Saturday, 2nd December 2023

‘Nigeria is way back in development when it comes to women in leadership’

By Ijeoma Thomas-Odia
02 July 2022   |   3:40 am
Añuli Aniebo Ola-Olaniyi is the Executive Director of HEIR Women Development, a social enterprise born out of the need to see more girls and young women take up leadership positions...


Añuli Aniebo Ola-Olaniyi is the Executive Director of HEIR Women Development, a social enterprise born out of the need to see more girls and young women take up leadership positions.

With a degree in Psychology (BSc) from the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria and a Masters in Human Resource Management from Middlesex University UK, she is currently studying for a Master’s degree in Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), UK.

A Leadership and Life Skills tutor at StartRite Day Secondary School Abuja and a recent author of a self-help book titled More Than Just Pretty, Ola-Olaniyi has also obtained certification courses in Gender Equality and Sustainable project; Violence against women and girls; Women’s Leadership and Decision Making; Women’s Economic Empowerment; Gender Equality in the World of Work; Gender Equality and Education and courses for women participation at Harvard University.

In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her drive and passion for grooming women in leadership.

You have a long and illustrious career, take us through your journey so far?
MY journey started by supporting my mum run her many businesses while on holiday from school. She taught my siblings and me how to be financially responsible and create legit sources of income. My dad, an exceptional father and gentleman, enabled my mum with the opportunity and excellent support to explore her business side and be financially independent. I gleaned from this learning and also saw the benefits of responsibilities, accountabilities and independence and ensured I took on work opportunities that came my way.

I have worked in varying industries and always have the mindset that there’s always something to improve upon for my journey. From my first job supporting my mum in her businesses to my first job in a financial institution in Nigeria and then my first job working with a retail chain in the UK and my first job working as a Project Management Consultant in the UK, to be an employer of labour at HEIR Women Development, my journey has been to take these opportunities, harness them, develop skills I don’t know, increase my capacity, build networks, grow intellectually and impact positivity in any corner I find myself. My career journey so far is one of self-discovery and I’m not done yet.

You are quite versatile, how are you able to hone your skills?
Versatility is a skill I encourage us all to have as we journey through life. I read a book called Who moved my cheese, by Dr Spencer Johnson and it’s about the individuality of adapting to change. Learning to adapt to change was developed with teaching from my dad. He always told me that I should see every situation as a time to do something that will increase my capacity for tomorrow. Dad somehow made me and my siblings evaluate the present by thinking from hindsight perspectives.

Honing my skills at every given opportunity while learning to adapt to that circumstance is a process I’m thankful for. It’s definitely challenging to be
knocked off your comfort zones, however, my skills for the future may not be sharpened in certain comfort zones. I also became very intentional about documenting what I don’t know and making myself accountable for knowing them. I also think that when one has identified where they are headed, aligning skills and abilities for development is inevitable.

I read books, I listen to current affairs, I watch news channels; I research global trends and even trends that aren’t necessarily intellectual. I banter with my circle of influence and listen to speakers’ autobiographies. The goal is to have something intelligent to contribute at any given opportunity.

With a background in Management and various certifications in gender, women’s economic empowerment and equity, how has it impacted your work and activities?
It’s interesting you asked this question because it falls within the ideology from my dad that goes ‘ignorance isn’t bliss and ‘knowledge and the application of it, is power’. When I began advocating for rights, I learnt experientially and observed how it was being framed, designed and advocated for in the Nigerian context. I would be at seminars, town halls, peaceful protests and discussions about women’s rights. Those became intersections of how I viewed and assimilated gender, but I knew I needed to know more beyond this knowledge production space and understand more in order to engage more. I needed to go from rhetorical conversations to implementable solutions and as a marginalised group (young women), I didn’t see representation in all of the rights targeting this audience. So, my curiosity and quest for knowledge with understanding pushed me to study more.

Learning about ideologies and concepts of gender has thoroughly added value to my engagement with issues that plague women. There’s always something to update your knowledge with and there’s no end to learning. My most recent venture back to school to study for a second master’s degree in Gender Studies is proof that my work and activities in women’s rights will still be greatly improved. Nigeria needs us.

Share with us your vision for HEIR Women Development and HEIR Women Hub, what really informed these initiatives?
The story behind HEIR Women Development was born out of the need to see more young women take on leadership and decision-making roles. I saw a documentary over four years ago on CNN about the high migration of people, including young women who were trying to secure a better place to live and provide for themselves. This documentary shows that there is little to no provision for supporting young women in getting employment that is sustainable either due to lack of it or limited employability skills. HEIR Women Development began running Employability Skills Training, CV Clinics and Leadership Skills to add her own support to alleviate poverty. If we have jobs and we have young women with the capacity to secure the roles, some may be saved from the unsafe travels they undergo. That CNN documentary showed the horrific situation those young women encounter such as rape, sold into slavery and sometimes, death.

HEIR Women Hub supports the overall mission and is working towards being the first all-women establishment that will provide training, employability opportunities and safe spaces for girls and young women and by women. We as a team join the many incredible organisations (women-led or not), to ensure that opportunities for girls and women aren’t stifled. We work towards alleviating oppressive and discriminatory policies against women and we are very keen on the girls and young women living and thriving with equal opportunities they deserve.

What is your position on women in leadership?
It depends on what you mean by this question. Let me try to give two varying responses: Women in Leadership is a very smart ideology, but the reality in Nigeria (in my context) has socialised us all to think that leaders are only men. When we run a simple experiment and ask participants to close their eyes and imagine who a leader is, oftentimes, the image they see is a man.

