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Breaking Barriers: Female Leaders at British American Tobacco Share Insights on Infiltrating Traditional Gender-Based Roles

By British American Tobacco(in the West and Central Africa area)

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Diversity and Inclusion are good for business and while substantial gains have been recorded in overall leadership and boardroom representation, it is no news that gender parity is still some way from being achieved globally.

The World Economic Forum attributes this to multi-layered and compounding crises including the rising cost of living, the climate emergency and large-scale conflict and displacement; while in the corporate world are societal expectations, employer policies, the legal environment and the availability of care infrastructure.

With continued hope for gender parity in Corporate Africa, the change ultimately lies with the political and business leadership of individual countries and companies to create change and policies to balance the workforce.

In this interview, the female leaders in British American Tobacco in the West and Central Africa area, (BAT WCA);

Odiri Erewa Meggison (Director of External Affairs),
Kikelomo Fisayo-Okusanya (Head, Marketing Activation),
Mireille Njambon Feunou (Head, External Engagement Manager),
Ruth Owojiaye (Head of Fiscal, Trade & AIT Engagement),
Buky Olukoga (Head, Human Resource Commercial),
Omobolanle Olowu (Head of Security),
Ololade Johnson-Agiri (Head, Corporate Affairs),
Adejumoke Peter-Adenuga (Controller, commercial finance), discuss their journey in BAT WCA, their experiences, challenges and insights to achieving DEI ambitions.

They also share how women in leadership help companies build better propositions and be proactive in championing simple workplace initiatives that make a difference.

1. Odiri Erewa-Meggison

Q: Let’s get to know you.

A: My name is Odiri Erewa-Meggison and I am the Director of External Affairs at British American Tobacco West and Central Africa.

Q: Tell us about your role at BAT WCA

A: I am a member of the West and Central Africa, the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa Leadership Teams, responsible for shaping the Regulatory landscape, driving sustainable Corporate Relations, Public Advocacy, and ESG strategies across West and Central Africa.  Building, leading, and developing high-performing teams, we are celebrating International Women’s Day.

Q: What do Diversity and Inclusion, mean to you?

A: It is often referred to as a concept for adopting and integrating the right strategies in the workplace but my take on diversity and inclusion is that it is about embracing people and recognizing them for who they are because we are all humans first before anything else.

Q: The economic ecosystem in Nigeria leaves manufacturing with complex stakeholder segmentations. What’s your experience on gender and diversity issues amongst the different stakeholders you’ve had to manage?

A: Navigating through diverse stakeholders can be a challenge because of the different cultural values, beliefs, and nuances. There are traditional stakeholders who believe women have their place and others who are more open-minded and pro-gender equity/equality.

Regardless of the stakeholders I engage, I find that I always need to put my best foot forward, demand and maintain my seat at the table because no one is going to give anything to you on a platter.

As a woman, you might need to put in the extra effort, and that’s what brings the question, “is my best good enough” “am I ever going to be sufficient”? No one should ever feel this way, especially in the workplace and that’s why the message of equity/equality is so important today, more than ever before.

Q: What should be the roles of private and public stakeholders in improving access to digital tools?

A: The workplace is evolving. For the future to work, we must focus on establishing more diverse and inclusive settings. It includes incorporating women in emerging Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Fintech Technologies, as well as in innovation and

For public stakeholders, there are several interesting ways to achieve this. I think the first would be ensuring equal access and support of women to educational opportunities.

The 2022 Global Gender Gap Report states that women continue to outnumber males in education, health and welfare degree courses while being underrepresented in the Sciences, Technologies, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) sectors.

The gender disparity is especially noticeable in two areas. Taking all graduates into consideration, the percentage of female graduates in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) is about 1.7%, compared to 8.2% of male graduates.

In Engineering and Manufacturing, males outnumber women by 24.6% to 6.6%. There’s already gender disparity on this level and it will eventually reflect in the workplace. There’s no better time than now, to raise awareness of the need to increase
women’s participation in these sectors so that in the future they are not restricted to gender-stereotyped roles.

Q: Being a Woman in Leadership, how did you move up the ranks?

