BY NBM CORRESPONDENT
It’s not easy being a woman in a highly patriarchal society like Kenya. It’s even harder if that woman holds a high position, as Sumayya Athumani painfully learnt recently.
The CEO of the National Oil Corporation of Kenya (NOCK), the State-run oil company, found herself holding the short end of the stick when she was sent on forced leave to pave the way for investigations into affairs of the State-owned oil marketer that reportedly made a loss of Sh270 million in the six months to December 2015.
The move by Energy Cabinet Secretary Charles Keter shocked corporate Kenya as close observers of Ms Athumani’s tenure at NOCK knew she was doing a great job. According to her statistics, NOCK has grown in the five years she’s been helming it, increasing assets from Sh5.8 billion to Sh12 billion and turnover from Sh15 billion to Sh30 billion. Operating profit, she said, had grown from Sh180 million to Sh504 million, while volumes increased from187 million litres to 300 million litres.
While these figures cannot be independently verified as NOCK does not release its financials, they make a strong case for the CEO. Many read a political motive in her suspension, which appears was a set-up for eventual firing. In a country where State-positions and resources are shared between the principal political leaders, Ms Athumani is seen as an outsider in a board dominated, first by men and, second, by members of the two dominant communities whose leaders form the current government.
All indications are that her attempted ouster was a poorly executed strategy to kick out a non-compliant board executive. Those who know her management style say Ms Athumani’s biggest mistake in the eyes of those who want her out turns out to be actually her strength: refusing to be compromised or drawn into the schemes devised by board members to profit from their positions illegally.
Nominated MP Zulekha Juma, read directly from this script, saying the CEO was a victim of infighting and cartels that are determined to benefit from the oil corporation. “Her decisions on zero tolerance to graft might have put her in conflict with other selfish people who wanted to propagate corruption,” said Ms Zulekha said.
Even as she was recalled, the cat had already jumped out of the busket. Now she knows her enemies sit with her in the boardroom and will be ever watching her shoulder. The schemers of her downfall are licking their wounds and will be keen to nail her, again, for the slightest breach.
The gender card, even in the murky political world of wheeler-dealers, has prominent play. Ms Athumani’s case is a continuation of a trend where women’s presence at the high table in organisations is frowned upon.
And so it was expected that women would make the loudest noise, which was amplified by political intonations. Being from Coast region, which is largely opposition, she was projected as a victim of the political machinations of sharing government appointments among the Jubilee Coalition partners and punishing her for her home region’s ideology.
Not long ago, Devolution Cabinet Secretary Ann Waiguru succumbed to pressure for her to resign due to corruption allegations at the National Youth Service (NYS). The fact that she was a woman stimulated the male brigade to apply all manner of strategies to push her out of office. She was replaced by a man.
Former judiciary registrar Gladys Boss Shollei had her share of the gender “violence” in the corporate suite. With allegations of corruption on her shoulder, she spiritedly defended her record against a chorus of the women-out brigade. As fate would have it, she had to go!
Then there was the riveting case of Nancy Baraza, the flamboyant lawyer who had been appointed first Deputy Chief Justice. All seemed to be going for her until one day she interacted with a low-profile female security lady called Rebecca Kerubo. Whatever happened between the two remains fuzzy, but soon Ms Baraza faced a flood of this anti-women crusade. It is argued in some circles that had it been a man who pinched Kerubo’s nose as alleged, he would have gotten away with a mere slap on the wrist.
Women constituted more than 50% of the population but make a very tiny fraction when it comes to leadership positions both in politics and organizational management. The trend is visible even in listed companies where they form a small minority on boards and in CEO positions.
According to the World Economic Forum, it would take about 80 years to achieve global gender parity in the workplaces at the current rate. That is not to say that there have been no efforts to crack the glass ceiling. Global corporations are increasingly electing more women to their boards. However, in some regions, especially Africa, the numbers still remain startlingly small.
A study done by Catalyst, an international gender and leadership research firm, found that only 19.2% of board seats in the US S&P 500 index companies were held by women. In Europe, Norway leads with 35.5% while the UK has 22.8% female representation on the FTSE 100 companies. In the Asia Pacific region, Hong Kong, with the highest number of female executives on boards, stands at 10.2% in comparison to Japan’s 3.1%. The tremendous gap in women’s leadership on a global scale is all the more acute if we focus on the CEO title as a proxy for leadership attainment. This trend is seen in the US where women hold 24 CEO positions or 4.8% of S&P 500 companies and in the UK where 5% of the FTSE 100 companies are led by female CEOs.
An analysis of the top 200 businesses on the continent by Africa Advisory Group reveals that only 2.5% of the CEOs for these companies are women. The female CEOs of ABSA Group, Remgro, Stanbic IBTC, Santam and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) are drawn from only two of the 18 countries represented on the list – namely South Africa and Nigeria. In comparison to the rest of the continent, South Africa is doing well with the highest number of female CEOs in Africa.
“In absolute terms, however, South Africa still has a merely nominal representation of female executives. Only 4.4% of CEOs across all industries are women and of the 25 largest JSE listed companies, only two have 25% or more director positions held by women,” says the group, which is based in Johannesburg.
Mrs Nicky Newton-King, the CEO of the JSE is working to change that. Ranked among the top 20 largest stock exchanges in the world, the JSE is not only led and chaired by women, but Mrs King’s Executive Committee is 72% female. Her board has also achieved gender parity with a 50-50 representation. Despite these achievements, only two women are listed on South Africa’s top 100 CEOs – Mrs King being one of them. “These numbers, when held up against the narrative of Africa Rising suggest a lack of clear incentives for ensuring inclusive advancement of women to leadership positions in corporate Africa,” says Africa Advisory Group.
Ms Sumayya is among the few women who have made it to the top in Kenya’s oil industry. She has learned to swim with the sharks and dodge their sharp bites and tail slaps. But the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) recommended she be charged with abuse of office including making fraudulent payments. In its report for the first quarter of 2015, the commission said Ms Athumani and her Supply Manager Maimuna did not follow the procurement law when importing a diesel cargo back in February 2011.
This was a warning shot, and perhaps part of the scheme to bring her down. This witch-hunting of women is scaring many from taking up high-profile assignments in government-run organisations, slowing down the narrowing of the gender divide.
Governments are now stepping in, through legislation, to accelerate the closing of gender gaps and to equalise representation in the workplace, in both emerging markets and established economies. Kenya, for example, is one of the fourteen countries worldwide and two in Africa that have passed a legislation that requires companies to meet quotas for women representation on boards, with Kenya’s quota being 33%. South Africa has also promulgated the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, which calls for 50% representation of women in decision-making positions in public and private structures.
But until the gender crusade against women is stopped, women will not sit pretty at the top.