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“At 23:56 on 23rd October 1963, Zambians rose in reverence of the Union Jack, the de facto national flag of the United Kingdom, for the last time as it lowered, signifying the end of British rule in Zambia.”

― Precious Mwansa-Chisa

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The slow rise of the female CEO

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I was borderline giddy with excitement when I set out to write this article. As a young woman in leadership, I am fortunate enough to have seen the meteoric rise of Mizinga Melu, CEO of Absa Bank Zambia Plc and Monica Musonda, CEO of Java Foods. Thus, while I assumed the rise to CEO would be fraught with challenges for anyone who would venture such an endeavour, I did not anticipate that it is such rare air for women. According to the Wall Street Journal only five percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by women.

Perhaps “in the future the will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders,” Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO).

A former leader in the women’s movement in Zambia and current deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Zambia, Dr Tamala Kambikambi cites numerous fundamental social and institutional flaws as major contributors to such disparities. “You need to think about it holistically. Let’s say 100 girls are born, by age 5, perhaps 10 of them won’t have an opportunity to go to school and that makes sense owing to the enrolment rates within the country. However, as those remaining 90 girls go through primary and secondary school they start to drop off at higher rates,” shares Dr Kambikambi. “By the time they are getting out of secondary school, factors such as teenage marriage and pregnancy come into play and those 90 girls who started school are now 40, and the higher you go the fewer females they are. Fewer girls are given an opportunity to get into tertiary education and consequently assume leadership roles,” remarks Dr. Kambikambi. Her expert opinion is corroborated by UNICEF findings of significantly lower gender parity between males and females as they advance through the Zambian education system. 

Nevertheless, the tale of the female executive is not all bleak. The last three years in Zambia have seen a rise in the number of female executives. In 2018, the Zambia Institute of Banking Financial Services Appointed Victoria Mumba as their CEO and Chileshe Mpundu Kapwepwe was elected as the Secretary-General of COMESA. In 2019, Susan M’kandawire Mulikita was appointed as CEO of Liquid Telecom Zambia, though she is no longer in the role. Similarly, 2020 has seen Dorothy Tembo appointed as the acting Executive Director of the International Trade Centre, and Mukwandi Chibesakunda as the CEO of ZANACO.

How does one get to such rare air?

While this rhetoric has been expressed numerous times, we cannot escape the fact that we need more females pursuing studies in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). “Another thing that contributes to low female representation in leadership is the subjects females pursue at a tertiary level. I see it in my university as well. There is higher male and female parity in the faculties of education, humanities, and social sciences compared to natural sciences, engineering and ICT,” Dr Kambikambi states. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal observed that while there is greater parity in management roles between males and females, roles that eventually feed into CEO and other C-level executive jobs such as leadership in finance (CFO) and operations (COO) are dominated by men leaving female executives in people management and administration less room for advancement.  Our own Zambian female CEO list showcase CVs with education in male-dominated fields, Monica Musonda (Java Foods) begun her career as a lawyer and Susan M’kandawire Mulikita (Liquid Telecom) has a masters in ICT.

Veering from institutional solutions to more personal ones, in a Lioness of Africa pieceMonica Musonda advises young women to not be afraid to start, as she shares how her business has grown and evolved over the years. “The point is that you are not going to build a factory on day one, but you can start small with what you can manage – the idea is to just start.”

Similarly, Dr Mercy Mumba an assistant professor at the University of Alabamasays females ought to prioritise having a personal strategic plan. “The problem is that most of us only think about strategic plans in association with corporations or organisations. What we forget is that those organisations are made up of people. Unfortunately, if people are not reaching their full potential within their work environments, they will not contribute to the mission and vision of the company. This is why we should all set SMART goals for ourselves and have the discipline to follow through with what we commit to achieving. Many of us have dreams and goals, but we lack the necessary discipline to follow through.”

Bordering on both personal and institutional changes, females in the workplace ought to be appreciated as they are. Organisations benefit from having a diverse leadership portfolio, especially those that serve diverse clients. Leadership teams that have a representation of both sexes are better able to capitalise on the full range of knowledge and experience of men and women. For instance, Mukwandi Chibesakunda (ZANACO) leveraged her emotional and social intelligence to rise in the cutthroat financial sector. She rose not despite being female, but because she is female. While the current situation still leaves a lot to be desired for females in leadership roles, the path carved by these female executives leaves a road map for those coming behind.

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