Hypermasculine organisations and barriers to women’s career progression in Nigeria

Dr Vanessa Iwowo shares the findings from her latest research into gender inequality in the workplace in Nigeria.

Discussions around the barriers to women’s career progression are not new to the public agenda, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the unequal division of domestic labour and caring responsibilities in the home.

However, the majority of research in this area has been developed in the global north and thus overlooks the significance of specific economic, social and cultural conditions that exist in other contexts.

With my colleagues Toyin Ajibade Adisa (University of East London), Chima Mordi and Ruth Simpson (Brunel University), I sought to uncover the specific barriers facing women’s career progression in Nigeria.

Why Nigeria? Often referred to as the “giant of Africa”, the country is notable both for its economic prosperity and entrenched patriarchal values. The barriers to women advancing their careers in Nigeria could have wider implications for gender equality in the global south.

Gender inequality and Social Dominance Theory

Despite legislation which supports gender equality and Nigeria’s participation in international agreements to eliminate gender discrimination, the problem persists. Prior research into 190 Nigerian companies found that just 10.5% of board seats are held by women. In the civil service, where women account for 24% of the workforce, they hold less than 14% of overall management positions.

Examined through the lens of Social Dominance Theory (SDR), which purports that social groups are hierarchically positioned, we see how cultural ideologies and institutional discrimination work together to produce group-based inequality. A gender-based hierarchy dominates, where men are consistently favoured, gaining disproportionate positive social and material value at the expense of the subordinate group, women.

This group-based oppression is driven by systemic individual and institutional discrimination and supported by stereotypes, attitudes and beliefs which dictate the norms that govern institutions. These hierarchies are especially hard to break down as they are embedded in social systems.

Challenges to career advancement faced by women in Nigeria

Entrenched stereotypical attitudes about the role of women in Nigeria means that management and leadership are viewed as the exclusive domain of men, while women are seen to belong in the domestic sphere.

This hypermasculine context only serves to exacerbate the barriers faced by women in their careers. In interviews with 43 women working in the five major administrative capitals of Nigeria, we identified three key barriers to progression at work:

  1. Systemic and excessive male-group-based domination

Every woman that we spoke to identified a bias in recruitment and promotion decisions in their organisation, which inhibits women’s progression to more senior roles. An approach based on merit is overruled by a preference for a male candidate, regardless of capability. What is more, this bias is openly acknowledged, with the allocation of male candidates to senior roles seen as a foregone conclusion.

  1. Corruption and the exchange of favours

The vast majority of women that we spoke to (39 out of 43 interviewees) had personally encountered corruption in the workplace in the form of “godfatherism”, the practice wherein a woman is expected to exchange money or sexual favours for progression in the workplace.

The consequences of godfatherism are both devastating and wide-reaching: either a woman is cut off from career advancement, or she is coerced into a sexual relationship in order to progress. Such is the commonality of this practice, that the promotion of a woman is often associated with this exchange in the eyes of employees.

  1. Domestic responsibilities

The expectation that women will take full responsibility for domestic arrangements is entrenched from a young age, when girls are made to take on household responsibilities while boys are left to play. A few women also reported being overlooked for a university education in the family, due to the assumption that this was an unnecessary expense for them to fulfil their predetermined roles as wives and mothers.

A unique national context

Our research suggests that Nigerian women are being held back in their careers by discrimination and corruption particular to their national context, such as entrenched patriarchal values, assumptions about the role of women and ingrained cultural and religious beliefs.

While male dominance and barriers to women’s career progression are not unique to Nigeria, the way in which patriarchal structures are embedded across all systems and institutions is particular to the national context.

For example, there are some potential commonalities to be drawn between godfatherism and the western #MeToo movement. However, where corruption in the west is widely challenged, godfatherism is normalised. Indeed, it forms part of a wider cultural context in which it is seen as fundamentally “un-African” for a woman to lead.

Aside from denying women the right to self-actualization and economic independence, hypermasculine organisations which exploit and enforce entrenched gender roles are limited by a lack of diversity in the workforce. Social Dominance Theory would suggest that the way to overcome these barriers is through challenging the status quo and “mainstreaming” hierarchy-attenuating attitudes from non-dominant groups. A deeper understanding of these attitudes and how they manifest in the workplace may go some way towards challenging entrenched beliefs and practices and working towards a more equal future.

This blog is based on the paper ‘Social dominance, hypermasculinity and career barriers in Nigeria’ in Gender, Work & Organization.

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Public Engagement Awards: Dr Sophie Hope and Jenny Richards – Manual Labours: The Building as Body

This is the fourth in a series of blogs showcasing the Birkbeck 2020 Public Engagement Awards winners and highly commended participants. This project was announced the winner of the category ‘Engaged Practice’.

