Cape Town – U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama told a group of 500 young African leaders in Washington on Wednesday (July 30) that while women had made remarkable progress on the continent, there was still “some serious work to do in Africa and across the globe”.

Obama was addressing members of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), a six-week U.S. fellowship programme that has given the group an opportunity to sharpen their skills through course work and professional development.

“In many countries in Africa, women have made tremendous strides. More girls are attending school.  More women are starting (and running) businesses.  Maternal mortality has plummeted.  And more women are serving in parliaments than ever before,” she said.

She said Africa’s future lay with women-run businesses, girls attending university and “with leaders like you who are making those dreams possible”.

However Obama warned that this progress could be derailed by failing to stamp out practices like segregation in the workplace.

“I know this firsthand from the history of my own country.  A century ago, women in America weren’t allowed to vote, and decades ago, it was perfectly legal for employers to refuse to hire women.

“But in each generation, people of conscience stood up and rejected these unjust practices.  They chained themselves to the White House gates, waged hunger strikes in prison to win the right to vote.  They took their bosses to court … And today in America, we see the results of those hard-fought battles:  60% of college students today are women.  Women are now more than half the workforce.  And in recent decades, women’s employment has added nearly $2-trillion to the U.S. economy.”

Obama’s words are particularly pertinent in respect of gender equality in one of Africa’s fastest-growing sectors, oil and gas.

Africa’s proved oil reserves have grown by nearly 120% in the past 30 years or so, from 57 billion barrels in 1980 to 124 billion barrels in 2012. In addition, it is estimated that at least another 100 billion barrels are offshore Africa, only waiting to be discovered.

Furthermore, Africa’s oil production represents between 12 and 14% of the world’s total crude oil output, while Africa’s crude oil exports are nearly 20% of the world’s total exports of crude.

The oil and gas sector has traditionally been viewed as a male-dominated field, particularly in Africa where patriarchal societies continue to hold sway. Yet despite the challenges facing African women, Obama’s reason’s for hope do appear to be well-founded.

In a survey of 3 000 women in the inaugural Global Diversity and Inclusion Report, 60% of respondents based in Africa agreed or strongly agreed that women had equal opportunities to men for advancement to management positions in the oil and gas industry – compared to 54% globally.

The African statistic is in stark contrast to traditional oil and gas powerhouses like the U.S. and Europe, where 31% and 35% respectively of those surveyed said they lost out professionally due to their gender and not their ability.

That said, Naa Densua Aryeetey, president of the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association, has revealed that overall very few African women have ventured into the oil and gas industry.

Aryeetey’s assertions are corroborated by National Energy Regulator of South Africa chief executive Phindile Nzimande, who says while more women are graduating in Maths and Science, both in high school and at university, the ratios change when they enter the oil and gas work environment.

“I attribute this to the theory of dominant discourse which says that men are better than women. But I have no doubt about my own potential as a women and that’s why I appoint more women than men,” Nzimande says.

Obama’s “some serious work to do” reference thus is equally relevant, although global organisations like the Oil Council, the world’s most exclusive business network for senior oil and gas executives, are making every effort to address the issue.

To this end, the Women’s Oil Council has been established to support and encourage the career development of women in the in the industry by providing training and education to senior-level women.

The council also provides regular access to a diverse spectrum of industry leaders via networking opportunities.

No less a figure than BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg has lauded the initiative, saying the Women’s Oil Council had created an “excellent forum” to highlight and discuss important issues that are impacting women in the oil and gas sector.


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