companies I have been privileged to work in. In KPMG for example, the Partner in charge of Business Consulting at the time was a woman – Mrs Bisi Lamikanra – a great woman and mentor to me. She was not there to give us any special favours, we had to do our work. What it did for us, the younger women, was daily interacting with a woman who was making a success of her career. It was a daily learning experience for us in a very practical way and safe environment. It was more than any seminar could ever give.
And when in my 12th year, I left KPMG for MainOne, it was another company led by a woman – Funke Opeke – a phenomenal woman. In her own case, she did something completely new and radical towards the adoption of technology and internet solutions in West Africa. Before her, as a country, we were mainly reliant on SAT-3 and we know the issues we had at the time and now we see how far we have come as a people.
And coming here to Nestoil, again, I am blessed to work closely with another woman – Mrs Nnenna Obiejesi – together with the Chairman of the Group and a seasoned entrepreneur, from both of whom I am getting a whole new topnotch Business School experience. It is incredible what an indigenous company can achieve from scratch in this environment.
So, working in these types of organisations and with such people have made it easy for me to see that gender could not have been a limitation; one can do whatever one sets one’s mind on to do.
Are you satisfied with the gender balance in workplaces in Nigeria and what would you expect, say in the next 10 years, going by the campaigns people like you are doing?
No, not at all. We are not satisfied at all, we are not there yet. But we are making progress, given where we are coming from. Fact is, it also depends on the industry, it is more difficult to achieve in some than others. For example, our companies like the dredging subsidiaries or the fabrication or pipeline construction may not be able to achieve that balance because of the types of jobs that exist in those areas. But things are changing and the numbers are improving. In the average university today, you would find out that there are more women in the engineering and technology classes than you had in our days. In our Math or Abstract Algebra classes in those days, women made up just about 20percent of those classes. And the ratios were even much lower in the Civil Engineering classes for example. But all that is changing, and rapidly too. Which is why I talk about the deliberate effort we have to make if we must change the situation. Waiting for it to happen organically would mean waiting a very, very long time; it may not be in our lifetime. So, everyone has a role to play. And women, in particular, have to support other women. Those in leadership positions have to encourage other women to speak up and let their voices be heard because they have great ideas and their concerns are valid.
You said you were not advocating for an equal proportion of opportunity for women. One area some people frown at is the insistence by some women that they must be equal with men or that equality is absolute. This appears to have created problems in some homes. How do some of your organisations preach the message to let every woman know the real message of feminism and gender equality?
It is continuous education and making people understand what the real issues are and to see the benefits that come with resolving them, and in doing that, we have to be realistic in our demands and expectations. People and culture do not change overnight. We need to be conscious of the realities. So, for some companies, looking at a particular senior level – you could have, say, 20 men and four women on that level. Now, if you want to make a selection, there is no way you are going to have equal numbers of both genders because you do not even have enough women available at that level, pointing to a more fundamental issue – preparedness of enough women for senior roles. So, it is not about the number, but about a decent proportion that will bring out the value that you can get from having women in these places. And there are several interventions and groups where these engagements happen and knowledge is shared – advocacy groups having ongoing discussions with decision-makers, ongoing conversations up to government levels, round table conferences designed by women and for women, full-fledged conferences with thousands of women participating and developing themselves and others. It is an ongoing work.
Down here in the South, the number of out-of-school children may be far less compared to the North; how seriously are your groups taking the advocacy to ensure that girl–child education is promoted in the north? We hear about the high percentage of poverty in that region as a result of lack of Education. How do your associations ensure that this negative narrative is changed?
It is the same engagement both with the government and the people and attacking it at every opportunity. The damage is deep and can seem overwhelming. But we cannot lose hope; the struggle continues. And it is not only in the north (it is definitely worse over there) but you may be shocked at the huge threat to girl-child education even here in the south, especially in the rural areas. There are young girls in this day and age, who are not able to go to school at certain times each month just because they are on their periods and have no access to sanitary towels. That is what led bodies like the Obijackson Foundation get into what they call the ‘One Girl, One Pad’ programme.