Manual Labours: The Building as Body is part of the long-term project Manual Labours, which explores physical and emotional relationships to work. This particular iteration took the Nottingham Contemporary as a case study and focused on the ‘(un)complaining body’ in relation to the architecture of the workplace. Research questions included:
– How do aspects of the building (storage, lighting, air, access routes) make staff feel?
– Where is the building hurting, blocked-up, suffering, sore, seeping, neglected?
– What impact does a complaining building have on a complaining body?

Since 2013, Dr Hope and Ms Richards (Independent Artist, Curator, Researcher, Partner of the Manual Labours Project) have been exploring physical and emotional relationships to work by carrying out workshops and interviews with different workforces (including cultural workers, commuters, call centre workers and complaints workers). For this phase of the research, they were invited by workers in a public cultural organisation to deliver a workshop on working conditions. At their request, they returned to work with them over a period of two years, responding to their needs to explore their workplace in a critical way. This was an iterative process where the research was driven by the content of the workshops. This collective investigations of the building became a useful reflexive and supportive space for staff to share their experiences and identify aspects of the organisation that they wanted to change. Thus, the project provided an experimental, well-needed space to reflect on the experience of work from different perspectives. The workshop format allowed people to meet from across the organisation and share experiences of their workplace, fostering conversations that otherwise were difficult to have. One of the creative outcomes of this project, the Manual and Wandering Womb Mobile Staffroom/Kitchen remain in use by the staff, and is so popular that it has its own booking system.

Dr Hope and Ms Richards’s work with the staff of the Nottingham Contemporary has also led to practical improvements to their shared kitchen, the refurbishment of the existing small staff room for invigilators and the reformatting of the open plan office. While these were cosmetic rather than structural changes they have led to improved staff communication and wellbeing. The presentation of the Health Assessment to the Board led to staff health and wellbeing becoming a standing item on the Board’s agenda. It has also been reported that there has been a changing attitude to having embedded practice-based researchers in the organisation as this was a first for the staff, demonstrating a new way of working with artist-researchers that can be taken into future work.

Birkbeck warmly congratulates Dr Hope, Jenny Richards, and the Nottingham Contemporary on their outstanding project, which was chosen as the winner in the category ‘Engaged Practice’.

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Bring in Your Parents Day: an inclusive alternative to boost employee engagement

Research by Dr Alexandra Beauregard from the Department of Organizational Psychology explores the impact of LinkedIn’s employee engagement initiative.

A child walking with her parents.

Employee-sponsored family-friendly events are designed to boost engagement and encourage retention by building family members’ identification with the organization. However, longstanding traditions such as ‘Bring Your Children to Work’ days inadvertently exclude employees without caregiving responsibilities for children.

That’s where ‘Bring in Your Parents’ (BIYP) comes in. Launched by LinkedIn in 2013, the initiative targets a segment of the workforce not usually included in family-friendly initiatives: employees from the ‘Generation Y’, ‘Millennial’ or ‘Generation Z’ generations, born after 1981. After internal conversations at LinkedIn revealed that employees struggled to explain the nature of their work to parents who were not familiar with social media, LinkedIn introduced BIYP as a means of improving older parents’ understanding of their children’s jobs.

Together with Dr Karin King at LSE, I conducted a study to evaluate the impact of BIYP on the attitudes and behavioural intentions of employees and their parents. We surveyed participating employees and their parents in six organisations in six countries, followed by in-person interviews with participating employees and phone interviews with HR managers.

Following participation in BIYP, there were statistically significant increases in employee engagement and perceived problem-solving ability. By bringing parents to the workplace and having them learn about the nature of one’s job responsibilities, employees’ enthusiasm and sense of vitality on the job were renewed. Employees also felt that their employer appreciated them and their contribution to the organization’s goals.

BIYP also improved parental understanding of their child’s job. While the new, non-traditional jobs performed by their children seemed intangible to many parents prior to participating in BIYP, they now make more sense. Employees reported that having their parents better understand their work responsibilities and pace of work enabled parents to offer more frequent and appropriate support. This was especially important for young employees who, due to the high cost of housing in some metropolitan areas, still live with their parents and see them every day after work.

Furthermore, following parents’ participation in BIYP, there were significant increases in identification with their children’s organizations and of willingness to promote their children’s organization to outsiders. Parents became brand advocates among their own peer groups and even encouraged their children to stay with the firm for longer.

