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Monday, June 17, 2024
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Zenith Bank’s new MD and the burden on successful women

By Farooq A. Kperogi

It so often happens that whenever a Nigerian woman makes the news as having been appointed to a high position that is, has been or, in the minds of male chauvinists “should be,” the exclusive preserve of men, she becomes the object of (social) media slander, unconscionable belittlement, vile gossip, slut-shaming, and malicious smears.

That is the fate Zenith Bank’s Mrs. Adaora Umeoji Nwokoye has been suffering since her announcement as the first woman Group Managing Director and CEO of the bank. In what is supposed to be her moment of joy, she’s contending with an avalanche of mean, nasty remarks and misogynistic bullying from insecure men with fragile egos who, instead of being happy for her, choose to question her qualifications, obsess over her looks, and ascribe her rise to a reward for sexual favors.

The most egregious of this came from a widely shared Facebook post by one Azolike Nonso Afemefuna who wrote that Mrs. Umeoji-Nwokoye looked “like a hook up [sic] girl” and that he would “NEVER take [Zenith Bank] seriously again” for appointing her its boss.

When he was challenged, he doubled down on his evidence-free moral stigmatization of the woman by insisting that she “knack her way to the top,” a Nigerian Pidgin English expression for she slept her way to the top, a sentiment one Nelson Chiduben Okoye re-echoed in another widely shared Facebook post.

As the father of three girls, these dreadful patriarchal putdowns and vilifications of a successful, high-flying woman by some idle worthless scum of men hurt me on a personal level. Mrs. Nwokoye embodies what every responsible parent should want their daughter to grow up to be. She got the job because she was more qualified than anybody for the position.

She has multiple degrees, including advanced ones, in sociology, accounting, business administration, and law—in addition to three decades of experience in banking. She was, in fact, the Deputy Managing Director of Zenith Bank in the last eight years that preceded her elevation to the status of GMD/CEO of the bank. In other words, she had functioned as the second in command of the bank.

What more does it take to merit her position? Plus, she achieved her career success while married to her husband, Emmanuel Nwokoye, said to be a medical doctor, with whom she has children. And that’s the more reason why the unprovoked besmirching of her moral integrity is in such bad taste. Nigeria is supposed to be a traditional society where the institution of marriage is supposed to shield women from these sorts of calumnies.

I honestly wanted to ignore the social media skunks who cast aspersions on her honor without a shred of evidence because, truth be told, the overwhelming majority of people, both male and female, exulted in Mrs. Nwokoye’s norm-bending, glass-ceiling-breaking elevation as the boss of Zenith Bank.

Nonetheless, when I read Chido Nwakanma’s article titled “Zenith Bank and Managing Dr Umeoji’s PR” on Thursday and sensed suppressed, even benign, but nonetheless significant signs of misogyny in the garb of professional public relations analysis, I felt compelled to intervene.

Nwakanma is a well-regarded journalist and public relations expert for whom I have a great deal of respect. But his article on Mrs. Nwokoye’s promotion to the top of the ladder was a letdown.

He deployed what we call “blame-the-other-technique” to channel and validate patriarchal and misogynistic views of successful women, which basically consists in fixation on women’s dress and appearance, using discriminatory standards to assess women’s performance, and paternalistic condescension.

He said, “An observer noted that Zenith probably needed to prepare for the communication and PR challenge of showcasing an overly beautiful and over-educated female as MD.” “Overly beautiful and over-educated female as MD”! That’s classic patriarchal phraseology.

No serious analyst would ever talk of the handsomeness of a male bank CEO or describe a man with three bachelor’s degrees (in sociology, accounting, and law), two master’s degrees (in business administration and law), and a doctorate in business administration from a for-profit online American university as “over-educated.”

He would be described as “well-educated” instead. There is a tone of mild disapproval in the term “over-educated.” Over-education means having more education than is useful or needed. It’s as if she earned degrees above her gender station.

But it gets worse. He talked about concerns over her red dress, why she uses her maiden name as her middle name, and then had this gem: “She is beautiful, no doubt, and parades an exciting Figure 8. Unfortunately, Figure 8 is not corporate. She must sacrifice the vanity of Figure 8 for the corporate essence.”

That’s someone’s wife and some people’s mother, not to mention the CEO of one of Nigeria’s top banks, we are talking about. She’s being scrutinized for the shape of her body, not the content of her character (as Martin Luther King, Jr would say) or the quality of her ideas. Would any expert deserving of that name write about the sturdy, six-pack build of a newly appointed male CEO of a bank and then go ahead to dismiss it as “not corporate”?

Nwakanma mentioned “Figure 8” three times in three sentences. That’s extreme, unwarranted, and frankly, disappointing sexualization of a successful woman (not to mention someone’s wife!) who owes her rise in the corporate ladder to her brain, not her so-called Figure 8.

Nwakanma’s piece is merely a more intellectually sophisticated version of the crude misogynistic digs at Mrs. Nwokoye by bitter, no-good social media lowlifes.

Look, I have zero personal or professional familiarity with the woman, but I have a personal investment in how men handle the success of women because I am also raising three potentially successful women. My first daughter is studying engineering at a top-three engineering university in the United States.

I would be concerned if insecure men attribute her success in life to factors other than her brilliance, grit, and her hard work. I would lose it if middle-aged men were to fixate on her figure and choice of dress for analysis—things that are never done for men.

A similar scenario played out in 2017 when Mrs. Aisha Ahmad was appointed as one the deputy governors of the Central Bank of Nigeria. As I wrote in my October 14, 2017, column titled, “CBN’s Aisha Ahmad, Misogynistic Bullying, and Religious Hypocrisy,” two categories of (male) Nigerian social media users were disconcerted by her appointment.

“The first group,” I wrote, “said she is unqualified because her promotion as Executive Director by her bank was suspiciously co-extensive with her appointment as CBN’s deputy governor, suggesting that her promotion was done in anticipation— or as a direct consequence— of her appointment.”

I added: “The second group, made up of mostly northern Muslim men, said she was unworthy of her position—wait for it— because her formal western attire doesn’t conform to the Islamic dress code for Muslim women! One widely shared Facebook status update, in fact, defamed her as a ‘sex worker” on account of her dressing. That’s a prima facie case of libel.”

As is by now apparent, successful women—be they southerners or northerners, Muslims or Christians—can’t catch a break. They are always judged more harshly than men. This culture has to stop!

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