Month: March 2014

Why Western Feminists Should Aspire to African Standards

With the exception of the caveman who holds on to the belief that a woman is an inferior reflection of himself, I think it’s safe to say that we all desire gender equity.   Here in the US, there is a constant drumbeat for addressing a litany of women’s rights issues – pay gaps between men and women (who are doing the same job), the lack of females in leadership positions, the unfair (often implicit) limiting policies that punish women for having children.

equal pay

I am currently consulting with a university to help develop a diversity management course and gender diversity is one of the topics I address.  In the course of my work, I have come to learn quite a bit about this topic. Those who know me well would not necessarily peg me as a feminist; but I firmly hold on to the notion of productive feminism, and believe that every other rationally minded male should as well.

I am a husband to a very talented woman whose skill and expertise in her field is truly top notch (or Top 5%, as I like to say).  She is in a wonderful job and career at the moment and absolutely crushing it.  But we live in an age where it is entirely possible that her achievements would not be rewarded and/or recognized to the same degree that a male peer’s would.  That frustrates me.

Many women in the workplace, “Top 5%” or not, are presented with far fewer opportunities than their male counterparts for promotions and receive comparatively limited access to career-making assignments, not to mention the 77 cents they earn for every dollar their male colleagues make.  The data is out there…this is not just an opinion.  McKinsey came out with a report in 2013 showing that of the Fortune 1000 companies, close to half have one or no women on the leadership top teams.  Put another way, a pathetic 4.2% of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies are women.  This despite the fact that women have long outnumbered men in universities!!

As always, I like to look at things from a global perspective…and particularly consider the situation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In Africa and the rest of the developing world, women’s empowerment needs are far more basic – poverty levels among women are markedly higher than among men, female illiteracy rates are sometimes double that of men, access to basic elementary education for women is severely limited.  Despite these facts (and perhaps because of them), there is a laundry list of NGOs, foundations, and governmental ministries who have gender-specific mandates.  Great.  But believe it or not, in some cases Africa is more progressive than the West when it comes to gender equity.  Some amazing things have already happened and the following are a few examples.

In 2003, a group of women in Liberia directly challenged the warlord-turned-dictator Charles Taylor and managed to bring peace to a country that had been suffering through a terrible civil war.  These women helped to usher in Liberia’s and Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  One of many more we hope.  There is a wonderful documentary about the women who changed Liberia called Pray the Devil Back to Hell.


On the other side of the continent, in Rwanda, women hold 64% of the seats in the national Parliament.  Did you know Rwanda has the highest percentage of women elected to parliament…in the world! And that 4 of the top 10 countries in terms of female participation in government are African countries?  The US ranks 83rd…right above the United Arab Emirates.  And oh, by the way, Africa now has its second female head of state – Joyce Banda of Malawi.

It is truly exciting to see other African women rise to prominence:

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

  • Aminata Toure, the football-playing “Iron Lady” was recently appointed as the Prime Minister of Senegal.  She was responsible for bringing down the corrupt son of the former president of Senegal.


  • Acting President Catherine Samba-Panza of the war-torn Central African Republic interestingly finds herself in a similar position to President Johnson-Sirleaf by inheriting a colossal mess and trying to change a nation.


Just a few examples, albeit all in the public sector but there are many more in other fields that I will write about later.

These women and the progress they represent are not free of skepticism and criticism.  But progress, even messy progress, is progress.  I am a strong believer in the transformative power that women in leadership can have in Africa.  Whether Africa or Asia or the US or anywhere else, the notion (as confirmed by historical and current statistics) that leadership positions should be held by men is totally ridiculous.  In fact, this study published on the Harvard Business Review site states that women are better leaders than men.

Look, it’s silly to argue one point or the other.  Leadership, whether by nature or nurture, is a quality equally likely to be possessed by men and women…we just need to work on making the numbers reflect this…in Rwanda, Senegal, the CAR, the US, all over the world.