A: Becoming who I am today and getting to this stage of my career, has been remarkable but with its own challenges. There are several things that inspired my growth. Growing up, I was surrounded by boys. I joined them in jumping hoops, playing games and biking.

I got injured almost every time but at no point did I ever feel inadequate because I was a girl. I grew up bold, believing I can be and do anything. It is this mindset that has helped me overcome workplace biases, and challenges I have faced in my career growth.

There are biases everywhere, but do not let them stick. You are not defined by what other people think. Step into your own and believe in your #uniqueness. I also could not have grown in my career without the conducive work culture at BAT, the various career opportunities, and the Women in BAT Community.

Q: What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

A: Support your colleagues and reduce criticism. The greatest barrier to the success of emerging female leaders is competition, criticism, and negativity from other women.

It’s time we support each other more. When you see another woman succeeding, cheer her on! She’s paving the way for you and future women to climb the ladder. So offer her your hand, your applause, and your generosity.

It is also very important to have a work-life balance. Time with family is equally important. As we climb our respective ladders, we must ensure the home front is given adequate attention as well. A happy home gives room for a woman to fly and break the glass ceiling at work uninhibited.

2. Buky Olukoga- Head, Human Resources Commercial

Q: As the Head of Human Resources – commercial, what strategy/principal approach do you implement to ensure a diverse and inclusive workforce in line with the UN SDGs goal on gender equality?

A: Our dedication to advancing equal opportunity and respect for diversity is at the core of our A Better Tomorrow strategy. We understand how critical it is to foster an inclusive culture that respects and accepts people from all backgrounds, including gender, ethnicity, race, age, religion, and abilities to ensure that we have a diverse and inclusive workforce.

We employ an extensive variety of strategies and approaches to do this, such as;

Workforce Education to raise awareness of issues related to diversity and inclusion, we have different employee development platforms and programs which afford employees training and educational opportunities including courses on unconscious bias, cultural competency, and gender sensitivity.

Promoting Gender Equality: We have policies and procedures in place that guarantee all employees, regardless of gender, equal opportunity. This entails establishing goals for gender diversity in our recruitment practices, supporting flexible work schedules, and offering training and development opportunities that support women in leadership positions.

Creation of an inclusive culture: By fostering open communication, integrated feedback mechanism, and providing opportunities for collaboration, we promote an atmosphere of respect, empathetic understanding, and inclusivity where employees love to work. Finally, we have put in place various mechanisms for measuring our progress against set objectives to ensure we course-correct (where necessary), and continue to deliver on our commitments.

Summarily, the overall goal of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on gender equality is aligned with our strategy for fostering a diverse and inclusive workforce which will help us accomplish our corporate goals and benefit society at large.

Q: In line with this year’s IWD theme do you foresee opportunities in advancing the implementation of digital technologies in the workplace and marginalized communities?

A: While I am aware of the amazing progress in the digital space, I believe there is still room for improvement. If women and members of marginalized populations are adequately supported in accepting and adopting technology in their respective careers and communities, I believe this would further break down the barriers to access and participation, resulting in better representation in the employment market, increased productivity, and overall improved employee experience.

Furthermore, digital solutions like communication and collaboration platforms can encourage more open and inclusive workplace cultures and can further close the gap in gender and other disparities.

As a result, the need for inclusive and transformative technology as well as digital education is essential for a sustainable future because they present enormous opportunities for addressing the humanitarian and developmental issues that must be resolved in order to realize the UN SDG agenda for 2030. I am keen to discover how these technologies might contribute to a more inclusive and equitable future for all.

Q: What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

A: Be confident and assertive in pursuing your goals and aspirations, and do not hesitate to communicate them clearly. It is important to believe in yourself and your abilities and to be willing to take risks and challenge the status quo.

Identify mentors and coaches who can offer advice and encouragement as you navigate your career. The opportunity to build good relationships, gain new perspectives, and discover opportunities for growth and development is priceless.

Most importantly, take care of yourself. You can only deliver optimally if you are in good physical and mental health. So, prioritize your well-being by taking breaks, exercising, spending time with family and friends, building a support community, and having a good sustainably healthy lifestyle.

3. Omobolanle Olowu – Head of Security

Q: Can we get to know you and what you find most interesting in your job?