Like I said, the problems do not go away overnight. Changing that narrative is a slow, and could be a painful, process and providing that support through that process goes a long way. We cannot solve the entire world’s problem but we can start somewhere and make our own inputs wherever we find ourselves. At every opportunity, structured or not, we can and should continue to educate our people; educate our men; educate our women to understand what their responsibilities are and perform them. The little successes here and there add up. Sometimes, it is as little as having a few minutes conversation with a woman and sharing a perspective that helps her to change the way she sees the world.
May we know what you think is unique about this year’s International Women’s Day? What should Nigerians expect different from what has been happening?
This year’s theme is “Each for Equal’’ and really, it is a call to action, not just for that day, but all year long and beyond. The IWD on their website says the theme is drawn from a notion of ‘Collective Individualism’. Each of us, male or female, has a role to play to make the world a better place. We spoke about the impact of gender equality on businesses and the economy of nations. So, this year, we are reminding everyone that each of us has a part to play in our own little space. What we say and think and do, whether positive or negative, makes an impact on the larger society. Therefore, we can choose to make a change.
How involved is Nestoil in this? You are a staff of Nestoil and for you to authoritatively speak on the IWD shows you must have gotten the express permission of your company to do so?
Nestoil has always been a strong advocate of women in the workplace and in her own way usually celebrates IWD using it as an opportunity to educate all its employees. Nestoil understands that IWD is a collective effort towards gender equality. And knowing the value this brings to any business, Nestoil ensures active participation of its employees in initiatives like the IWD.
On IWD, there are usually events where successful women in society are invited to speak and share their experiences with the employees. It will happen again this year, we have not announced our special guest yet, but we have full confidence in our Corporate Communications team and everyone here is looking forward to the occasion.
How comfortable, or are you satisfied with the quota of representation women are having at the political leadership level in Nigeria. If you are not happy about it, how can things improve in this area?
No, not at all! We are only scratching the surface. Right now, we have an abysmal representation of women in politics or in the membership of the cabinet in most states. The one person we should give an award to on a day like this is the Governor of Kwara State. He has gone way beyond the 35 per cent representation promised by the government to have a cabinet with 56percent women membership! I do not know of anyone who is doing such. Certainly not at the national level! We are way behind. For improvement opportunities, we may want to do a study on Kwara State and learn from them.
How are the women groups addressing the poverty level among women in the country? Things no doubt, have improved in terms of earnings among the women; but it appears the poverty level among that gender is still high?
Yes, the poverty level among the female gender is still high because of the lack of opportunities that women have. It is worrisome and sometimes, shocking that we are not able to do more even though we all know the saying that ‘train a woman and you train a nation’. It is worthwhile and sustainable to equip a woman because it goes all the way down to her children and directly impacts on the society at large. Providing opportunities to women would help a great deal. The opportunities include skilling them up and educating them knowing that education greatly contributes to reducing poverty. Women are greatly limited because they do not have access to the funds that they need. Some banks do have special programmes for supporting women who are in small businesses, which is good but we can do more. Beyond giving money, helping them to acquire the skills that they need; helping them to put those skills into practice. That would go a long way to solving the entire poverty problem, not just for the women; but for the society.
From your own experience as a wife, mother and corporate executive (professional), how do you strike a balance to ensure that you are not found wanting in any of your roles (at home and at the workplace)?
That is always a tricky one but somehow I do not think that one can strike a perfect balance. It is one of those ongoing things. I think it begins with understanding one’s responsibilities as a professional, as a wife and as a mother, and living up to them. No excuses. There are sacrifices that have to be made along the way. The home and work are both very important. There are times the family will take the back seat; by that I mean, there’s work to be done and it has to be done. Even the family, from my own experience, would support through it. At such times, they understand and you can see every other person bending backwards and doing what you know to be your usual responsibilities, just for that period. At other times, the family would take the full precedence, and the work must wait because then, family comes first and it cannot be compromised. The issue arises when we struggle to balance these priorities. Work cannot always come in the way of family and family cannot always come in the way of work. The balancing is key and is continuous work. Once it becomes lopsided, issues arise, regardless of which side is up. Even in our spiritual lives, there has to be a healthy balance. The extreme is not a good place to be. Aristotle teaches that ‘Virtue lies in the middle’. It is about finding that appropriate middle ground always.