16 January 2014

Uganda: Men Still Rule the Boardrooms

From having a female vice-president in Dr Specioza Wandira Kazibwe to taking more girls into major universities such as Makerere, there is a sense that the Ugandan woman is scaling the heights. But despite the NRM government policy of affirmative action for women, many company management teams and boards of directors remain a preserve for men.

There are only eight locally-listed companies on the Uganda Securities Exchange. They include Dfcu, Stanbic bank, Umeme, Uganda Clays, Bank of Baroda, New Vision, National Insurance Company and British American Tobacco (BAT). Together they can only afford ten women on their respective boards.

According to Uganda's most celebrated board member, Martin Aliker, company boards are "tightly controlled socio-economic-politico organs" that are very hard to penetrate for any new faces, including the youth and women. He points out that having women on company boards would ease "board succession" for older members who typically would want out.

Aliker believes that the glaring gender gaps in Ugandan boardrooms result from "a limited pool of women, with sizeable experience in the business and corporate worlds."

Prof Maggie Kigozi, a board member of Crown Beverages Limited and BAT, acknowledges that there are very few women on boards in Uganda.

Better performance:

"It is only in the last 10 years that companies and government have recognised the additional value women bring to boards. Studies have shown that companies with women on boards and in senior management positions perform better," she says.

She recommends drastic measures to reverse this.

"I believe we will need to legislate for at least 30 per cent female members, as has been done in government. Capable, educated women are available but are not appointed. Boards need female accountants, entrepreneurs, farmers, human resource experts, investment experts like me," Kigozi told The Observer recently. "As a sportswoman I developed leadership skills and learnt teamwork. I also got networking opportunities with some of the most powerful people in the country. As an entrepreneur I met some of the most successful businessmen

and women. When I became executive director of Uganda Investment Authority I also met many senior government officials. These networks add value to any board."

Another key board member, Dr Monica Chibita, (now a member of the New Vision Group) observes: "I suppose it is related to the number of women that have had the opportunity to grow to where they are in the pool of possible candidates for boards, and there may be millions of structural/cultural factors involved here."

A former minister and current president of the Governance Council of the Institute of Corporate Governance Institute Uganda (ICGIU), Leo Kibirango, observes that historical factors are at play but he is optimistic about the future.

"Before the education policy accorded preferential scores for entry into tertiary institutions to female students, Uganda had relatively fewer women in the upper echelon of corporate management and direction.

Here we are referring to accession to board position on basis of competence and merit. The standard may not apply to family-based enterprises that dominate our private business," Kibirango observed. "Moreover the concept of incorporation is less embraced here [in Uganda] than, say, in Kenya with a long track record of political stability for corporations to thrive ... Uganda has more female owners of business on a per capita basis. As these businesses eventually graduate into the corporate league, one expects more ladies ascending to boardrooms."

And Grace Dwonga, a board member with the New Vision Group, believes the stereotype of corporate boardrooms is slowly changing to include more women.

"Currently more women are taking on executive roles and other positions of leadership in corporations, organizations," Dwonga argues. "As such, we are seeing more women in the boardrooms although it is still largely male-dominated. The barriers around organizational culture and unconscious biases still need to be dealt with."

Dwonga, also a board member at Vitafoam (U) Limited, as well as Uganda Industrial Properties Limited, believes that gender diversity on boards leads to better decision-making, better understanding and better performance. Kibirango agrees, adding that corporate boardrooms can no longer afford to remain macho clubs, where directors gather to talk shop, wine and dine while pocketing fat remunerations.

The OECD Corporate Governance Principles broke the so-called "glass ceiling" by emphasizing the need for a reasonable mix of attributes amongst them, gender and generation.

"The intention is to bring to the boardroom desired benefits from diverse knowledge and social constituencies for informed and unbiased decision-making by corporate governors," Kibirango said.

Beyond the corporate landscape, female inclusion has yielded proven benefits in the academia, politics, entertainment and, sports and lately faith-based communities. A case in point is the first female Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, who has had a distinguished career within the learned fraternity, public service, political and currently global financial and economic management.

Kibirango believes that the most noticeable impact of women directors across the board table is primarily in their natural province of prudence, hence greater risk aversion relative to males.

"Similarly, the tendency for board cliques hatching out of the "old-boys" mentality tends to be watered down at mixed gender boards, making it easier for directors to concentrate on relevant issues rather than reminiscing college days," Kibirango adds.

Affirmative action:

According to Dwonga, Uganda is already progressively promoting gender equity with affirmative action in legislative representation in Parliament, and the advancement in education at tertiary levels, and change is being achieved this way.

However, Dwonga says, women need to be encouraged more to overcome barriers and challenges that stand in our way.

"Legislation can help in this regard, but equally important is the provision of role models and availing of development opportunities, education and training to enable women gain sufficient experience, expertise and profile to effectively serve on any corporate board," she says.

Kibirango contends that the current Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity or religion. One should, therefore, consider whether or not the earlier mentioned preferential allowance for female entry to tertiary institutions provides adequate empowerment.

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