Marcia Ashong
Marcia Ashong is Founder and Executive Director of TheBoardroom Africa, which promotes exceptional female talent to boards across the continent. Ms. Ashong is a 2019 Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellow and was recently named one of Ghana's 20 under 40 business leaders. A lawyer by training and former oil and gas industry executive, Ms. Ashong’s work has been published by the Oxford Journal of World Energy Law. In 2010, she founded the Ghana Oil Club (GOC), the leading professional organization for Ghana's burgeoning oil and gas sector. She is passionate about natural resource policy as well as advancing gender equality and championing women in leadership.

Diverse boardrooms mean diverse executive teams: Matching female talent with boards in Africa to address the gap

Interview with Marcia Ashong (Founder, TheBoardroom Africa) by Dana S. Gulley
Middle East and North Africa
Sub-Saharan Africa
18. Apr 2019

TheBoardroom Africa (TBR Africa) is an initiative that promotes exceptional female talent to boards across the continent. It seeks to break down barriers to help organizations realise the benefits of increased diversity on boards by accelerating the placement of female board directors.

TheBoardroom Africa is focused on ensuring that qualified female talent is incorporated in boards throughout the continent of Africa. Is that right?

TheBoardroom Africa promotes exceptional female talent to boards across the continent. We are essentially breaking down barriers that prevent women from attaining these roles and while doing so helping organisations realise dividends of increasing female voices on boards. We have curated a unique pool of peer-endorsed female leaders, and we are working with leading investors and companies across the region to improve gender balance in Africa’s boardrooms. We see ourselves as a movement, and one that is driving the change needed to recognise that when women and men lead side by side, business succeeds, and society thrives.

Our aim is to double the number of women on boards across Africa. To do that, we take the complication out of matching women candidates with boards that need their expertise, and we continue to play an integral part in the board journeys of these women through training and other board development initiatives, enabled by our community of over 700 women across 50+ countries in and outside of Africa.

What were you seeing in the corporate culture that led you to found TheBoardroom Africa?

Before founding TheBoardroom Africa, I held leadership positions in the oil and gas industry. As I climbed the corporate ladder, the struggles that women went through as well as the lack of representation became more and more apparent. I decided to do something about it by starting a company—TheBoardroom Africa—that would tackle the thorny roots of the problem. Leadership ladders are shaped like pyramids: women are well-represented at the bottom, yet there are very few at the top. So, it was obvious that I needed to start with the boardroom.

Boards are unique environments in that they tend to create a space where leaders can really flourish and use their gained experience to be extremely impactful in the strategic direction of a company. Moreover, research and anecdotal evidence shows that diverse boardrooms lead to more diverse executive teams. It is the main reason why our goal at TheBoardroom Africa is to double the number of women across the region’s boardrooms within the next decade.

Why should the business community be focused on recruiting female talent?

Diverse boards mean embracing diversity of thought and experience. Women on boards bring openness to new perspectives, collaboration and inclusiveness, and strength in ethics and fairness. Research has shown that diverse companies outperform non-diverse companies, so there is obviously a strong correlation between performance and diversity. By changing the dynamics at the top, the impact of diversity radiates across all levels of the company from employees to users and consumers. In a world in which women make up 50% of the workplace and 70 - 80% of global consumer decision-making, improving gender parity means improved work environments for employees and helps companies develop products tailored to broader segments of the population.

What is your strategy for finding talent and matching that talent to boards? Do you work only within specific sectors?

To solve the pipeline problem that is preventing more women from reaching the boardroom, we have created a trusted community of leading executive women from every sector across the continent. Our members and their board journeys are documented through our platform, which allows us to track their progress when applying for vacancies and match their preferences and skills with new opportunities as they come available.

A woman with a bag of TheBoardroom Africa
A trusted community of leading executive women. Photo Credit: TheBoardroom Africa

Over the past year alone, we placed more than 11 women on boards and investment committees. We are sector-agnostic and have been involved in searches for everything from the agribusiness to non-profits to oil and gas, as well as financial services.

What would you say are other critical elements to ensuring that female leadership is developed and elevated in those sectors?

There are common refrains to the question of “why don’t you have more female board members or executives” that range from “there aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on boards” to “there just aren’t enough senior women in this sector.”

In most companies, men are still the primary gatekeepers for opportunities. Why? We have to look at the structural impediments to women’s participation at the highest levels of the business world—as senior executives and board members. There is a constellation of forces having to do with recruitment, resources, bias, as well as the need for more sponsors (male colleagues who actively champion women) that keep women out of the boardroom.

There are exceptionally talented women out there, but the challenge is that they aren’t adequately supported. We need to improve women’s participation at each key stage of their careers, including the boardroom. To see the qualified women we are missing, we need to ensure that they have access to the right networks as well as sponsors and mentors who can endorse their talent to help them accelerate.

We know where to find Africa’s most talented women, and we leverage that knowledge and network to help clients improve their business performance by recruiting the best and brightest women in a particular industry. We connect our members with board and investment committee opportunities that were not previously accessible to those outside existing “trust” networks.

Are there other initiatives or organizations that are aimed at working on other parts of the puzzle with you?

A partner that has been truly critical to our success has been CDC Group, the UK’s development finance institution. Last year, they awarded us with $2 million in funding to support our efforts, including the development of our board training and mentorship programmes tailored to women in the African business community. One of the most critical programmes we have developed together has been “Open Doors,” a boardroom training programme, accredited by the London Institute of Directors. Our first successful cohort of 25 women went through the training in January 2019, and we are set to host the next edition in October of this year.

Woman sitting at a desk
Open Doors is a boardroom training programme for women from the African business community. Photo Credit: TheBoardroom Africa

What is the single most important way to tackle the underrepresentation of females in leadership positions?

Women need access to leadership networks, and leadership teams must be open to expanding their networks to find them.

Additional Resources:

TheBoardroom Africa Board Effectiveness Infographic

TheBoardroom Africa Listed Company Board Research