Tips for Women Leaders in Kenya

  Sylvie Waitumbi wrote this on
October 2, 2017 | 2 Comments

In September, Duma Works powered its first ever Women in Leadership breakfast held at the Newscafe in Adlife plaza, Kilimani. The purpose of the event was to look at the issues surrounding what leadership looks like in Kenya in 2017 from a woman’s perspective, and highlight lessons that can be learnt and taught to the next generation of women leaders.

For the session, we were joined by a group of 31 women leaders in Kenya (as well as some mentees!), and 5 panelists.

The panel consisted of: Dr. Laila Macharia, Serial Entrepreneur and Board Member at Centum and Barclays KenyaWambui Kinya, Chief Strategy Officer at Andela and ThoughtWorks, Esther Ndeti, Executive Director at EAVCA, Njoki Ndegwa, Co-Founder at Life Mastery Solutions and, Joyce Mbaya-Ikiao, Entrepreneur, Trainer, Management Consultant, Author of GIBÉBÉ, and Founder of Zydii Ltd.

We’ve documented some of the key takeaways from the event for your reading pleasure. 🙂

1. Good leadership has no gender

In Kenya, there is a push for gender neutrality, from Kenyan boards to government and corporate procurement. While there are set policies in place that say that boards should consist of at least 30% of women, there is still under-representation when it comes to women at more senior levels. Furthermore, in Kenya, like most other countries, women under 30 not only earn less than their male peers, but also outperform them.

Could this be attributed to differences in leadership styles between men and women? Are men more genetically prone to become leaders?

Wambui explained that leadership and brilliance are both evenly distributed and, are gender-neutral. Wambui talked about the approach Andela takes, of measuring leadership by outputs and performance, versus credentials and pedigree. With an analytical approach to measuring the contribution of individuals, the decision about who to promote becomes less about their background, what they look like, and what gender or race they are. It becomes about results and are you able to deliver.

“Research shows there is very little difference between the way men and women lead.” – Laila Macharia

Studies find that the best leaders, both male and female, alternate between a nurturing and directive leadership style. EQ is non-negotiable.

But followers certainly make a distinction. Laila explained that researchers have consistently found that women face a double standard. It is rare that women are seen as both likeable and strong. On the one hand, women who are empathic are judged as too soft, while strong, decisive behavior is judged as “overly aggressive.” She also reminded the audience that these prejudices are not the province of men alone. The data show that institutional bias is propagated by men and women.

Laila also pointed out that that other than external barriers, women can also contribute to their lack of effectiveness. We would negotiate better and “sponsor,” not just mentor, for other aspiring female leaders. However, women should not feel entitled to help from other women, as the sponsor to put her “social capital” on the line.

“The best leaders – male and female – invest in education, experience, exposure and hold themselves to high standards, both in performance and integrity.” – Laila Macharia

What hinders women from becoming leaders in the workplace, this is a blend of external prejudices and poor negotiation skills and the “entitlement gap.”

2. Creating a Culture of Trust is a Fundamental Barrier

One of the main questions following this discussion about stepping up for other women was around the general feel in Kenya to distrust before trusting – Guilty until proven innocent.

One of the group brought up the fact that this is also reflected in major government policies, like procurement policy. While there are laws and regulations in place to allocate a certain amount of procurement budget to women-run companies, trust is such a huge barrier that many deals just go to the pals of the decision-makers.

If we already have a baseline of distrust in business-dealings, and women are less likely to put their names on the line for their female colleagues, how can we include more women in these opportunities?

This was a tougher question to handle, as it points to a macro-societal problem with many influencing factors. Quite frankly, it’s an issue that will likely take more time to solve than we would like.

That being said, many women in the group had stories about that first deal they got, and how it was a helping hand, or someone who had put in a good word for them to get their foot in the door.

If this push to promote our fellow female small business owners and entrepreneurs is successful, we can make a difference. And then, of course, it’s up to the women that are “sponsored” to make sure to follow through and deliver.

3. How to Deal with Traditional Values in Kenya

Having this conversation about women in leadership in Kenya is not a trivial point, as many of our panelists brought up.

The fact stands that Kenya is still rooted in tradition, with only a fraction of the population living in large cosmopolitan cities. Therefore, only a fraction of the population is exposed to “non-traditional” values and methods of leadership.

In Kenya, men automatically lead knowing that that is what the system has always expected i.e hunters vs. gatherers and providers.

Women are less often nurtured to be leaders because of the traditional prejudices that exist like that women are meant to mothers and dutiful preparers of tea. This creates a gap that hinders the growth of women to be strong negotiators and leaders.

A few women on the panel brought up experiences where, whilst seated at the board meeting table, they have been asked to bring tea, or assumed to be the secretary or PA for the chairman.