Here in the US, Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s COO) came up with a “manifesto” to encourage women to compete and thrive in leadership positions by taking a seat at the table.   Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead got a lot of attention when it first came out.sandberg

Then several people started to point to the unrealistic and intensely difficult position Lean In’s encouragements place women.  Articles titled “Why I Won’t Lean In”, “Lean In, Trickle Down: The False Promise of Sheryl Sandberg’s Theory of Change”, or my favorite, “Recline! Why ‘leaning in’ is Killing Us” all seem to point to Sandberg’s tone deafness about the struggles of average women in corporate America.

I would only say this: Sandberg and other prominent Western feminists do not have a monopoly on the “women empowerment” market.  Although you would think they do by the way productive feminism is addressed in mainstream media – always a result of Western progressiveness, available for implementation in less progressive cultures of the world.

This unspoken bias and perception of Africa’s backwardness on gender issues needs some correction.  As mentioned earlier, there are certainly some basic hurdles to women’s rights that countries like the US have long ago navigated while Africa continues to struggle with today.  Nevertheless the truly remarkable achievements made by women throughout the continent can and should be models and inspirations for women right here in the US.  The Ellen Johnson Sirleafs of Africa would politely nod and applaud the “Lean In” movement in the West; but the reality is Western feminism is not entirely applicable within the myriad cultures of Africa.  Influential African women leaders have had to chart a totally new course in a uniquely inhospitable environment.

African feminists are not byproducts of Western influence…they are pioneers on a world stage, who in the course of overcoming difficult circumstances, are quietly building the collective confidence of Africa’s daughters.

Can we not expand and say they are helping to inspire women everywhere?

I believe so.

East Africans Overcoming Racial Bias in Hollywood

Last week, the big news in Hollywood revolved around the recent Academy Awards, and particularly, Lupita Nyong’o’s historic Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress in her role in the movie 12 Years a Slave.


In Hollywood, anytime a non-white person wins an award as prestigious as an Oscar, it’s big news.  For all its activism, progressiveness, portrayal of racial harmony, and general liberal façade, Hollywood has historically not been favorable for the image and careers of black people (American or otherwise).  Which is why Lupita’s win is a big deal and she made a point of addressing the racial implications of her recent success in a speech at the Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon hosted by Essence Magazine.   In case you haven’t heard, Lupita is black…and African at that.  Kenyan.

There is inherent racial bias Hollywood.  This is not news and many have pointed to the exclusion, marginalization, and negative typecasting of black actors for a long time.  And the criticism is not exclusive to Hollywood’s impact on black actors.   Movies made about black figures just can’t seem to make it unless they have white characters in the lead roles.   This is a problem that even non-minority fixtures of the industry, like Star Wars director George Lucas, have spoken up about.  Read this article on his struggles to get the all-black cast Red Tails picked up by major Hollywood producers.

So, against this backdrop, a black woman from East Africa wins an Oscar and it’s a huge story because Hollywood doesn’t typically bestow this type of honor on a black actor…let alone one from Africa.

I am very proud of what Lupita has accomplished.

But, there is another East African I am immensely proud of in Hollywood…Barkhad Abdi.



Barkhad, another East African, came out of nowhere to star in and get nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Captain Phillips.

The biographies of Barkhad and Lupita could not be more divergent.  Lupita comes from a well-to-do Kenyan family, lived an interesting life around the world, and received a top-notch education at Yale University.  Barkhad was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, fled his country during the turmoil of the ‘90s, and immigrated to the US as a refugee.  It has been reported that despite his movie’s success, Barkhad has been financially struggling and relying on the kindness of friends to get by.

Two lives experienced on opposite tracks.  Yet they are both now tasting the fruits of their thespian labor.

Will we see Lupita or Barkhad as lead roles portraying compelling characters with amazing stories like their own?  Will there come a time in Hollywood when actors of their backgrounds can assume prominent roles in films that do not have any racial or cultural underpinnings?  I hope so.

