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Better the Balance for a Better Zambia

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As a woman CEO in the manufacturing sector, it’s been a lonely journey to say the least. When I started Java Foods, I didn’t realise how difficult it was going to be. I looked around me and most of the businesses were either multinationals or local businesses all run by MEN. At first, I thought it wasn’t an issue, after all, I was a maverick. But as months rolled on, I realized that I was in fact the odd one out.
 
I would go into meetings with my male Sales Manager and they would address him as the boss and ask me to take notes (and by the way this still happens – recently in a meeting of fellow CEOs, I was asked to take minutes…I rolled my eyes and asked my Sales Manager to do it). Or one time, I was asked what I did, to which I proudly responded, ‘I run a food company’. He then asked, “what’s the name of your restaurant?”
Or the fact that a male colleague once referred to my maternity leave as a holiday (despite the fact that he knew that I continued working from home, babe on breast et al). Should I be offended? I mean I built Java from scratch, employ 30 plus employees and grew eeZee noodles to be Zambia’s leading & most trusted instant noodle brand. Still I let these comments slide.
 
Why you ask? Because I couldn’t blame them for just re-stating the reality. The reality is that barriers still exist in Zambian society that force women and girls to remain behind or to be under represented especially in fields of manufacturing, science, technology, engineering, mathematics and design. The UN estimates that globally women only make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, for work of equal value. Despite comprising over half the population, women occupy less than 23% of parliamentary seats globally.
 
And in many countries women still suffer disproportionately from poverty, lack of education, and lack of access to health-care. Women are also severely underrepresented at senior management and leadership levels. Only 4.2% of Fortune 500 companies had a female CEO in 2016; a number that’s declining instead of improving. All the above prevents women from developing and influencing responsive innovations to achieve transformative gains for society. It is vital that women’s ideas and experiences equally influence the strategy, thinking, policy, design and implementation of innovations that shape our future society.
 
The theme for this year Women’s Day is #BalanceForBetter, with regards to the greater global push for professional and social equality. The theme’s objective is to achieve a sense of balance in companies and elsewhere, right from the grassroots level to the boardrooms. The past has seen an absence of this phenomenon, but with effort and the right direction, the objective is to achieve equality in professional and social spheres.
 
I commend Government’s efforts to appoint more women to high ranking Government roles, but they mustn’t forget to look downwards and understand why women remain under-represented in key fields or why women don’t stay the course in others, and then put together an urgent plan of action. All well and good to have a Ministry of Gender and even a public holiday, but if we are doing nothing the other 364 days a year, the stats will remain underwhelming and we would have failed our society.
 
And so, you ask what am I doing for Women’s Day (of course mindful that my actions must be more than one day of the year) in line with the 2019 #BalanceforBetter Women’s Day theme, I commit to:
 
(a) Ensure gender diversity at Java Foods (ensure women make up 40% of the workforce) and also provide support for women already employed to be promoted to key decision-making roles. Studies show that there is a strong link between gender diversity and financial performance, so this should be a no brainer for many businesses, right? Also, I commit as CEO to speak to staff, my board members and my fellow shareholders more about why this is an important issue – buy in from everyone is important so that implementation actually happens;
(b) Encourage the Companies where I am a board member to review their gender diversity policies & plans as well as to continuously monitor & evaluate them and to set SMART goals with respect to gender diversity;
(c) Commit to speak at a IWD event on an annual basis to encourage, inspire and share the reason we should be all be behind gender diversity. To quote President Obama, you cannot win if only half your team is playing
(d) To continuously tell my daughter, my nieces, all my friend’s daughters that they can be anything they want to be. We owe it to them to lay the right foundation for a better tomorrow for them. We must better the balance now in order to build a better Zambia, that is smart and innovative.
Happy International Women’s Day to all phenomenal women.
 
Katebe Monica Musonda is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Java Foods, a food processing company based in Zambia. She is a 2013 Archbiship Desmond Tutu Fellow. 
 
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Wednesday, 26 June 2019

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