Diversity and Inclusion is good for business and while substantial gains have been recorded in overall leadership and boardroom representation, it is no news that gender parity is still some way from being achieved globally. With continued hope for gender parity in corporate Africa, the change ultimately lies with the political and business leadership of individual countries and companies to create change and policies to balance the workforce.

In this interview, female leaders in British American Tobacco in West and Central Africa Area, (BAT WCA)- Director of External Affairs, Odiri Erewa-Meggison; Head, Marketing Activation, Kikelomo Fisayo-Okusanya; Head, External Engagement Manager, Mireille Njambon Feunou; Head of Fiscal, Trade and AIT Engagement, Ruth Owojiaye; Head, Human Resource Commercial, Buky Olukoga; Head of Security, Omobolanle Olowu; Head, Corporate Affairs, Ololade Johnson-Agiri and Controller, commercial finance, Adejumoke Peter-Adenuga, they discussed their journey in BAT WCA, experiences, challenges and insights to achieving DEI ambitions and how women in leadership help companies build better propositions and be proactive in championing simple workplace initiatives that make a difference.

‘There Are Biases Everywhere, But Do Not Let It Stick’
(ODIRI EREWA-MEGGISON, Director of External Affairs)

Could you share with us your role at BAT WCA, what are your responsibilities?
I AM a member of the West and Central Africa and the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa Leadership Teams, responsible for shaping regulatory landscape, driving sustainable corporate relations, public advocacy, and ESG strategies across West and Central Africa. Building, leading, and developing high performing teams

What does Diversity and Inclusion, mean to you?
It is often referred to as a concept for adopting and integrating the right strategies in workplace, but my take on diversity and inclusion is that it is about embracing people and recognising them for who they are, because we are all humans first before anything else.

What is your experience on gender and diversity issues amongst the different stakeholders you’ve had to manage?
Navigating through diverse stakeholders can be a challenge, because of the different cultural values, beliefs, and nuances. There are traditional stakeholders who believe women have their place and others who are more open-minded and pro gender equity/equality. Regardless of the stakeholders I engage, I find that I always need to put my best foot forward, demand and maintain my seat at the table, because no one is going to give anything to you on a platter.

As a woman, you might need to put in the extra effort, and that’s what brings the question, ‘is my best good enough? Am I ever going to be sufficient?’ No one should ever feel this way, especially in the workplace and that’s why the message of equity/equality is so important today, more than ever before.

What should be the roles of private and public stakeholders in improving access to digital tools?
The workplace is evolving. For the future of work, we must focus on establishing more diverse and inclusive settings. It includes incorporating women in emerging Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Fintech Technologies, as well as in innovation and entrepreneurship. For public stakeholders, there are several interesting ways to achieve this. I think the first would be ensuring equal access and support of women to educational opportunities.

‘There’s Need For Inclusive, Transformative Technology For A Sustainable Future’
(BUKY OLUKOGA – Head, Human Resources Commercial)
What principal approach do you implement to ensure a diverse and inclusive workforce in line with the UN SDGs goal on gender equality?
OUR dedication to advancing equal opportunity and respect for diversity is at the core of our ‘A Better Tomorrow™’ strategy. We understand how critical it is to foster an inclusive culture that respects and accepts people from all backgrounds, including gender, ethnicity, race, age, religion, and abilities to ensure that we have a diverse and inclusive workforce. We employ an extensive variety of strategies and approaches to do this, such as: Workforce Education; to raise awareness of issues related to diversity and inclusion.

We have different employee development platforms and programmes which afford employees training and educational opportunities including courses on unconscious bias, cultural competency, and gender sensitivity. We have policies and procedures in place that guarantee all employees, regardless of gender, equal opportunity. This entails establishing goals for gender diversity in our recruitment practices, supporting flexible work schedules, and offering training and development opportunities that support women in leadership positions. By fostering open communication, integrated feedback mechanism, and providing opportunities for collaboration, we promote an atmosphere of respect, empathetic understanding, and inclusivity where employees love to work.

