Until recently when she was nominated as the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Aishah Ahmad was the head, Consumer Banking Division at Diamond Bank. She had responsibility for strategic retail products and customer segments including consumer banking, private wealth management, direct sales agent network with a customer base of over 5 million. Her professional experience spans 20 years and includes global financial institutions such as Stanbic IBTC Bank PLC -a member of Standard Bank Group, where she was responsible for Standard Bank’s private wealth business in West Africa, Bank of New York Mellon (UK), Zenith Bank PLC and NAL Bank PLC. A member of the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA) Associations – both globally recognized programs for investment analysts and portfolio managers, Aishah holds a M.Sc. in Finance and Management from the Cranfield School of Management in the United Kingdom, an MBA with a specialization in Finance from the University of Lagos, Nigeria and a graduate degree in Accounting from the University of Abuja, Nigeria. Aishah is passionate about global investing and promoting diversity & women’s (financial) inclusion; she regularly speaks on these topics and advises on the board of several companies. She is currently the Chairperson of the Executive Council of Women in Management, Business & Public Service, WIMBIZ (www.wimbiz.org); a leading women-focused not-for-profit organization in sub-Saharan Africa.
Did you set out to break the glass ceiling? What was your vision as a young woman to get to where you are today?
The ‘glass ceiling’ question is primarily asked of many women in careers perhaps because of the very obvious low levels of female representation in senior positions as well as the barriers that women still struggle with and naturally I must respect that. Having said that in my particular situation I was not conscious of any ceilings per se. My career story has unfolded one opportunity at a time, one job role at a time, one contact at a time and what has worked over the years has been a focus on doing my very best in the current job, working hard to be indispensable to my colleagues and bosses, being open to new opportunities and creating exciting projects within that role, essentially making my current job the best to be in. I am also fortunate to have worked in organisations and with people that have offered me opportunities and challenges, allowing me to bring out the very best of my talents, natural predispositions and skills.
How has being a woman impacted on you as a professional banker?
I must say that the global finance industry is light years ahead of other sectors in terms of representation of females across board. Thus, whilst there are indeed quite a number of men working in the industry there are a significant number of woman as well, both in line positions and core business functions such as credit, compliance, finance and business development. Financial services is also arguably much further along in its own evolution. Largely driven by meritocracy, gender effects are somewhat muted in finance as what is rewarded is achievement and output; and a strong producer, whether male or female usually gets ahead. Naturally, both sexes bring different things to the table and so navigating those differences in my experience has largely been about seeking to understand the unique capabilities within the team and harnessing and channelling these for the benefit of organisational goals. Research has shown that men and women bring complimentary advantages to work contexts. Interestingly, a 2011 Harvard Business Review study revealed that women at all levels were rated higher in 12 out of 16 competencies necessary for outstanding leadership. In the rare moments where sexism has surfaced either in rhetoric or decision making, I make an effort to call it out for what it is and encourage other women to do the same. That way we ensure that we are not unwittingly perpetuating work environments where such limiting mindsets thrive.
You have a successful career and family life; how do you maintain the work-life balance?
Another interesting question which is often primarily asked of women and not men and probably an indication of the strong effect of societal/cultural expectations on views on gender parity and gender roles in the home and in the workplace. For as long as juggling a career and making those hard but necessary choices remain the pure remit of the woman, we will always make work-life balance purely a feminine issue. This is one reason why the practice of enforcing paternity leave for instance, is becoming institutionalised in the global workplace – both men & women should be given the opportunity to make these sacrifices for their careers to even out the playing field. I am glad however that a lot is changing, I see more dynamic partnerships in domestic arrangements that lead me to believe that couples are increasingly making decisions that consider the needs of both careers and the household and not necessarily basing decisions purely from expectations on the woman as the primary caregiver. As more women increase their contributions as breadwinners and increasing reliance on women in double income households, they do have a greater influence in this type of decision making.