A: I am the Head of Security at BAT WCA. There is so much in the corporate security spectrum; from data protection and privacy to infrastructure security, risk and compliance, identity governance, physical security, intelligence gathering and analysis, business continuity management and more.

A security field is a ground-breaking place, with so many opportunities to make a good impact. I find working in the security sector very fulfilling and rewarding.

Q: A Female Leader in Security is rare, has this been a challenge?

A: You’re right, the security field is dominated by men, women must be mentored, encouraged, integrated, and given more voice and perspective on the security career path in order to close the gender gap in the security sector.

It can be a challenge but the trick is to always have the right attitude, be dedicated and consistent; and see your cup as half full.

Q: What’s your take on ICT-facilitated violence against women and girls, and how can it be addressed, especially in the workplace?

A: Online, women are frequently intimidated, body shamed, bullied, and denigrated. This is a result of the unfriendly atmosphere that stereotypes women in online socialization.

Using technology to profile and exploit girls and women, especially in the workplace still existent, and there is no excuse for misogynistic behaviour in this era. It takes away our freedom of expression and restricts women’s voices as active digital citizens.

It is important to address this by actively calling out harassment, and educating people on the issue while enabling them to also identify the signs. We must continue to raise our voices and look out for each other.

Q: How do you implement operational effectiveness and efficiency in a male-dominated position?

A: You can have your place in different roles irrespective of the gender dominance or perceived rigidity of the role. For a millennial woman in a male-dominated field, a workplace free of gender bias can seem like a pipe dream; however, embracing your fears and putting career barriers behind is all that needs to be done to learn and grow professionally, even if it is not part of your original plan. That’s one of the reasons I love it here at BAT, you come first, above all else.

A career advise I’ll give to women in male-dominated fields is to never stop learning; build a foundation of trust with colleagues who seek allies with women, because they will listen to you and help amplify your voice and opinions during meetings.

Q: What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

A: Be confident in who you are and the value you bring to the table; own your sense of purpose and embrace the opportunity to be the change.

4. Mireille Njambon Feunou – Head, External Engagement

Q: What are the challenges you encounter as an external engagement lead, and at the early stage of your career?

A: At the early stage of my career, there were several layers of complexity in the area of human interaction on the job, ranging from cultural differences to societal orientation and acceptability, and so on.

Working with diverse personalities and talents is a stand-alone challenge; some will connect with you immediately and applaud you, while for others it takes time to build a working relationship with you.

As I have grown in my career, I understand that to successfully manage the challenges that come with the job, you need to analyze and manage the concerns and interests of your stakeholders.

Q: Do you believe that there are any gender roles that people should be taught to follow?

A: No, I do not and the assumption of gender-based roles and the discrimination that comes with it should be entirely discouraged. When growing up, our homes are typically a place where gender roles and stereotypes begin.

People experiment with who they are and unearth individual identities from their formative days. Girls are taught to believe men are inherently smarter and more talented than women, making them less motivated to pursue ambitious careers.

Whereas some progressive homes teach the importance of personhood and provide opportunities to explore any career path, teaching women to be assertive and encouraged to pursue leadership roles to thrive.

I had the chance to grow up in that second category and I believe it forged my beliefs and who I am today. Regardless of your background, as a woman, you can be anything you want and it’s our responsibility as a society, colleague, or organization, to hold each other accountable, and to accommodate the unique needs of everyone so they can fulfil their potential.

Q: What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

A: Play to your strength, not your weakness. Focus on cultivating your strengths to build a solid career that is satisfying. If you’re happily working, then you’ll be a better, more inspiring leader to others.

5. Ololade Johnson-Agiri, Head, Corporate Affairs & Sustainability

Q: Please introduce yourself and your career trajectory at BAT WCA?

A: I was the General Manager of BAT Nigeria Foundation for a few years and was appointed as the Head of Corporate Affairs in 2022 to lead business communications, corporate reputation management and media relations for BAT in multiple countries across West and Central Africa.

Q: How easy was it to make the switch from international development to the private sector, was there a culture shock?

