Each year, International Women’s Day celebrates the achievements of women across the globe. This year, on March 8th, the 2019 #BalanceforBetter campaign will kick-off. How do women in Africa strive for gender parity in the workplace? In Kigali, for example, more than four hundred career women have joined an all-female support network to further their professional career.
The Career Women Network of Kigali (CWNK) started four years ago and has rapidly grown to more than 450 active members, all of whom are working in upper and midlevel echelons of government, private sector or non-governmental organizations. Founder and Chairperson Lucy Schalkwijk, a Dutch national who has made Rwanda her permanent home, initiated the network out of frustration with her own situation, having to juggle children, husband and a career on a daily basis. “Even in Rwanda, a country that is known for its gender inclusiveness, there is still a lot to be done in terms of empowering women in the work force”, she says.
“As the only woman in a male-dominated work environment, I struggled, especially after the birth my third child. I remember a time that the department was planning a multi-day retreat and I fretted about it because I was still breast feeding. In the end, I paid for a nanny, so I could bring the baby and feed her in-between work sessions. I didn’t have anyone to ask for advice about how to handle this situation.”.
A few months after this incident, Schalkwijk met another woman working on a senior level in the same organization. They hit it off immediately and decided to meet for dinner. “By the end of that dinner, we agreed to meet again and that each of us bring two other like-minded women, who would then bring someone new the next time. These dinners grew into monthly events, with more and more professional women joining. I used WhatsApp to set up the monthly dinner dates and venues and soon the group grew so large, we needed reservations, special menus or even advance payment to be able to convene. Our Whatsapp-group, meanwhile, became an active vehicle of communication for all kind of topics, from sharing job vacancies and inspirational articles to practical questions about child care or business contacts.”
From these interactions, Schalkwijk learned that all women, from different backgrounds and across industries, were dealing with (un)conscious bias in the workplace and juggling their career with childcare at home even at the highest seniority levels. “CWKN has grown into a tribe of sisters who have each other’s backs”, she says.
Managing director of BPN Rwanda, Alice Nkulikiyinka, became a member two years ago. Through the networking events, she has connected with new business partners, started using an executive coach for her own development and gained personal friends. “I even met a ghost writer and we are thinking about writing the story of my life”, she says. “But it is not all business, there have been so many fun moments as well.”
To cover the operational costs, three paid membership levels were introduced in 2017 together with a more professional organizational set-up, including an Advisory Board and a social media presence advocating for professional women in Africa. Although the network strives to keep memberships exclusive for women from mid-level career to senior executives, it also gives young, ambitious women the opportunity to partner with an experienced mentor, through the Mentoring Moments campaign. Nkulikiyinka, for example, is actively mentoring a promising young entrepreneur.
Aline Pascal Batamuliza, Manager Corporate Affairs and Communication with Heineken-Bralirwa found her current job through the network. She speaks highly of the benefits of the group, always finding contacts easily for personal or work needs. CWNK’s mission is to diversify the workplace and get more women into positions of power. To achieve that goal, the network organizes member-only events and open workshops with external stakeholders, where they debate how to overcome barriers in the workplace and empower one another.
For Schalkwijk, the network has become a personal passion to support more women into executive roles. How she envisions her next step? “This year is all about growth and expansion. Increasing our reach of professional women and expanding beyond Rwanda’s borders with similar networks all across Africa and maybe even the world.”