what has worked over the years has been a focus on doing my very best in the current job, working hard to be indispensable to my colleagues and bosses
In my own situation, juggling has been first of all working in an industry and in a role that leverages my talents, aspirations, creativity and my predispositions, and thus it doesn’t feel like work and when it doesn’t feel like work you’re able to integrate your work into your lifestyle. I have found that the more adjacent the work you do is from who you are, and how you live your life on a day to day basis, the more difficult it is to manage the competing priorities and expectations of work, family and self. The availability of affordable childcare, which is very expensive in other countries – has been very useful to me as a career woman in Africa; its helped me to have care givers at home when I had to be away. Having a supportive extended family is also a potent lever. Technological advancement is also creating flexible working and family arrangements which help us balance it all; you don’t have to be physically available or in the same continent as your children to keep in touch with them, neither do you have to be physically at work to achieve your goals. Furthermore, with increasingly versatile careers – many of us will have several careers in a lifetime – sometimes at the same time! I expect things to get even better with people having more control over their schedules allowing them to regulate how much time they devote to family versus career in the course of a lifetime.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve been able to complement work with service to my community with the strong support of my bosses. The CEO of Diamond Bank, Uzoma Dozie is a renowned advocate for women; personally ensuring that critical senior leadership positions are held by women and has actively supported me in my current role as chairperson at WIMBIZ.
How do we get women into more leadership roles? What steps should we take to accelerate women development?
This is a comprehensive issue that must be tackled wholesomely. We must focus not only on women in careers, business and public service but on the conditioning we give our young children at home and in schools. We require inclusion consciousness in all aspects of public and private life: ensuring that everyone in society has equal stake and opportunity to contribute (not only women) to national development. Girls must be sent to school and told they can do, be anything they want to be and we must collectively have high expectations of both boys and girls in the home and at school.
We are currently far behind in fair representation in private and public sectors and I believe it is important for companies to deliberately seek to address this. There are hundreds of women qualified to sit on corporate boards; we must find them and give them the opportunities. The WIMBOARD initiative at WIMBIZ which seeks to increase representation on Boards includes an executive database of a list of qualified board-ready women and validates this fact. We also provide women the requisite training for board readiness in partnership with Lagos Business School and IE Business School in Madrid. Skills acquisition is a critical aspect of development as women can only contribute to nation building if they have skills to create economic value for themselves, their families and the nation as a whole. Thus programs which seek to address the education and skills gaps are highly recommended.
Finally, women themselves must be inspired to take their place in leadership. Gender parity programmes can only work if we are willing to aspire, work hard, compete and stand proud to be counted.
A lot of women work in the informal sector of the economy. Is your organisation working towards enhancing their capacity as individuals and business persons that contribute to the nation’s economic growth?
This is a key focus for us, our WIMCAP programme seeks to enhance the entrepreneurial skills of women, as this gap has been recognised as a key challenge for many small businesses many of which are run by women. If we are to get those businesses to a level where they are positioned to grow sustainably, skills acquisition and deployment has to be a key part of any impact program. Under our WIMCAP initiative we train female-owned businesses across different functional areas that are critical for business success, this year we enhanced the format to include business clinics which offered an opportunity for more focused interactions between business owners and consultants to deliver relevant interventions and also provide a platform for networking and peer to peer mentoring to stimulate these businesses. We also ensure that we infuse an entrepreneurial element to our other programs – the WIWIC campus outreach program always has a business plan competition included with an opportunity to pitch an idea and win some seed capital. Finally, our Impact Investment Competition focuses on identifying opportunities and creating opportunities across different sectors. The focus for the 2016 Competition is on turning waste to wealth and businesses in the recycling sector; three women will share N1 million towards growing their small business in this area; winners will be announced at the Annual Conference.
Who are the women from whom you derive inspiration?
I come from a long line of very accomplished women within my family who have distinguished themselves across sectors – medicine, pharmacy, accounting, business and thus I was lucky to have very early positive and visible role models of women working outside the home and making a big difference in their careers. One of my grandmothers created a distinguished career in the nursing field being one of the early recipients of an international education and I have many aunties who are doing great things in their various businesses and careers. I must credit my mother for inspiring my strong work ethic – she’s been successful at diverse careers in pharmacology, accounting and as a business woman including managing a family. The founding trustees at WIMBIZ have also been a positive influence in their many accomplishments across private and public sector. At every turn, they have distinguished themselves as women of repute and deep impact including founding WIMBIZ as their contribution to advancing the cause of women everywhere. Hillary Clinton who happens to be my ‘birthday-mate’ has been a strong influencer over the years. I admire her ability to stay focused on making an impact and my admiration for her has only been validated by her recent nomination as the US Democratic presidential candidate. It is also important that I mention that there are so many women who inspire me every day, women who are making bold choices, creating opportunities for other women. These everyday women inspire me and give me hope that we are winning the war on gender parity – a source of encouragement for me and the work we do at WIMBIZ.
This interview was first published by The Guardian under the Guardian Woman imprint on October 29, 2016.