Finally, we have put in place various mechanisms for measuring our progress against set objectives to ensure we timeously course-correct (where necessary), and continue to deliver on our commitments. Summarily, the overall goal of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on gender equality is aligned with our strategy for fostering a diverse and inclusive workforce, which will help us accomplish our corporate goals and benefit the society at large.

In line with this year’s IWD theme, do you foresee opportunities in advancing the implementation of digital technologies in the workplace and marginalised communities?
While I am aware of the amazing progress in the digital space, I believe there’s room for improvement. If women and members of marginalised populations are adequately supported in accepting and adopting technology in their respective careers and communities, I believe this would further break down the barriers to access and participate, resulting in better representation in the employment market, increased productivity, and overall improved employee experience.

‘Women Must Be Mentored, Given More Voice On Security Career Path’
(OMOBOLANLE OLOWU – Head of Security)
What do you find most interesting in your role?
THERE is so much in the corporate security spectrum; from data protection and privacy, to infrastructure security, risk and compliance, identity governance, physical security, intelligence gathering and analysis, business continuity management and more.

The security field is a groundbreaking place, with so many opportunities to make a good impact. I find working in the security sector very fulfilling and rewarding.

A female head in the security unit is rare, has this been a challenge?
You’re right, men dominate the security field hence, women must be mentored, encouraged, integrated, and given more voice and perspective on the security career path in order to close the gender gap in the security sector. It can be a challenge, but the trick is to always have the right attitude, be dedicated and consistent; and see your cup as half full.

What’s your take on ICT facilitated violence against women and girls, and how can it be addressed, especially in the work place?
Online, women are frequently intimidated, body shamed, bullied, and denigrated. This is as a result of the unfriendly atmosphere that stereotypes women in online socialisation. Using technology to profile and exploit girls and women, especially in the workplace, is still existent, and there is no excuse for misogynistic behaviour in this era. It takes away our freedom of expression and restricts women’s voices as active digital citizens.

It is important to address this by actively calling out harassment, and educating people on the issue, while enabling them to also identify the signs. We must continue to raise our voices and look out for each other.

How do you implement policies and ensure efficiency in a male dominated position?
You can have your place in different roles irrespective of the gender dominance or perceived rigidity of the role. For a millennial woman in a male-dominated field, a workplace free of gender bias can seem like a pipe dream. However, embracing your fears and putting career barriers behind is all that needs to be done to learn and grow professionally, even if it is not part of your original plan.

That’s one of the reasons I love it here at BAT; you come first, above all else. A career advise I’ll give to women in male dominated fields is to never stop learning; build a foundation of trust with colleagues who seek allies with women, because they will listen to you and help amplify your voice and opinions during meetings.

What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
Be confident in whom you are and the value you bring to the table; hone your sense of purpose and embrace the opportunity to be the change.

‘Regardless Of Your Background, You Can Be Anything You Want’
(MIREILLE NJAMBON FEUNOU – Head, External Engagement)
What are the challenges you encounter as an external engagement lead, especially at the early stage of your career?
AT the early stage of my career, there were several layers of complexity in the area of human interaction on the job, ranging from cultural difference to societal orientation and acceptability, and so on. Working with diverse personalities and talents is a stand-alone challenge; some will connect with you immediately and applaud you, while for others, it takes time to build a working relationship with you.

As I have grown in my career, I understand that to successfully manage the challenges that come with the job, you need to analyse and manage the concerns and interests of your stakeholders.

Do you believe there are gender roles that people should be taught to follow?
No, I do not and the assumption of gender-based roles and the discrimination that come with it should be entirely discouraged. When growing up, our homes are typically a place where gender roles and stereotypes begin. People experiment with who they are and unearth individual identities from their formative days.

