Friday, 2 October 2015

Access Bank's W Initiative and the Question of Honouring Women

It is a well-documented (and these days, much-discussed) fact that those who embody the social identity of ‘woman’ are very often prescribed limiting possibilities and are perceived as having a limited ability to contribute meaningfully in the public arena. Expectations of women are generally set fairly low, and any kind of excellence we exhibit or success we achieve is dismissed, minimised or even completely erased. The systemic factors that conspire to confine women to background roles are significant and pervasive, and the result of this is a phenomenon succinctly described by the late environmentalist and Nobel Peace Laureate, Wangari Maathai: “The higher you go, the fewer women there are.”

Still, despite the historical and current exclusion of women from locations of power and the unfortunate reality that our world is generally not set up to enable women to succeed, many of us still find ways to rise to great heights. It is a deeply held belief of mine, supported by the evidence of the odds stacked against us, that women who do make it into positions of corporate, financial or political power work much harder and make more sacrifices than men in similar positions, simply because there are implicit and explicit reminders every step of the way that they do not belong there.

The above is why it is so important that the work that women do -- and the heights we aspire to and attain -- be recognised as inherently valuable; no ifs, ands or buts. Access Bank’s W Initiative seems poised to do just that. Described as having been set up “to support inclusive banking in Nigeria, so that we can support women’s growth and their progress,” the initiative aims to enable women to take advantage of opportunities in business and entrepreneurship, and its W Awards place the achievements of Nigerian women front and center.

The W Initiative first came to my attention through a video featuring prominent women in an interesting array of fields: publishing, media, paediatrics, food processing, fashion, aviation and banking. In short responses to specific questions, each speaker gives some insight into her experience with being what is considered successful. They are asked about their understanding of who a successful woman is, they mention some of the expectations that people have of successful women, and they discuss the challenges that they have had to overcome to become successful enough to be the faces of a campaign highlighting women’s achievements.

The factor that I find most powerful about the campaign video is such an obvious thing to do, that only in a world as imbalanced as ours would it happen so rarely. The interviewees -- Adesuwa Onyenokwe, Affiong Williams, Sharon Ojong, Dr. Bunmi Ode, Abimbola Jayeola and Mosun Belo-Olusoga -- speak for themselves, and it is clear that we are supposed to listen to them, take them seriously and believe them. Considering how often women are spoken about/for/over, this seemingly small decision to get individual voices to form a powerful collective is, in my opinion, the campaign’s strongest suit. It is refreshing to hear the unflinching honesty with which the questions are handled, and the women’s ownership of their stories makes it so much easier to believe that Access Bank really does mean what it says about wanting to center women.

But then, I must ask. When Access Bank says ‘women’, who exactly do they mean? There is no universal group called ‘woman’, despite how the word continues to be used to create homogenous albeit context-dependent monoliths which erase everyone who doesn’t fit into the specific identity being described. Upon visiting the campaign website,, the award categories and nomination process immediately make it apparent which women this campaign is targeted at. In describing the initiative, Access Bank states that “W is ALL about Women. Nigerian Women, Women from all over the world. Women who desire to be inspired, Women who want to be connected, Women who want to be empowered. W is about you.

I find the italicised sentence, “W is about you,” to be the most honest description of the initiative, because the ‘you’ in question is the reader, and the reader is likely to be the sort of woman featured on the website and in the video, the sort of woman who can fit neatly into categories like “young/seasoned professional’ or ‘entrepreneur of the year’. When they say ‘women’, Access Bank clearly refers to the type of woman who can easily see herself represented in the remarkable, inspiring and truly successful women in that video.

After looking at the website, I watch the video again, and I am struck by the fact that I didn’t think too deeply the first time around about the kinds of women represented in it. Of course, there is more than one ‘first’ among them; Abimbola Jayeola, a slight, restrained speaker, is the ‘first Nigerian female Helicopter Captain’, and Belo-Olusoga is Access Bank’s first female Board Chairman. Most of the interviewees look youthful. They are educated, able-bodied, and all appear to be middle-class and above. They immediately bring to mind the sort of women you would expect to see working in an Access Bank building -- as opposed to, say, depositing small sums of cash with the help of more literate bank-goers.

But what about the millions of Nigerian women who do not fit into this category? The word ‘inclusive’, used in the video by Belo-Olusoga, is bandied about a lot in our feel-good P.R. generation. I do realise that most progress happens gradually, that every process has its limitations, and that I am somewhat idealistic in my desire for the sort of change that benefits more than one small marginalised group at a time. Is it unrealistic that I had initially assumed that Access Bank had a wider range in mind when discussing inclusivity for women than the sort of woman you’d generally expect to see giving an acceptance speech at a bank-financed awards event? Probably. But then again, maybe they shouldn’t have used the words ‘Nigerian women’ so freely, because there are millions of us who look nothing like the women in the video, and are still successful in ways that are just as valid and just as worthy of recognition.

The overall impression that I have of the initiative is that it is ultimately the sort of mainstream ‘let’s focus on women’ platform that engages only with the issues faced by a very specific subset of the people who are not part of the demographic that generally runs things, i.e. able bodied, well-off men with plenty of tertiary education. And yet, I realise that perhaps it is nothing more than wishful thinking for me to imagine that Access Bank, well-intentioned though they may be, would have in its decision-making ranks the sort of anti-establishment people who strive to push the envelope more than just one slow inch at a time. Access Bank is, after all, a corporate entity. Suddenly, I am no longer miffed by the uncritical use of mostly young, conventionally attractive models on the W Initiative’s website, nor by the patriarchal framing of the slogan ‘Beauty of Brains’, or even the question “Have you ever faced professional challenges because you are a woman?”, which makes womanhood the problem, rather than blaming the existence of professional challenges on the widespread sexism/misogyny of traditional corporate spaces.

The truth is that as much as I want to see a world where every kind of woman, in every social location, is valued by default, that’s a very far off world. And Access Bank knows its target audience; you, reading this -- the sort of woman who inhabits online spaces as a matter of course and who uses words like ‘entrepreneur’ with ease, who discusses concepts like glass ceilings and the prevalence of all-male panels at work with her peers, who considers questions of work-life balance because she will likelier than not end up fitting into Access Bank’s ‘Amazon’ category. Celebrating the achievements of some women is definitely an improvement over acting as though women’s success is a non-existent phenomenon, or worse, one that exists yet isn’t worth speaking about. Access Bank cares enough to let these women speak for themselves, and that’s as good a place as any to start.

To participate in the W Awards by nominating or voting for a deserving woman, click here. This post was written on request.

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