By incorporating events such as BIYP into existing family-friendly events, organizations can express their support for the work-family balance of all employees, rather than just those with caregiving responsibilities for children. Participation was shown to benefit all involved: employees, their parents or other family guests, and the organization for whom they work. The development of further initiatives that support employers in demonstrating inclusion, deepening employee engagement and widening organizational engagement with a range of stakeholders beyond the employee would be a welcome next step.

The citation for this study is: Beauregard, T. A., & King, K. A. (2019). “Bring in Your Parents Day”: Building inclusion and engagement through a cross-generational family-friendly workplace initiative. Strategic HR Review, (19)1, 15-21.

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Supporting sustainable return to work

Dr Jo Yarker from the Department of Organizational Psychology shares her research into supporting employees who are returning to work following mental ill-health absence.

Around 15% of the working population suffer from common mental disorders (CMDs) such as depression, anxiety and adjustment disorder (OECD, 2014). For half of these, experience of mental ill-health will lead to a period of long-term sickness absence. In the UK alone, stress, anxiety or depression accounts for 57% of all working days lost to ill-health in 2017-2018 (HSE, 2018).

Sustainable return to work for workers with CMDs is therefore a major societal challenge in terms of scale and costs. A successful initial return to work is no guarantee for sustainable return to work, with research suggesting that approximately 19% of workers subsequently relapse and take further absence or exit the workforce (Koopmans, Bültmann, Roelen, Hoedeman, van der Klink, & Groothoff, 2011).

Relapse has significant consequences for sustaining work, with implications for employment prospects, productivity and wages (OECD, 2014). There is an urgent need to better understand how workers with CMDs can be better supported to return to, and stay in, productive work. Together with my colleague Professor Karina Nielsen from the University of Sheffield, I sought to find out how to support employees returning to work following mental ill-health absence.

Understanding the barriers to sustainable return to work

Our study was the first to our knowledge to follow workers post-return using a qualitative approach. We used the recently developed IGLOO framework in our research: examining the Individual, Group, Leader, Organisational and Overarching (IGLOO) contextual factors (Nielsen, Yarker, Munir & Bültmann, 2018) that influence workers with CMDs’ ability to remain in employment throughout working life.

We conducted interviews with 38 workers who had returned from long-term sick leave due to CMDs, the majority of whom we spoke to at multiple points following their return.  We’d originally planned to follow workers in the first months after return, however, after being contacted by workers who still experienced challenges long after return, we decided to include these too. We also spoke to twenty line managers with experience managing returning workers.

Our findings

Participants reported a number of resources, in and outside of work, that helped them stay and be productive at work.

Resources at work across the five IGLOO levels help employees stay and be productive at work:

  • Individual: Creating structure within their working day to help maintain focus and concentration.
  • Group: Gaining feedback on tasks from colleagues, help with challenging tasks and being treated as before, not as someone with a CMD.
  • Leader: Agreement of communication to colleagues, continued support and access to work adjustments, and signaling (and being) available but not intrusive.
  • Organisational: Flexible working practices and leave policies, accommodating absenteeism policies, work-focused counselling, and demonstrating care through support.
  • Overarching context: This level was not applicable as we only examined UK workplaces.

Resources at home across the five IGLOO levels help employees stay and be productive at work:

  • Individual: Prioritising self-care and the establishment of clear boundaries between work and leisure.
  • Group: Understanding and non-judgmental support from friends and family.
  • Links to services: Consistent point of contact and facilitation of links to external services and treatment.
  • Organisational: Access to work-focused counselling.
  • Overarching context: Those who were financially independent were able to make choices that better suited their needs; the majority reported the positive media attention around mental health enabled them to ask for help.

The main results of our study point to important avenues for future research and practice. Within the workplace, the findings highlight the need to:

  • Consider resources at all IGLOO levels and implement multi-level interventions.
  • Train returned workers in how to structure their day.
  • Train and support line managers, both in having difficult situations but also on how to support workers creating structure and support them manage their workload.
  • Develop more information about appropriate work adjustments that can be implemented and how these can be accessed.
  • Offer flexibility to the returning employee, in relation to work schedule, ad hoc flexibility when depleted to prevent further decline and aid recovery, and flexibility in tasks.
  • Adopt an individual approach as there is no off-shelf-style that works for all.
  • Adopt a long term approach, ensuring that employees are able to access adjustments in the months and years that follow.
  • Conduct further research to enable us to understand the contribution of these features and their synergistic effect on enabling returned employees to remain productive at work.

Outside the workplace, the findings highlight the need to:

  • Conduct further research to better model the impact of support received from friends and family, GP services and those within the voluntary sector.
  • Equip GP services with the skills and knowledge to support return to work.

We developed guidance for employees, colleagues, line managers and HR professionals to support returned workers to thrive at work. This and our full report can be found on the Affinity Health at Work website.

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