Seeing the Road Ahead: Women in the Driver’s Seat for Change
Esenam Nyador knows it’s not enough to just give women opportunities in the male-dominated taxi business. She’s instead focused on shifting the mindsets of the public, taxi companies and male drivers to build an inclusive environment in Ghana for females to thrive – not just to drive.
“Gender desegregation, that’s what we’re doing for the taxi industry,” says Esenam, one of a handful of female taxi drivers in Accra and founder of Miss Taxi Ghana.
Esenam began her pursuit to end occupational gender segregation while pursuing a master’s degree, and founded Miss Taxi Ghana as a way to ensure that more women have opportunities to become professional taxi drivers in Accra. Through workshops, Miss Taxi Ghana sensitizes male drivers to gender issues and offers evidence that female drivers can help improve customer service and safety – offering a win-win scenario for everyone.
The key, Esenam has found, is to work the sector from all angles, from the inside out, to break the stereotypes that women are unsafe drivers or are unable to understand how cars work. Partnering with the West African Transport Academy (WATA), Esenam has already helped train 73 female commercial bus drivers and 20 female truck drivers. Clients of WATA know that women behind steering wheels have fewer accidents, consume less fuel, and cause less vehicle wear and tear. Most importantly, Miss Taxi Ghana is showing that a strong transport sector depends on a diverse workforce that includes both women and men.
Esenam is one of a number of women who we recently recognized for challenging the norms that prevent women across Africa from reaching their full economic potential. Ashoka recently partnered with the Open Society Foundations and UN Women to identify women and women’s organizations modeling new approaches to tackling a very old problem – women’s exclusion in economic systems. We wanted to find organizations defying the odds to demonstrate how women could lead the change in the communities, societies and countries that would lead to lasting and permanent solutions – to “desegregate” economic opportunity for good.
We found that we have to redefine success and focus on women’s inspirational and transformative leadership styles, exemplified by their practice of empathy, approaches to conflict management, organizational awareness, and focus on uplifting women and communities in their work.
Women changemakers and organizations, like Miss Taxi Ghana, are building on these leadership styles. They expand their focus from immediate outputs like women’s entrepreneurship or job creation to also develop strategies that shift mindsets. Below are a few other lessons we’ve learned about changing the narrative of women’s economic advancement in Africa, from women leaders at the front lines.
Making a multi-level business case to tackle norms
Regina Honu, founder of Soronko Academy, entered the male-dominated tech industry right after her studies at Ghana’s Ashesi University. Her experiences of harassment and disrespect compelled her to find new avenues to normalize women’s place in the industry. Like Esenam, she recognized it was difficult for companies to employ women in a male-dominated industry like tech, and difficult for many women to want to challenge the status quo. Regina knew that companies that were resisting change needed evidence that hiring women, especially for decision-making and leadership roles, would be good for business. Families and communities were also eager to see viable livelihood options for girls that ensure safety and long-term security; she knew that she would have to show them new opportunities for women’s careers as well.
Women in Tech is Soronko’s latest program to disrupt the gender norms in the industry. She lobbies tech companies to include more women in hiring, and shows them the benefits that women with digital skills, who are able to solve actual real-world problems, can contribute to tech design and industry. As Regina says, “Women are the majority consumers in the world. They should be involved in designing the products that get consumed.”
Soronko provides women and girls with skills, and Regina takes seriously the role Soronko plays in modeling how they can enter into the industry. The team has already trained over 4,500 women and girls in eight regions in Ghana and Burkina Faso to code. From helping to develop hard skills, to convincing families and communities that coding offers real jobs and tangible benefits, Soronko is focused on challenging industry standards and breaking stereotypes. To broaden their reach, they will launch a radio program in local languages to engage the public over the career potential for women and girls in tech.
Engaging the public to create demand for change
Starting from her experience as a domestic worker, Myrtle Witbooi has been leading the International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF) in the fight for the social and economic rights of domestic workers in South Africa, and catalyzing a global movement. Women-focused organizations like Myrtle’s create demand for solutions to disrupt gender norms in public and private spaces. Her goal: to put pressure on the industry and on decision makers to change.
Domestic workers across the globe are more often than not excluded from policies and legislation that offer social protection and benefits. Because women disproportionally carry out at-home care and domestic work, it has been viewed as “women’s work.” The apparent “invisibility” of domestic jobs exacerbates the lack of rights. The IDWF has built and continues to build an international network of domestic workers, trade unions and citizen sector organizations from across 54 countries, representing more than 600,000 domestic workers – mostly women – that catalyze, connect and strengthen a range of advocates. This trans-organizational coalition builds awareness of the social and economic value of domestic work to prompt policymakers and companies to act. They demand paid leave, minimum wage and overtime protections, making sure that domestic workers are heard, valued, and no longer treated as “outside” the “real” economy. IDWF’s tireless efforts have led to critical victories for the movement, including passage of the ILO Convention C189 Decent Work for Domestic Workers.
There is also an incredible impediment to women in the public arena. Women traveling to and from work, whether walking on the street or using public transport, face the virtually constant threat of harassment, assault or rape. And the threat gets more intense for the most marginalized women.
Armed with evidence and experience, Naomi Mwaura is driving Flone Initiative in Kenya to show matatu transport sector leaders and the public that violence against women is a social, rather than a private or personal, problem. Flone is creating visibility and safety of women through an evidence-based toolkit that helps sector leaders improve the quality of service delivery to women commuters, and that encourages women to seek out jobs. They are also partnering with matatu SACCOs (Savings and Credit Co-operatives), Matatu Workers Union and other trade unions to expand consultative workshops with companies, vehicle owners and operators, and other stakeholders. Through these partnerships, Flone Initiative has already helped train 586 public transport operators on gender equality and prevention of sexual harassment, and over 200 women to become public transport operators. Flone’s message is clear: The transportation sector needs to realize the right to feel safe, and the right of freedom of movement for everyone.
These are just a few innovative women’s organizations that are challenging and changing cultural, societal and economic norms. They make their ideas simple and compelling to build coalitions and networks of allies, change mindsets and inspire others. If societies are to address the layers of disadvantage that keep women from finding decent jobs and equal pay, we would all do better to adopt their strategies in inclusive leadership, business development and mindset change.
Jennifer Vogt is Innovation Manager at Ashoka Social Financial Services.
Images provided by author.