Girls are taught to believe men are inherently smarter and more talented than women, making them less motivated to pursue ambitious careers. Whereas some progressive homes teach the importance of personhood and provide opportunities to explore any career path, teaching women to be assertive and encouraged to pursue leadership roles to thrive. I had the chance to grow up in that second category and I believe it had forged my beliefs and who I am today.

Regardless of your background, as a woman you can be anything you want and it’s our responsibility as a society, colleague, or organisation, to hold each other accountable, to accommodate the unique needs of everyone so they can fulfil their potential.

‘BAT Is Committed To Challenge Status Quo, Create Diverse And Inclusive Workplace’
(OLOLADE JOHNSON-AGIRI – Head, Corporate Affairs & Sustainability)
How easy was it to make the switch from international development to the private sector, was there a culture shock?
I WORKED with the United Nations for four years before I joined BAT WCA. I was initially worried, because I didn’t know what to expect. I had many questions about culture, way of work, respect for human rights, the people, social impact and growth. But whatever doubts I had faded away when I resumed.

It is a truly a multinational consumer goods organisation with sustainability and people at its core. My transition was easy, because of the organisation I joined and the principles they had.

What does equity mean to you, in what ways are you promoting equity in the workplace?
Equity means giving people equal opportunities and a levelled field for anyone to succeed. At BAT WCA, managers are encouraged to coach their direct reports and offer them a conducive environment to grow and succeed. For females in the workplace, there are several initiatives, including the Women-in-BAT community – a coaching and mentorship platform for women to support women and to groom and empower female leaders.

Learning platforms are made available for everyone to upskill and with the organisation’s commitment to have 45 per cent of women in management roles by 2025, BAT is committed to challenge the status quo and create a diverse and inclusive workplace.
What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

Practice Resilience as it is the quality that allows you to overcome stress and adversity and to be the best version of yourself. Be aware that you are a sum total of your decisions. What you are today was influenced by the decisions you made yesterday, and your future will be influenced by the decisions you make today.

So, be equitable in the decisions you make for yourself – think, re-evaluate, and think again, before you make your decisions. Determine what you want to be known for and start with the end in mind.

‘Gender Norms Created Barriers For Women To Thrive In Finance’
(ADEJUMOKE PETER-ADENUGA – Controller, Commercial Finance)
Tell us about your role at BAT WCA, and your career growth?
I JOINED BAT as a Management Trainee (MT) over the course the two-year programme; my rotation exposed me to work in a number of different finance subunits. Since my graduation from the MT programme, I have been working in commercial and corporate finance and building critical experiences in these areas.

In my current role, it is my job to see to it that the WCA commercial goal is achieved. Working together, the marketing and finance departments can guarantee that the business’s marketing efforts will not only be successful, but will also have a positive impact on the organisation’s bottom line.

How do you manage the department and work-life-balance considering your responsibilities?
I don’t consider it a balance, but rather integration. A few things that have helped me include setting clear objectives so that everyone is working toward a common goal both at work and at home. We are a Team for a purpose, and delegating tasks helps a lot while also enabling the team to take ownership and this demonstrates that you believe in their capabilities.

Prioritising assignments, communicating effectively, and requesting help are some of the other methods I’ve employed to efficiently manage the department and achieve work-life integration.

Finance is often a gender-stereotyped role, how challenging has it been to thrive notwithstanding?
Finance was historically a male-dominated sector, and gender norms created barriers for women to thrive. Traditionally, it had been assumed that women were less committed to their careers and lacked the same level of competence as men. It didn’t help to have these unconscious biases. More work has to be done to really integrate equity, despite major recent efforts to debunk the idea.

I had to put in a lot of time and effort to develop the necessary skills and experience I needed, find mentors who had been down the same path. Most importantly, join BAT, an organisation that has policies in place to encourage women to pursue careers in finance and foster a more inclusive workplace culture.

In what way has working at BAT helped your career trajectory?
Gaining experience in a global setting with a company like BAT is a great way to move up the corporate ladder. My experiences at BAT have helped me to mature and acquire skills such as a global perspective, cross-functional collaboration, and cultural awareness.

