Women at the top

ILRI News

Ms Jane Karuku is the Managing Director of Kenya Breweries Limited, and chairperson of the Kenya Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund Board. On 19 June 2020, she discussed how to increase the number of women in high ranking positions in a virtual presentation to over 400 staff from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

How can we increase the number of women in top positions? Ms Karuku discussed what a leader is. Someone who is able to influence people, to encourage them to meet goals and align towards those goals. Someone who can influence behaviour, command a following, someone who is transactional task-driven or transformative. Most importantly someone who can communicate well.

‘If you think about it, as women, these characteristics are just central to who we are,’ she said. ‘But unfortunately, when it comes to business, leadership in organisations, we’re not there, and that’s why we are having this conversation today.’

And yet, Ms Karuku reflected, if you look at the middle-level of an organisation, the percentage of women is quite high. It seems that as women rise up through an organisation, they get filtered out.

Why does this happen? When women reach the top, she said, they do very well. ‘We are known to be powerful agents for change,’ said Karuku, adding that women are more inclusive and bring more diverse views to the table. 

But she stated that compared to men, women do not have enough existing role models. Even our own families can bring us down. ‘Particularly in some African cultures, we are told this is not our place. This continuous discouragement throughout a woman’s life makes it less likely they will reach higher.’
Ms Karuku stressed the importance for women to achieve an excellent education, one that may need to be even better than their male peers to put them on equal footing. ‘We get judged by higher standards by our male peers. And we have to accept that, and not fight it. Don’t give anyone any room for making a different decision.’

She also urged women to be proactive in gaining education outside the classroom, through mentorship and coaching. And to open themselves up for feedback - even if that feedback is negative.

Ms Karuku said people often asked her how she works and excels in a very male-dominated industry, noting that she thinks of it as a business like any other business. ‘The reason I am working here is to provide leadership.’

‘Then, once we become leaders, we need to encourage others.’

Another problem she believes women face is self-confidence. ‘Women don’t show up, we don’t volunteer to do something, we don’t put ourselves at the risk of being promoted. We women often second guess ourselves, knowing we’ll be judged differently from men.’

'All of us can provide opportunities for women. We all have a lot of power, more than we know,' said Ms Karuku. And top leaders need women around them with equal experience as equal competitors.

To achieve a goal of 50 percent women in leadership, Ms Karuku says support from the top is a must. Family-friendly policies for men and women, flexi-time, to make it easier for women who want to raise families as well as be a leader. She said that her organisation also implemented a recruitment policy, biasing towards a higher proportion of women interviewees to try to increase diversity. They still only hire the right person for the job but ensure they have a good chance to identify women who have potential.

‘The worst you can do for gender diversity is to promote people who will struggle, but if we feel you have potential, we will take a risk with you. We will train you in a short time to make sure you are at par.’

People are still unaware of difficulties women face, Ms Karuku said, so policy and legislative changes may also be needed to drive change. 

‘People ask me, if I’m discriminated against for being a woman? I say actually no. Even if it is there I don’t see it. The other question I’m often asked is if to reach this position I have been supported by other women. I say yes, incredibly. I’ve met some fantastic women who have worked for me, who have been my colleagues, who have really supported me and I hope I have done that for them as well.’