Many members of the group also shared experiences of being excluded from the conversation because some of the men at the table were not comfortable doing business with “someone who could be their daughter.”

How can we deal with these situations that arise in a diplomatic way?

A few suggestions were offered. Many people were of the opinion that the traditional way of doing things could be publicly acknowledged and then reframed ie.

“Yes, I could be your daughter, and so you must know how well I will perform at this project.”

Laila pointed out that prejudice is often simply a symptom of ignorance or insecurity, both of which are often linked to lack of exposure and education. Some men and women just have never encountered – or recognized – female leaders and are trapped within a limited worldview. It may be helpful for women to remember then when facing petty male chauvinism.

Laila encouraged women to not take such incidents too seriously, and focus instead on their own goals and priorities. Other people’s opinions of you are just that. A discussion followed about the limitations of individual agency in fighting institutional bias. However, it is clear that not all women have the resources or bandwidth to take on large systemic barriers and can only “bloom where they are planted.”

Lastly, one of the group added that being authentic and young are actually very attractive qualities, especially when you are trying to get people to listen to you and invest in you. It is important to ask the right questions when you are given the opportunity to. These questions should always lead to continuing conversations on how you can get the right help to growing into leaders.

“You can use your age & inexperience as a platform to ask to be mentored by someone more seasoned than you.”

4. If you want something, you need to take a seat at the table

Why is it that it is often discussed that it is so important to see someone who looks like us (women) in a leadership position? Should it only be the case that it is only once we start seeing other women in leadership that we start to realise that we too, could be a leader?

Esther said that she is “…a big believer in leading without a title,” and that “leadership begins when you become brave enough to speak when no one else wants to.” Esther discussed her career experience – first as a member of AIESEC on campus and a trained Mechanical Engineer, then as a founder of a startup that sold pork products.

“Women shouldn’t wait to be invited to sit at the table and told they are leaders, but should practice leadership whenever they can, and seize every opportunity available.”

Joyce expounded by saying that “leadership is a skill,” and like every skill, it has to be sharpened and worked on for it to become effective for good use. She discussed her experience as a graduate in Mathematics and starting her career as a Product Manager in Software, another male-dominated field. She told the group a story about an early choice she made in her career to step up and volunteer to lead an important project.

She wound up in a room with the top executives at the company, and by default became the team leader for the rest of the projects going forward. This was not because one of her superiors told her that she was appointed as the “leader,” but because she showed passion & dedication to her works. She also said it didn’t hurt that she was quite outspoken as well. 🙂

The panel concluded that the real focus should be on building leadership competencies amongst our teams – both male and female – to organically create gender-balanced companies that deliver better and more sustainable performance.

“Leadership is a scary concept. But if it’s not scary, it might not be worth it” – Wambui Kinya

5. I’m the CEO, a Board Member, an Investor, and a Mum

Why is it that many women include in their title that they are mums, while men typically don’t?

This was an interesting question posed during the session that led to a discussion of what it means, psychologically and physiologically to be a mother in the workplace.

Kenya recently passed a law requiring all companies to have a breastfeeding room in the workplace so mothers who have just given birth can express. One of our panelists shared a story about when she was a new mum, seated at a board meeting, and needed to excuse herself. That’s a difficult situation -as a woman, you already have so many questions about if you belong at the table in the first place, and then you need to excuse yourself to do something that could be taken as a distraction.

It’s hard, and that’s why our panelist concluded that she feels it’s important to introduce yourself as a mum, not just as #braggingrights (yes, you can have it all!), but also just to clue people in on your new physiological rhythms in case it comes up.

A few other panelists also mentioned that motherhood brings on new challenges in your fast-paced career, and so some women try to conceal their motherhood. Sometimes, women may even bring up the fact that they are mums to also encourage rising leaders that it’s ok to be a mum and be a leading figure in the workplace.

6. Fake it ’til you make it

Fake it ’til you make it typically isn’t a quality that comes naturally to many women.

In the corporate world, it is very tempting to get caught up in the rat race, and make sure that to constantly assert yourself as a leader, interjecting that you are very capable of handling any sort of project (even if you don’t have experience), and essentially faking it ’til you make it.

The panel discussed how women have such high standards for themselves, and never want to over-state their accomplishments. If there is anything that women do much more than men is making sure not to oversell themselves.
Women have to actively seek to change their tentative mindsets that is so ingrained in them.

Njoki told the group to embrace what makes you a woman and learn to be creative in managing career and motherhood, as well as your different approach to leadership.

“Women learning to be confident, and both trusting in and embracing their unique skills is what will change how women are viewed.” – Njoki Ndegwa

Women tend to hold themselves to incredibly high standards, and fail to acknowledge when they have in fact made it. Understanding that whilst it is important to set high goals and achieve them, it is no use not recognising when you do achieve them.