As an East African, I applaud both of them for their success thus far. As an American, I cheer when doors open and the American dream is realized by anyone with a dream and determination.

I grew up watching movies about real-life black heroes that were told as if their accomplishments were inextricably linked to the generosity of white people.  Think Cry Freedom and the telling of Steve Biko’s life.  Personally, I simply refuse to watch movies like Invictus or The Blind Side.  Even though these types of movies are still getting produced and promoted, I am actually optimistic about change. I think we are inching our way to a Hollywood willing to tell the story of a Lupita or a Barkhad without having to adorn their character with a “White Savior”.

Is the African “Opportunity” for Africans, or for Everyone Else?

Last week, I gave a lecture at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business (Atlanta, Georgia) entitled “Miracle or Mirage: Defining the African ‘Opportunity’”.  I spent some time discussing the various economic indicators that speak to the remarkable growth over the past two decades as well as the wonderful opportunities that exist in Africa today.  The main point of the presentation was that, when it comes to Africa, neither the blind optimist nor the doom-and-gloom commentator has correctly defined Africa as we know it today.  Rather, the true meaning of Africa lies somewhere in between these two narratives.


There is desperation and misery the likes of which most people here in the US have never seen.  But on the other side…optimism and startling affluence abound. The contrast of poverty and wealth, in close proximity, is jarring.  It takes a little getting used to…at first.  But then, it becomes part of the natural landscape.

We observe this dichotomy; it registers in our minds; we pay it homage with our words.  But we are consumed with our daily affairs and it all fades to the background.  I do this.  You do this.  We all do this, day-in and day-out.

Whenever I travel to Africa, the first few days in whatever city I am in are always bitter-sweet.  I enjoy the local fare – nyama choma and ugali in Dar es Salaam or yebeg tibs in Addis Ababa.  The music is everywhere. Youssou N’Dour, Oliver Mtukudzi, Lucky Dube, or Ali Farka Toure sound off from a taxi or hole-in-the-wall joint.  I feel at home. It’s a beautiful thing.  But the fact that it is not all beautiful bothers me.  Sometimes I question the optimism surrounding Africa.  I hear about the African middle class and the continent’s growth spurt, but the reality on the ground draws my attention to the sad irony.

Where is the African middle class?

There is significant confusion regarding its true size, in population numbers.  Nevertheless, consumer spending continues to rise.  Global brands criss-cross the continent to access this consumer market.  But talk to anyone on the ground and they will tell you a variation of this story – one that points at the ever-widening gap in incomes.  They will point to the fact that those who spend discretionary income do so from a perch of vulnerability – desperately trying to buy into (pun intended) the dream of economic prosperity.  Of course, the fact that there are more people who have discretionary income is a sign of progress.  Everything else, one can argue, is the noise that makes the whole matter “messy”.

But are we trading in real progress for messy progress?  Are we settling for mediocrity?

We congratulate ourselves for the messy progress, often times failing to grapple with the long-term impact of the sustained dichotomy that is African society today.

As consumerism grows and the gap between the rich and poor with it, how will the stability profile of African nations change?  Mass unrest, on the scale of what is going on in Turkey, Brazil, Thailand and other emerging markets, middleclass protestif it were to happen in Africa, would significantly shake some political establishments already tenuous and lead to more chaos.

Or, maybe, the better question is: how can African nations leverage consumer spending power (expected to reach $1 trillion by 2020) to the benefit all of their citizens, and not just the consuming few?  How can African nations, as richly endowed as they are, become price makers and not just price takers?

I believe part of the answer to this is in shifting the narrative about Africa’s “opportunity” away from the perspective of the outside investor to a more internal and sustainable discussion about how the growth of the middle class can have a far-reaching influence on poverty reduction, good governance, and geopolitical stability in Africa.

Make no mistake, Africa is heading in the right direction.  With stronger regional ties, cohesive societies demanding government accountability, and beneficial partnerships between the private and public sectors, we will start to witness the African “opportunity” materializing for Africans.