On this International Women’s Day, we are celebrating three years since the inception of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development (EJS Center). We also continue to honor and celebrate former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by building on her legacy and encouraging more women to aspire to take on top leadership positions in various sectors and spheres of life. On this occasion, we spoke with Ms. Oley Dibba-Wadda, our Interim Executive Director, about this year’s International Women’s Day theme of ‘embracing equity’ with a focus on women’s leadership. We also discussed how the Amujae Initiative has shaped and impacted her leadership journey and her ambition of taking up a top government position in her native country of Gambia.
What does ‘embrace equity’ mean to you?
For me, embracing equity means, first and foremost, acknowledging and accepting that both men and women must have equal access to the opportunities that affect their lives or where they work. This also includes equal access to fair compensation for the responsibilities and obligations they assume.
I also believe that it is our responsibility to recognize that equity concerns us as individuals first and then as a collective – that, as individuals, we are entitled to access to equal pay, freedom to make decisions that affect our lives, access to opportunities, and – most importantly – being able to embrace all that from a leadership standpoint.
Embracing equity begins with oneself but also manifests itself in how we pass it on to others. This can be achieved through advocacy, awareness raising, and support for those who do not know or understand what equity means. Embracing equity is being able to sensitize those who are not aware or do not have an appreciation of how much power and control they have when it comes to decision-making – how much influence they hold to negotiate for the greater good.
Reflecting on the journey so far in terms of the sisterhood, the mentorship, and the coaching you have received from the Amujae Initiative – How has this influenced your capacity to embrace equity?
One of the benefits of being an Amujae Leader is knowing that there are so many of us going through the same struggles and that we can express ourselves and have a safe place to discuss these issues.
One thing I have learned on my leadership path is that it’s lonely at the top, especially if you want to be a politician. Apart from the feeling of loneliness, you very quickly realize that everyone is there for themselves. However, being a part of the Amujae sisterhood and having our own space to reach out to Her Excellency former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the other Amujae coaches without feeling judged changes the whole picture. The feeling of loneliness disappears, and we feel supported. In addition, you have an amazing group of women – the fellow Amujae Leaders – who have your back, and that makes it all worthwhile.
If the Amujae Initiative did not exist, it would be in our interest to create it. It is a safe space for women aspiring to positions of leadership of any kind. Knowing that they have a space and a platform where they can speak candidly is a sigh of relief for women in public leadership positions. Knowing that there’s a group of people who support you, with whom you share a common interest, and that you are not fighting or competing with one another but rather complementing each other is what makes the Amujae Initiative unique.
In addition to the support, I received through this Initiative, being named Interim Executive Director for the EJS Center was a turning point. It came at a time when I had lost everything in the process of choosing to own my power, and the Center, true to its value of lifting each other up, held my hand through the appointment. This kind of support, in my opinion, should be available to any woman who genuinely wishes to advance and who aspires to hold or contest a position of leadership.
How do you create safe spaces for women to thrive?
In my opinion, more initiatives similar to the Amujae Initiative that cater to diverse groups of women leaders and aspiring leaders should be launched. These initiatives should be distinct from the annual gatherings and forums where women come together to discuss issues, statistics, and data. They should instead focus on providing platforms where trust is the number one fundamental principle, where women can tell their stories and experiences without feeling judged.
We should be aware that different levels of involvement are required, taking into account the various needs of women at different phases of their lives and catering to those particular needs.
Support can sometimes be as simple as having a place for emotional support where you can find empathy, compassion, a listening ear, and a shoulder to cry on – which is what most women in public leadership require.
Equity begins with oneself. How can women invest in themselves and gain leadership agency?
We first have to assist women in going inward for introspection and self-reflection. They should pose the difficult questions in order to determine what works for them and what doesn’t, as well as what can be done differently in their leadership journeys. Taking stock and being courageous enough to look within and ask those tough and critical questions is very important. This is because aspiring for leadership roles requires a lot of courage, aspiring to be bold, committed, compassionate, assertive, and brave to question the status quo.
Leadership carries a certain amount of baggage, responsibility, and risk, and not everyone is prepared to accept those challenges. As a result, there is a need for more platforms like the Amujae Initiative, where you can find cheerleaders who encourage you and help you push the limits of what you can achieve and how far you can strive. This will help increase the number of women who dare to step out and be bold, knowing they have each other’s support.
How can women use their areas of influence to actively support and embrace equity?
When women commit to sharing their leadership experiences they can change people’s perception of equity.
Moreover, providing opportunities like the Amujae Initiative to women who want to pursue top leadership positions or roles will encourage more and more women to step forward and be bold in their pursuit of high-level positions. And even when they face goliaths in these positions of power, they will stay in the ring and fight the good fight for what we all want – equity.
Madam’s journey is also a perfect example of how women leaders can lift up and support other women; how, by sharing their stories and the impacts they have had on their societies or communities, they can inspire other women to make the bold decision of embarking on a leadership journey.
How can we ensure that society can embrace women as leaders and move from a culture of tokenism to one where women leaders are respected and appreciated?
This is what the EJS Center is doing through the Data Hub or what the Mo Ibrahim Foundation is doing through the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) in terms of researching and uncovering the facts and statistics on public leadership in governance in various African states.
This work is very important as it makes use of data to reveal who the African women leaders are, where they are active, and how their great work can be highlighted. It also makes it easier to reach out to them, encourage them, and let them know there are programs like the Amujae Initiative ready to support them.
Encouraging women to take on public leadership roles and assuring them that they have a network of other women leaders ready to support them will bring more and more women into leadership positions.
This means that more initiatives, such as the Amujae Initiative, are needed to meet the needs of the diverse groups of women aspiring to leadership and to making a positive impact on their countries and communities.
Legislation, data, and support initiatives can bring more women to public leadership. What more can we do to advocate and lobby for more strategic interventions that empower women to engage in public leadership?
Reaching out to men – we need more allies and more in-depth conversations to make men understand that women taking on leadership roles isn’t about competition but about providing equal access to opportunities, supporting each other, and realizing that both men and women are actors in development. It is sensitizing men that society, like a bird, needs both wings to be able to fly.
Therefore, it is critical to identify male leaders and leverage their influence to create a snowball effect of more male leaders ready to support women who want to expand their leadership ambitions. The EJS Center’s “Have Her Back” campaign is a fine example of the effort that can be done in that direction.
How can we develop the mindset and behaviors required to promote an affirming, inclusive, and equitable environment where women can flourish in positions of public leadership?
The intention and desire to support women in public leadership are present; the challenge is in bringing all of these efforts together and keeping the fire burning. There are many actors operating in silos. We, therefore, need one body that brings us together to speak with one voice as women and to make our opinions and views heard.
I believe that having an umbrella organization that brings together various organizations, institutions, initiatives, and platforms to advocate for women’s leadership in Africa will go a long way toward realizing the vision of more women breaking through the glass ceiling and barriers and taking on leadership roles in both the private and public sectors.
It entails the convener having a monitoring system that puts these coordinated efforts together to see who is out there, what are their needs, and what kind of support they require.
Finally, what is your message for International Women’s Day?
My message on this International Women’s Day is that we must remember to support women on a daily basis, not just on this day. Every single day, hour, and minute, women should celebrate one another because there is an unsung Shero out there doing incredible work that is not being celebrated or recognized.
Every day should be International Women’s Day because every day, women are making the world a safer and better place for all women, children, and men.
Let us find out who the Sheroes are in our countries and communities who are making things happen and influencing change behind the scenes. Let us bring them to the forefront, highlighting their work, and honor them.