“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”                                                                   — Marianne Williamson


All over the world, people stayed up late to find out the results of the November 8 US Presidential election. At midnight on November 9 WAT, while watching CNN, I decided to go to bed assuring myself that I would wake up to the news of Hillary Clinton’s victory. Finally, a woman would lead the world’s largest economy, I thought. I woke up to a terrible blow; Hillary Clinton was losing, and losing badly. As I watched the CNN poll maps reveal Trump’s impending victory, I could not believe my eyes. Two of my Nigerian friends kept asking, “Onyinye, what does this mean?” “Can this really happen?” “What would a Trump presidency mean for America?” “What would it mean for Nigeria?” “What would it mean for Nigerians in America?” I had no answers; I stared at them dumbfounded.

Hillary’s defeat sent strong ripples across the world, particularly amongst communities of women. How did she lose? How could she lose? It had seemed the world was ready for a US President who is female. And, who better than Hillary Clinton to lead the way? Some of the men I spoke with here in Nigeria said they don’t see Hillary winning because it is not possible for a woman to lead the world’s strongest and most valuable economic power. I believe these men were deeply imbedded in patriarchal beliefs. In other words, it is not necessarily that they think Hillary is incapable, but because they cannot imagine a world being controlled by a woman. At least, that was what my taxi driver said, “How can a woman lead America? It’s not possible.” When I asked him to elaborate, he stated that the challenges of the world — in particular, terrorism — make it necessary for a strong person to be in control of the United States. “Any person that is the President of the US is the President of the world.” He continued that since 2011, the mission of terrorists (ISIS, AL Qaeda) has been to get the US, and if they get the central power (US), they have gotten the whole world. If a “weak person” leads the US, terrorists will be successful in their mission. “Being a woman, do you think [Hillary] can act like a man?!” he asked. “Can she take some drastic decisions regarding how to handle terrorists?” Trump can be the President and mess up, but because he is a man, we believe he will be stronger. “Don’t you think it’s normal; people always assume that a man is stronger than a woman. The world might accept [Hillary], but the opposition (people against the US) will have more courage to fight the country.” They might not succeed, but a woman as President makes the US more vulnerable.

As for the Nigerian women I spoke with prior to the election, they expressed excitement about the potential of having a female US president. Hillary stood out as the best woman for the job; if it had to be any woman, Hillary was the most competent for the job based on her prior experiences of leadership in and with the White House. And, they felt, it was about time that the US set the example of having a female leader (as has been done in many other countries, including Liberia and Malawi). But, the American voter, and apparently much of the world said, “No, not now.”

To get some answers and bounce back from that blow, I attended the WIN (Women’s International Networking) Conference held in Abuja from November 22-24. The theme was “Leading the Way.” I was invited by one of the speakers from Nigeria who felt I might find the event worthwhile given my interest in women’s empowerment. Founded by a Norwegian woman, Kristin Engvig, the WIN conference brings together women (and a few good men) from across the globe to “model, develop, empower and connect leaders in a feminine, authentic and global way.” At the conference, women leaders share their perspectives on careers. Participants are encouraged and inspired to share their dreams and help each other realize their potential by celebrating each person’s authentic contribution.

For the first time in its 19-year history, the WIN Conference was held in Africa, and it happened in Nigeria! Participants ranged from senior leaders, women in politics and business, managers, entrepreneurs, artists, and non-profit leaders. I was one of a handful of young next generation women in attendance.

And I was intrigued by the focus on feminine, authentic, and global. These words capture the imperative of not leaving half of the world’s population — women — behind. Those three words tell us that there is something special, important, and necessary in women’s leadership. They remind us of the need for a feminine balance in global leadership and development. The word “authentic” also suggests an uncorrupted kind of leadership. I was eager to experience a conference of this kind. I felt it was a needed event, especially after Hillary’s defeat; a reminder that women still have value, are powerful, and are indeed stronger together.

