By Ikem Okuhu
For those in the Nigerian feminism ‘industry’, this is a season to celebrate. For the first time in the history of this country, six women are holding positions as managing directors and chief executives of banks in Nigeria at the same time. It has never happened before and, as poorly travelled as I still am, my readings of many other countries, including those in the advanced world, have not unraveled where close to 20 percent of institutions in one industry are headed by women.
If this puts our country ahead of peers and, if you want to stretch it, ahead of the world, in the now famous Affirmative Action, who would begrudge us our bragging rights? We have sat on the rear seat for much too long, regressed from clearly leading positions (and fallen totally out of the log in some cases), that having something that reminds us that we still are part of a world connected to change and progress has to be boldly highlighted and loudly celebrated.
It might be sad that this development is taking place in a country where a certain governor is hinting at preventing women from driving cars for some obnoxious religious-adherence reasons; it is also not a thing of concern that a lot of our womenfolk are mistaking feminism for some vindictive matriarchal coup de grace, providing as it has, an opportunity to extract pounds of male flesh for all the years of chauvinistic dominance and testosterone supremacy. But what is important is that we have reached a significant high in exemplifying true egalitarianism, one that might positively impact industry and the wider society.
If there is any sector in the Nigerian economy that desperately needs to be shorn of its beards, with its male Alpha mentality completely unscrambled, it is the banking profession. By the way, our women didn’t begin today to take top positions in Nigerian banks. There have been trendsetters like Cecelia Ibru of defunct Oceanic Bank, Folasade Adedoyin of defunct City Express Bank, Faith Tuedor-Matthews, of former Mainstreet Bank, Sola David-Borha was CEO of Stanbic IBTC Bank, Funke Osibodu was CEO of Ecobank and later Union Bank; and Bola Adesola was CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Limited. These were strong women that worked their way up the long career ladder, breaking hard glass ceilings and did well to have started the infusion of oestrogen into the C-Suites of banks, hitherto reserved for men. But the fact is we have not had Nigerian women, in such a large number, around the same time, sitting in CEO positions.
Besides these minuscule purple dots in the big circle (apologies to President Buhari), the Nigerian banking system has always worn this dull, unsmiling masculine grey hue. Before now, the career path of women in banking had been very predictable, for those who didn’t drop by the way side by circumstances of childbirth and raising a family, the system had this institutionalized tolerance limit that, for window-dressing, permitted some female presence at senior management levels. Some banks utilized this as strong PR tools for proof of adherence to diversity, advertising them in widely circulated sustainability and annual financial reports.
But even with the cosmetic patronage, banking has always been dull, unexciting and grey. And to make it worse, bankers, as a matter of ‘looking good’, always turn out in dark, black and grey suits that often present them in undynamic rigid postures that accentuate the discomfort in their choke-hold ties. Such dress codes (I don’t know who made this rule) prescribe straight, stout faces that impel unfriendliness and impersonal countenance, and when situations permit, they paste those annoyingly insincere official smiles even when hearty laughter could have lit up their faces and their souls. I think it was the chance to enable them to loosen up and have some real fun (only once a week) that forced the introduction of the “dress-down-Friday” code.
I worked in two Nigerian banks and from my experiences, the profession is overdue for a serious freshening of its bored and beleaguered soul. The hope is that with more women rising to chief executive positions, reforms that will soften the hard, impervious nature of the workplace might somehow, through the soft, empathetic and motherly feminine touch, be introduced.
Perhaps because they are in the business of managing other people’s financial assets, bankers find themselves in a culture that prescribes Aristocratic arrogance even when many of them are living from hand to mouth. Members of the society find themselves dreaming of the fabled fat pay cheques bankers take home every month, but are ignorant of how these professionals invest their earnings in lifestyles adopted to keep them looking respectable enough to be trusted with customers’ assets. They are expected to turn out in designer suits, dine at fancy restaurants and generally live the lives of the rich and wealthy. And to sustain this lifestyle, which is mostly adopted for job protection purposes, bankers are led by an insensitive system to live a life of endless indebtedness.