Also, you get to learn about new things and immerse yourself in other cultures and business methods. My career has been shaped in part by opportunities like training and growth, mentorship, and networking.

What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
I doubt it would be any new advice, but never harms to reinforce. My acronym is BPBD, but would add an ‘S’ for females. B – Believe in yourself and your abilities; P- Pursue your passions; B- Build strong networks; D- Develop your skills and S- Support other women.

‘I Disregard Gender Nuances, Stereotypes Prevalent In My Sector’
(RUTH OWOJAIYE – Head, Fiscal, Trade and AIT)
Considering the responsibility of your role, how do you manage your work-life-balance?
I LEARN and work daily to prioritise and segment both areas of my life, but it still comes with some challenges, which are not unusual. I strive to achieve work-life integration and with the support of my colleagues at work and my family, I can achieve the right balance per time.

Sometimes, the scales tip off, but that’s okay, it can’t always be perfect. There is also the need to take care of oneself, because your mental and physical health are important to deliver optimally, both at home and at work.

Fiscal and trade is often a gender-stereotyped role, how challenging has it been to thrive notwithstanding?
Yes, you are right, it is, but I’m focused on getting things done and that makes me disregard the gender nuances or stereotypes that are prevalent on the role and sector I’m in. What is important is rising above the mindset and earning my respect by showing over and over, the value I bring to the table. That’s all that really matters.

What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
Nurture your vision, seek mentorship, play to your strength and be of service always.

‘Marketing Is Making Strides In Closing Gender Gap’
(KIKELOMO FISAYO OGUNSANYA – Head, Marketing Activation)
How has the marketing sector enabled the transitioning of digital marketing with respect to diversification and inclusivity? Do you think the gender gap has been bridged?
REGARDLESS of the age, diversity and inclusion have always been at the heart of marketing (traditional or digital). Our duty as marketers is to find ways to craft the key message such that it connects with the target audience without excluding or alienating others. Marketing must go beyond its core demographic to include new prospective consumers. This is how we find and keep profitable consumers.

To reflect changing times and demographics, we’ve had to modify the communication tone to make it more contemporary. For example, many brands are now integrating a wider diversity of individuals in their advertisements, which sometimes includes launching campaigns that particularly target those who were previously excluded from mainstream advertising.

For example, Brands that have traditionally presented themselves with overt appeal to the male folk (e.g. alcoholic beverages, life insurance brokers etc), have adjusted their tone and lifestyle pictures to appeal to women as well. Whilst we are not yet there, marketing is making strides in closing the gender gap.
Do you get overwhelmed with the demands from professional and personal commitments?
Most women, in my experience, are taught to think that we must be and do everything. As a result, expectations from work and personal responsibilities might appear overwhelming at times. Prioritising and time management have been my keys to creating a secure haven for myself at times like this. I try to be honest to myself and choose what I am willing to give up for afterwards, which helps me achieve a win-win situation.

For many reasons, BAT WCA is a great fit for me, and it has been easy to advance in my career here. What I like most about BAT WCA is the culture, which allows me to be myself without having to ‘fake it till you make it’ or pretend to be someone else.

I also value the organisation’s emphasis on work-life integration, which enables me to maintain a healthy balance between my personal and professional responsibilities, and it’s no surprise the organisation has been awarded a great place to work, six consecutive times. We are definitely doing something right.

What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
Believe in yourself. If you’re a woman who aspires to be a leader, my advice is to have faith in yourself and your talents. Ask for help; some people have traveled this or a similar path before you, make them your mentors. Get a coach (who might even be your peer), build your support structure (could be a network of individuals) at home and at work so that you can focus.

We sometimes believe that we must figure things out on our own. We are better able to construct and operate with our unique framework that matches our condition when we ask for help, and only then can we become the greatest version of ourselves.

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