Wambui suggested that whenever you go into a negotiating room you should go in “with the privilege of a mediocre man…By doing this, you not only manage to take a seat at the table, you also manage to have your share of the meat.”

But faking it ‘til you make it shouldn’t come at the expense of not staying true to yourself.

7. Stay Authentic to Yourself

How can you stay true to yourself while also making sure to have confidence that you are capable of doing anything?

Njoki shared her story about working in the corporate world for very many years, until realizing that she wasn’t being authentic to herself and what she really wanted. She had pushed and pushed and finally realized that she wasn’t satisfied with what she was doing from 8-5 everyday.

Njoki decided to quit her job and become a life coach in order to inspire young women about living their dreams and staying true to themselves (in fact, Njoki is a mentor to one of the Duma Works team members, and that’s how we met her!).

As a life coach, Njoki said that the bulk of her work was actually around helping women understand where their passions lie and in what organization they will flourish most.

In fact, faking it ‘til you make it at a company that does not espouse your values, leadership style, or outlook on life can actually be more of a hindrance to self-development than a positive.

Njoki advised that based on her own experience, there is a fine line between faking it ‘til you make it, and being true to yourself.

Conversations with other women in leadership, mentors, and role models will be the driving factor behind understanding if you are growing in your career, or if you are stuck in the same limiting situation you started out your career in.

8. Tricks for How to Advocate for Equal Pay

When it comes to the salary question and women aspiring for roles in leadership positions women “…quickly accept less pay merely because they have at least gotten the job.”

Women often undersell or undercharge because they don’t want to look too demanding, and simply settle for less.
There were a few incredibly helpful suggestions from the group about how to deal with this issue – from both an employer and an employee perspective.

But how do we ensure that as leaders of companies, we make sure to create an environment that enables both men and women in the negotiation room?

Joyce explained that you should address equal pay by negotiating not based on what a fixed salary is but negotiating based on your qualifications and experiences.

A member of the group brought up the fact that at her company, they actually create a system that removes a lot of gender-bias when it comes to salary negotiation.

She shared that before even going into interviews, the management team set a number for what the gross salary for the position will be. There was a situation where the management interviewed a man for the role and he quoted a salary of KES 220,000, whereas the woman they interviewed quoted KES 80,000.

While the management was excited at the prospect of paying less than they had anticipated by hiring the woman, because they had agreed to a figure before even going into the interviews, the woman who they hired wound up getting a higher salary than she had quoted to start with.

These are the types of systems we can create as leaders of companies to ensure that there is no accidental discrimination during salary negotiations.

Wambui also recommended that a useful tip for women going into negotiations is to write a number down on a piece of paper in front of you. This way, the number seems much more tangible and indelible. She shared that she uses this trick when coming to the negotiation table in order to stick to her principles, despite the pressure from the other party.

9. Stamping Out Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

How can we address this issue in Kenya?

“Confront it!” was the mantra by many women in the room.

What alternative do women have for solidifying the relationship outside of golf and whiskey?

A trick Joyce uses is to giving someone a book as a token of appreciation, often about a topic they had been discussing at the meeting.

Wambui suggested that a key way to deal with this rampant problem is by implementing something called “institutional advocacy.” This is where the leadership of the company establishes anti-sexual harassment policies in the workplace and makes sure there is a clear pathway of how to report this behavior immediately.

One of the biggest challenges with implementing anti-sexual harassment policies is that it is awkward to bring up. But if there is an established and well-communicated system about how to report instances of sexual violation in the workplace, it’s much easier to bring up. Blaming the system in place versus taking the blame in the case of any backlash is always preferred.

One of the other points that came up was that there needs to be more avenues and talk about sexual harassment and training. This should happen both in the workplace with men and women, as well as for young professionals about to enter the workplace. Knowledge is power. If professionals understand their rights and how colleagues should conduct themselves, they can set their standards from day 1.

In light of this conversation, we’ve actually decided to hold a follow up training event for How to Have Difficult Conversations in the Workplace (RSVP here!), happening October 12 and is open to both men and women.

Implementing anti-sexual harassment issues in the workplace should start from a place of empathy, and that is why for this workshop, we have partnered with a non-profit called Phoenix Risen, to bring insight into empathy into the conversation.


The success of this breakfast has created the impetus needed to take these conversations to the next level. A lot of progress has already been made to create opportunities for women to be in positions of leadership. We have highlighted some of the next steps that need to be made or at least attempted towards changing the narrative about women leaders.

There is still a long way to go. Mentorship is the vital element needed to break the status-quo. It starts with the mentoring of the younger generation of women in order to get them to start thinking and acting like leaders from key stages in their lives.

That way we begin to build gender -balanced organisations that clearly out-perform those that aren’t.

Stay tuned for more events from Duma Works by following our Facebook Page or by signing up for our events listserv here.

Happy Hiring!

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