A: I worked with the United Nations for upwards of 4 years before I joined BAT WCA. I was initially worried because I didn’t know what to expect. I had many questions about culture, way of work, respect for human rights, the people, social impact and growth; but whatever doubts I had faded away when I resumed.

It is truly a multinational consumer goods organization with sustainability and people at its core. My transition was easy because of the organization I joined and the principles they had.

Q: Celebrating international women’s day, I will l like to know what equity means to you and the ways you and/or the organization promote equity in the workplace.

A: Equity means giving people equal opportunities and a levelled field for anyone to succeed. A memorable metaphor that brings this home is the illustration by the former Mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges, who said “Equality is ‘everybody gets a pair of shoes’; equity means everybody gets shoes that fit.”

At BAT WCA, managers are encouraged to coach their direct reports and offer them a conducive environment to grow and succeed. For females in the workplace, there are several initiatives, including the Women-in-BAT community; a coaching and mentorship platform for women to support women and groom and empower female leaders.

Learning platforms are made available for everyone to upskill and with the organization’s commitment to have 45% of women in management roles by 2025, BAT is committed to challenging the status quo and creating a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Q: What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

  • Practice Resilience. Resilience is the quality that allows you to overcome stress and adversity and to be the best version of yourself.

  • Be aware that you are the sum total of your decisions. What you are today was influenced by the decisions you made yesterday, and your future will be influenced by the decisions you make today. So be equitable in the decisions you make for yourself. Think, re-evaluate, and think again, before you make your decisions.

  • Determine what you want to be known for and start with the end in mind.

6. Adejumoke Peter-Adenuga – Controller, commercial finance

Q: Tell us about your role at BAT WCA, and your career growth.

A: I joined BAT as a Management Trainee (MT), and over the course of a two-year program, my rotation exposed me to work in a number of different Finance subunits. Since my graduation from the MT program, I have been working in commercial and corporate finance and building critical experiences in these areas. In my current role, it is my job to see that the West and Central Africa (WCA) commercial goal is achieved.

Working together, the marketing and finance departments can guarantee that the business’s marketing efforts will not only be successful but will also have a positive impact on the organization’s bottom line

Q: How do you manage the department and work-life balance considering the responsibility of your role?

A: I don’t consider it a balance, but rather an integration/harmony. A few things that have helped me include setting clear objectives so that everyone is working toward a common goal both at work and at home.

We are a Team for a purpose, and delegating tasks helps a lot while also enabling the team to take ownership and this demonstrates that you believe in their capabilities. Prioritizing assignments, communicating effectively, and requesting help are some of the other methods I’ve employed to efficiently manage the department and achieve work-life integration.

Q: Finance is often a gender-stereotyped role, how challenging has it been to thrive notwithstanding?

A: Finance was historically a male-dominated sector, and gender norms created barriers for women to thrive. Traditionally, it had been assumed that women were less committed to their careers and lacked the same level of competence as men.

It didn’t help to have these unconscious biases. More work has to be done to really integrate equity, despite major recent efforts to debunk the idea. I had to put in a lot of time and effort to develop the necessary skills and experience I needed, find mentors who had been down the same path, and, most importantly, join BAT, an organization that has policies in place to encourage women to pursue careers in Finance and foster a more inclusive workplace culture.

Q: In what way has working in BAT helped your career trajectory?

A: Gaining experience in a global setting with a company like BAT is a great way to move up the corporate ladder. My experiences at BAT have helped me to mature and acquire skills such as a global perspective, cross-functional collaboration, and cultural awareness.

Also, you get to learn about new things and immerse yourself in other cultures and business methods. My career has been shaped in part by opportunities like training and growth, mentorship, and networking.

Q: What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

A: I doubt it would be any new advice, but never harms to reinforce. My acronym is BPBD, but would add an ‘S’ for females!
B – Believe in yourself and your abilities. Have confidence in your skills and avoid letting self-doubt hold you back. You have the power to make a difference in the world.
P – Pursue your passions. Pursue what you are passionate about and align your career goals with your interests. This helps you stay motivated and engaged even at work.
B – Build strong networks. You are not an island. It is very important to build strong networks with other women leaders and mentors who can offer support, guidance, and advice. This helps navigate challenges and build your career.
D – Develop your skills: Continuously develop your skills and seek out opportunities to improve. Keep learning, unlearning, and relearning
S – Support other women. Whatever level you find yourself at, lift up other women and support their goals! Building a community of like-minded women will definitely create a powerful force for change

7. Ruth Owojaiye– Head, Fiscal, Trade and AIT

Q: Tell us about your role at BAT WCA, and the challenges you overcome as a female leader in the sector.