Suits, cars and homes are acquitted on credit facilities conveniently made available by their employers. Loans are there for the asking and secured by the workers’ salary. So, a banker who earns N10 million per annum, for instance, might be spending as much as 50 percent of this on servicing car asset finance, mortgage and sundry other acquisitions.
For a profession that claims to help people manage their finances and encourage savings, banking drives its own workers into debt. I once worked in one that frowned at staff who didn’t take loans.
The pay day, usually on the 24th of every month, is looked forward to by bankers as if they were not such famed big earners. Before that time comes, most would have been broke. And once the salary hits the account, the institution makes its loan deductions while other post-dated cheques and sundry standing orders also arrive to eat what is left.
This is a culture our lady chief executives need to attend to – to remake the mentality of the average Nigerian banker and teach them how to not live above their means, using institutional means that clears off all staff products designed to ensure that salaries paid to workers returned to their employers as earnings and profits. This is important because, as it is often the case, women bear the brunt of the consequences of the extravagance and fake lifestyle of bankers. As wives, they and their children suffer the dislocation of a husband who loses his job without a kobo in savings. As mothers, they are the ones that get hit the most. In these days where job security has gone through the window, a softer thinking is direly needed in a profession that is known to not give the worker enough time to develop other skills that might come in handy when his job in the bank had been determined. And, as it is the case with Nigerian bankers, this happens without notice.
I also believe that with more women leading the C-Suites in the Nigerian banking ecosystem, the transactional desperation for leadership by numbers will likely give way to leadership by brand penetration. From the time the “new generation” banks invaded the sector in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a dislocating culture shift, with the new kids on the block infusing the system with a strange concept of competition and competitiveness.
Yes, it is true that these “boys” had arrived on the scene with technology that expedited the business processes and erased the “tally number” culture, replacing it with integrated banking operations, but they also unscrupulously stretched their workers to harmful lengths in the quest for deposit mobilization and other performance indicators. To remain in employment, our ladies were exposed to circumstances that compelled them to trade their bodies for customer acquisition. Who in Nigeria didn’t know that the ladies in the marketing teams of banks frequently started and, sometimes, ended their days in the arms of the nouveau riche, some of whom were old enough to be their fathers?
Banking has to be nicer than this. With new developments in technology buffeting traditional banking from every corner, presenting existential threats that might totally change the entire financial services marketplace from what we all know today, the grey nature of banking has to change. Time has come to sell value rather than size. We also desperately need to rid the industry of the personal wars that manifested in very distastefully unhealthy competition between and among various serving and former CEOs of banks. The reality of today also prescribes a shift from dominance to service, and when I say service, I mean meeting the needs of customers as much as those of the employees.
The present generation does not care how many brick-and-mortar branches your bank has, nor would they do business with you based simply on the size of your advertised balance sheet, gross earnings and profitability. On the contrary, they will be driven by the values you represent, the speed and sophistication you bring to offering personalized services and how much you can anticipate his financial services needs long before someone else arrives at his door- emphasis on “AT HIS DOOR”.
Women might help the banks to brighten up the space and present a fresh impetus in an era where everything is measured in the “now.” Therefore, as I congratulate Ireti Samuel-Ogbu (Citibank Nigeria), Tomi Somefun (Unity Bank), Nneka Onyeali-Ikpe (Fidelity Bank), Miriam Olusanya (GTBank), Yemisi Edun (FCMB), and Halima Buba (SunTrust Bank), and of course all Nigerian women, for such a significant milestone, may I remind them of the onerous task in their hands as leaders and trailblazers: Nigerian banks have to represent something different and these women must be seen to be deploying their caressing hands to make our banks no longer appear grey, dull and insensitive and also make the bankers look forward to the next day at work with delight and inspired motivation.
Ikem Okuhu, a journalist, author and brand strategist, is the CEO of BRANDish. He can be reached on + 234 8095121535 (text only) or firstname.lastname@example.org
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