The conference opened with a cocktail networking event on the evening of November 22 where participants had their first chance to mix and mingle. It was hosted in the garden area of the four-star Sheraton Hotel; a cozy environment on an evening with just the right temperature — not too warm or cool. As one of the youngest attendees, I was uncertain how I would be received among this group of diverse and older women. Despite being an international conference, the participants were mostly from Nigeria; this is likely due to travel costs. My worries about being accepted were quickly diminished, however, when I saw the woman who invited me and she began to connect me with other women, telling them about the “exciting work” I am doing in Nigeria. The woman who invited me, Dr. Eleanor Nwadinobi, is the Manager, Women and Girls for the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme (NSRP); a programme funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and implemented by the British Council to reduce violent conflict and promote peace in Nigeria. A young man whom I met at a youth network dinner in Abuja introduced me to Dr. Nwadinobi. She immediately adopted me as a “mentee” and initiated introductions to other pioneering women in the field of girls’ health and education in Nigeria to aid my fellowship goals. Her work centers on empowering women to be peace builders and mediators in communities across Nigeria, especially those affected by violence in the states of Bayelsa, Borno, Delta, Kaduna, Kano, Plateau, Rivers and Yobe. I look forward to an in-depth interview with her in the near future.

Author with participants at the WIN Conference opening cocktail. Dr. Eleanor Nwadinobi is in African print.
Author with participants at the WIN Conference opening cocktail. Dr. Eleanor Nwadinobi is in African print.

By the end of the night, I had mingled with several remarkable women and I was quite surprised at everyone’s openness to meeting each other. I had gone to the event with a mindset that women, especially African women, find it difficult to socialize with other women for the first time; I was quite wrong. Before the night was over, attendees were asked to reflect on the question of “how are women leading the way?” This question was the backdrop for the rest of the conference.

Conference participants pose for the camera at the WIN Conference Cocktail Dinner.
Conference participants pose for the camera at the WIN Conference Cocktail Dinner.

The conference commenced on Wednesday, November 23, and the energy in the room of over 100 women (and a couple of men) for the opening session was palpable. The surprise Keynote Speaker was Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili, respected political activist and co-convener of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria. Mrs. Ezekwesili walked into the hall, almost imperceptibly, except for the noise made by the handful of people who escorted her to her seat. As she began her address, Mrs. Ezekwesili noted that she had not been prepared to offer the keynote due to very short notice. However, she had to oblige her “Tsunami” friend (one of the conveners of the conference) who asked her to be the Keynote Speaker. Mrs. Ezekwesili looked warmer in person, a contrast to the image frequently portrayed of an aggressive #BringBackOurGirls activist who is always making trouble with the Nigerian President. As she spoke, I could sense her frustration with the Nigerian government for how they have failed to create enabling environments for all citizens to thrive. She said this is the reason for the unrest and violent uprisings seen around the country.

Mrs. Ezekwesili emphasized the need for personal development for women. “It is about the development of the women before it is about the context of the environment in which they operate,” meaning that women need to be educated and nurtured to know their value and potential, to develop skills, and take on active and leadership roles in society. “It is not sufficient to make the gender argument,” she noted, “it is important to make the personal development argument for gender inclusion. We need to have conversations that say women are important resources for nation and global development, and therefore we must ensure that women have the opportunity to develop and enhance their capacities.” She was suggesting that a psychological/intellectual re-orientation is needed to develop self-esteem and a sense of worth in women. Her statements provided an intriguing challenge to the typical “men are the problem” stance as she suggested that women need to take a more proactive approach to advance gender equality. She did not deny the impact of a male-dominated society on stifling the economic growth of women. She only insisted that in addition to challenging social and infrastructural norms, equipping women internally to lead must be a priority. As she wrapped up her address, she challenged mothers/women to prepare their daughters/girls for leadership. “Let them get started in the board rooms of the home, among their siblings,” she said.

Following her speech, I asked Mrs. Ezekwesili what she thinks is holding the Nigerian woman back. Her response echoed a sentiment I had begun to feel: INSECURITY and FEAR. She responded that the resistance/barrier is coming from women themselves. Too often women do not support each other. She suggested that fearlessness has to be a core value for women. Women should step out and invest themselves in knowledge. In order to lead the way, she said, women should develop skills in mobilization and build strong character and competence. Women must also be strong- that is, they must have the capacity for leadership. Her concluding response was “build on yourselves and take away the internal barriers.” Once this is addressed in women, they become more acceptable as political leaders to both men and other women.