A: As the Head of Fiscal, Trade and AIT at BAT, I monitor the external environment for changes in the fiscal, international trade, and anti-illicit trade policies at the local, regional and global levels that impact BAT in WCA. This is done to keep the business informed of relevant external developments that would impact strategic plans and support in driving the solutions to help us meet our objectives.

Q: Considering the responsibility of your role, how do you manage your work-life balance?

A: I learn and work daily to prioritize and segment both areas of my life but it still comes with some challenges which are not unusual. I strive to achieve a work-life integration and with the support of my colleagues at work and my family, I can achieve the right balance per time.

Sometimes the scales tip-off, but that’s okay, it can’t always be perfect. There is also the need to take care of oneself, because your mental and physical health is important, to deliver optimally both at home and at work.

Q: Fiscal and trade is often a gender-stereotyped role, how challenging has it been to thrive notwithstanding?

A: Yes you are right, it is but I’m focused on getting things done and that makes me disregard the gender nuances or stereotypes that are prevalent in the role and sector I’m in.

What is important is rising above the mindset and earning my respect by showing over and over, the value I bring to the table. That’s all that really matters.

Q: What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

A: Nurture your vision, seek mentorship, play to your strength and be of service always.

8. Kikelomo Fisayo Ogunsanya – Head, Marketing Activation

Q: Celebrating International Women’s Day, how has the marketing sector enabled the transitioning of digital marketing with respect to diversification and inclusivity? Do you think the gender gap has been bridged?

A: Regardless of age, diversity and inclusion have always been at the heart of marketing (traditional or Digital). Our duty as marketers is to find ways to craft the key message such that it connects with the target audience without excluding or alienating others.

Marketing must go beyond its core demographic to include new prospective consumers. This is how we find and keep profitable consumers.

To reflect changing times and demographics, we’ve had to modify the communication tone to make it more contemporary.

For example, many brands are now integrating a wider diversity of individuals in their advertisements, which sometimes includes launching campaigns that particularly target those who were previously excluded from mainstream advertising.

For example, Brands that have traditionally presented themselves with an overt appeal to the male folk (e.g. alcoholic beverages, life insurance brokers etc), for example, have adjusted their tone and lifestyle pictures to appeal to women as well. Whilst we are not yet there, marketing is making strides in closing the gender gap.

Q: Do you get overwhelmed by the demands of professional and personal commitments?

A: Most women, in my experience, are taught to think that we must be and do everything. As a result, expectations from work and personal responsibilities might appear overwhelming at times.

Prioritizing and time management have been my keys to creating a secure haven for myself at times like this. I try to be honest with myself and choose what I am willing to give up for afterwards, which helps me achieve a win-win situation.

For many reasons, BAT WCA is a great fit for me, and it has been easy to advance in my career here. What I like most about BAT WCA is the culture, which allows me to be myself without having to “fake it till you make it” or pretend to be someone else.

I also value the organization’s emphasis on work-life integration, which enables me to maintain a healthy balance between my
personal and professional responsibilities, and it’s no surprise the organization has been awarded A great place to work, six consecutive times.

We are definitely doing something right.

Q: What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

A: Believe in Yourself. If you’re a woman who aspires to be a leader, my advice is to have faith in yourself and your talents. Someone once said “You can only be the best of your original self” and I wonder why we sometimes die trying to be like someone else. It won’t always be easy, but I have found out in my journey that not losing oneself is the best gift that we can offer ourselves.

Ask for help: Some people have travelled this or a similar path before you- make them your mentors, get a coach (who might even be your peer), and build your support structure (could be a network of individuals) at home and at work so that you can focus.

We sometimes believe that we must figure things out on our own. We are better able to construct and operate with our unique framework that matches our condition when we ask for help, and only then can we become the greatest version.

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