Now, that’s how you and I have been engineered to see and think about leadership. To change this image, we need to change the mindset and to change the mindset, masculine norms that govern how you and I relate and interact have to change for women to be seen as a norm and ideal for leadership.

Now, on my second point, I look at the numbers of women in leadership; that’s disturbingly abnormal to date in Nigeria just simply means to me that women aren’t seen as decision-makers at the echelon of affairs or the nation, but women can make decisions that influence the choice of a leader; it’s quite ironic really. The marginalisation of women is disgraceful. Do you have to wonder what exactly it is that some who aren’t supportive of women in leadership are afraid of? I mean, many countries in the West, Europe and a few in other parts of Africa, have women as Presidents, Vice Presidents, Prime Ministers and even Queens, leading exceptionally. Nigeria is way back in development when it comes to women in leadership positions. Now, why is that? Masculine norms, capitalism, oppression, and domination characterise the corridors of power. Those who benefit from marginalising women would continue unless a drastic shift occurs.

You are quite passionate about raising girls and young women to become leaders, how have you been empowering them to achieve this goal?
It’s sad that we are all socialised to be less than or mediocre. Girls and young women are oppressed and marginalised daily. There’s no sector where girls and young women aren’t belittled and given zero expectations to achieve more than societal expectations and norms. I argue that equipping girls and young women is ensuring that they occupy themselves positively, raise standards for themselves, build and achieve dreams and contribute their own quota to family and nation-building.

So yes, I will continue to advocate for this cause and I usually analyse that if (and when) the baton of leadership is to be passed on and a young woman is required, would one be ready and prepared to take on the mantle of leadership? So, we should not exclude the very important work of raising girls and young women who are intelligent, focused, full of grit and competent to lead. If not now, when?

Are you satisfied with the number of women in political positions in the country?
Even if we have a woman as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and still have abysmal numbers of women represented at federal, state and local levels, it won’t be sufficient. I understand that some mindset would say be happy that you even have one woman here and one woman there, but what is the overall goal? First thing, a woman who is in a position of authority needs to know and understand that her position is also to ensure other women are equally competent and intelligent, are raised and given positions of leadership.

Not all women and men serve the overall need of everyone. So, leaders are people who are in positions to add value and raise other leaders. The tokenism that is very much institutionalised is sickening when you listen to the reasons for such causes and such policies may not even be sustainable. I see a nation that has equal representation and not just that, representation by leaders who are selfless and accountable. I see a nation that has women included and very well represented because it’s the very smart and right thing to do. We don’t need to struggle more than we have been for decades. In Audre Lorde’s words ‘the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house’.

Your book More Than Just Pretty, what informed this thought?
Thank you for bringing this up. My book More Than Just Pretty is a self-help book documenting some stories of my growth as a girl and young woman living in Nigeria and trying to understand and navigate societal expectations and barriers. I knew all these lessons had to be told and I did tell most of them as I strongly believe in the ‘behind the scenes of a journey to inform and support others in theirs. Getting this into a book is part of my goal to live an impact-driven life and legacy. I needed to re-educate on what it means to be more than average, more than mediocre and more than the limited expectations given to us.

The title was from a need to get us all thinking differently about the framing of global standards of beauty and see that our staying power isn’t looks it’s our intelligence. I have experienced oppression just from looking this way because some people don’t expect anyone who looks like me to aspire to something more than mediocre. Some see some women as just performers and this society encourages such disposition. This book has a goal to change such narratives and talks about labels, circle of Influence, valuable character, spirituality, financial literacy, reading books, health, leadership and career, beauty standards, bucket lists and more crucial and apt topics. It’s a book that is needed today to support grounding the most important values for girls and young women to explore and hopefully imbibe.

How best can more women embrace and get involved in leadership roles while living fulfilling lives in these changing times?
Leadership roles are executed very well by women, but as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala posits in her book ‘Fighting Corruption is Dangerous. Nigeria remains a paradox when it comes to women in leadership seeing we have educated, excellent, intelligent, and exceptional women in decision-making positions, but as a country, we lack women in positions of leadership. If one finds an opportunity to serve in such roles, I will say take it and explore the role. Know why you have that opportunity and please be diligent in your delivery.

Leadership opportunities are things you can also create; lead yourself first and well. Now, it’s interesting to note that even in these changing times as you called it, leadership skills are a life skill. Even post-pandemic evaluation of skills set for the coming years, leadership as a skill; it’s a must-have. So, we all need to be thinking leadership as we work to fulfil our commitments. I am very thankful to be teaching Leadership and Life Skills to secondary school students. They get to be equipped earlier for their own bright futures by indoctrinating leadership skills from their teen years.

What do you hope to see Nigerian women do differently?
I would hope to see us all position for what we deserve. I see it in history with many women from Nigeria positioning for what they deserved. A brief example is the Women’s War of 1929. When the colonialists oppressed women further by posing a tax law on their goods, the men had agreed to undergo such harassment from the Warrant Chiefs, but the Igbo women organised to call out and refuse to be oppressed by this unkind act. This led to the change that stopped the taxation system.

Women were positioned for what they deserved and yes, there were consequences no doubt, but the goal was achieved; you, me, a girl, young woman or anyone reading this, position positively for what you deserve.

What is your life mantra?
I adopt mantras as I journey on and what I’m meditating on since the year began is from Dr Myles Munroe and I paraphrase – ‘Don’t be afraid of death, be afraid of a life devoid of living out its full potential.