Keynote Speaker, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili responds to questions on the first day of the WIN Conference.
Keynote Speaker, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili responds to questions on the first day of the WIN Conference.

There were several plenary sessions, followed by breakout sessions focused on more specific and skills-based topics throughout the two days of the conference. Women shared stories of how they are leading the way by launching successful careers and businesses, despite social barriers. There was a general sentiment that African women have been brought up to feel inferior to men, and that it has not been easy for the African woman to advance socially, economically, and politically. Policies created by men, in a male dominated society, continue to be stumbling blocks to women’s successful participation. One speaker recounted her experience a few years ago as the Personal Assistant (PA) to the former Senior Special Assistant to the President of Nigeria on the Millennium Development Goals, Mrs. Amina J. Mohammed. She said that on the occasion of a particular meeting involving several stakeholders, one of the male participants noticed her in the room sitting next to Mrs. Mohammed and asked her to “serve tea” to the meeting participants. The man had assumed that this young-looking lady had no important reason to be seated in the room for the meeting other than to be the person serving tea. Mrs. Mohammed heard what the man said to her PA and told him that the PA would be the one taking notes at the meeting, and hence, she could not serve the tea. This example illustrates the lack of respect that women often encounter in patriarchal societies where women are expected to be seen and not heard; they are expected to act as domestic servants and not intellectual contributors. Another speaker shared that during her residency program as a Medical Doctor in Eastern Nigeria, it took a very long time for the security guards in the hospital facility to call her “Doctor.” They insisted on calling her “Nurse.” In fact, they felt better calling the hospital Manager who was a man “Doctor” rather than the woman who had earned the title.

Several of the speakers, like Mrs. Ezekwesili, challenged the commonly accepted belief that “the men are the problem.” They urged women to develop themselves by stepping up, stepping forward, and to keep stepping. One of the closing panelists, a Reverend Sister who works in a secondary school for girls challenged mothers to nurture strong and intelligent girls. She narrated the issues she faces at school when parents insult her because she won’t help their daughter(s) to pass an exam. She said that Nigerian women must shun the “help my children to pass” mentality in schools by teaching their children to learn. “We owe our women generation a lot of things; we must change people’s perspective on success and how to achieve success,” she concluded. Her comments revealed the elephant in the room – African women have contributed to many of the problems affecting society.

The Marianne Williamson quote at the beginning of this newsletter reflects the general ambiance of the 2016 WIN Conference. The event served as a reminder of the importance of women’s contributions to their societies and the world. Interestingly, and perhaps consciously, there was not much mention of Hillary’s defeat. Rather, in the couple of times her name was mentioned, she was highlighted as an example of the victories women have attained globally, despite the shortcomings.

Is the world ready for female leaders? The answer to this question remains knotty, it seems. In fact, another question worth asking is “in a world where women have been nurtured to be passive members of society, are women ready (and equipped) for female leadership?” The conference showed that women, particularly African women, want to engage; they want to be active participants in shaping the world they live in. However, too many of them lack the confidence and network/opportunities to help them engage meaningfully and live out their dreams. As one woman from Northern Nigeria stated when I asked her about the challenges women face in leadership, “lack of inclusion” remains a factor in the marginalization of women in Nigeria. The WIN Conference tells women they don’t need to wait to be included, but should find ways to get/be included by working on self-development, harnessing their strengths/skills, and not being afraid to show their competence. Even when an attempt fails, it can pave the way for new possibilities to emerge. Hillary and many other women have put cracks in the global glass ceiling. With more cracks, the glass ceiling will soon be shattered.

A panelist challenges mothers to nurture strong and intelligent girls.
A panelist challenges mothers to nurture strong and intelligent girls.

The following thoughts linger in my mind:

  • What will happen if women remain marginalized in areas of leadership? For example, if majority of politicians continue to be men, how will we create balanced, gender-sensitive and gender-responsive policies that will ensure progressive and sustainable global development?
  • How do we overcome the lack of resources, particularly financial resources, to help women engage more? (For example, men politicians often have more support to finance their campaigns)
  • Why is women’s leadership seen as a threat?

I look forward to finding more answers through in-depth individual interviews.