Analysts See Full Gender Equity Bolster Africa’s Largest Economy’s GDP By $229 billion as Women Take Charge of One-third of Nigeria’s Commercial Banks


Women are more financially excluded in male-dominated economy

Tomi Somefun still recalls the shock in 2015 when she was summoned to meet the board of Unity Bank Plc and offered the position of chief executive officer.

That made her the only female CEO of a Nigeria-based lender — the second woman to occupy the top position. But she’s no longer an outlier. Women now make up almost one-third of the CEOs of Nigeria’s commercial banks, well ahead of African peers and western financial hubs such as Britain, France and Germany.

“My appointment kind of went against the grain and that created a new dimension in the mix,” Somefun said by email about her first day in office. “I did not anticipate the turn of events.”

For an economy just emerging from its second recession in four years, at stake is a potential catalyst for growth in the years to come. Achieving full gender equity in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, could bolster its gross domestic product by $229 billion, or 23%, by 2025, according to a 2019 report by McKinsey Global Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Even with the emergence of female bank CEOs, the spotlight in Nigeria remains on the need to expand the lenders’ customer base. They’ve fallen short of central bank targets to bring more people — especially women — into the financial system.
The Great Unbanked

Nigerian women are more financially excluded than men

Women had significantly less financial access relative to men as of end-2020. According to EFInA, a U.K.-backed development organization that seeks to bolster inclusive finance in Nigeria, 40% of women were excluded compared with 32% for men.
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But when it comes to the top of the pecking order, change is afoot.

This year, the industry has seen three women become CEOs or managing directors: Nneka Onyeali-Ikpe for Fidelity Bank Plc, Yemisi Edun for First City Monument Bank and Miriam Olusanya for Guaranty Trust Bank Ltd, the banking unit of the country’s biggest lender.

Read: Nigeria Misses Goal on Growing Access to Financial Services

Banks are increasingly giving more attention to women by harnessing their strengths.

“There is the perception that women will always repay their obligations so I guess this has somewhat helped in the development of women-based products,” said Onyeali-Ikpe, who assumed her role as Fidelity Bank’s first female CEO in January.

As the former executive director in charge of the lender’s Lagos and South-West region operations, she turned the business around from a loss to generate almost 28% of the bank’s profit.

That gave her an edge during the selection, she said. Now she aims to expand the 33-year-old institution to one of the top five biggest banks by deposits by 2025.
Paying Off

“It feels good to see the diligence of these women pay off,” said Mosope Arubayi, a female economist at IC Asset Managers. “The recent increasing number is just a case of opportunity meeting preparedness by the female bankers.”

The economy is still dominated by men as women tend to use more informal financial services, according to EFInA. Women are also prevented from doing some jobs and are more likely than men to end up running road-side stalls rather than go to the university.
Falling Short

Financial inclusion didn’t meet the Nigerian government’s targets in 2020

In 2013 the central bank prodded lenders to appoint more female directors for gender diversity. Since then, the banks have been “deliberately bridging the gap between the male and female employee count and creating policies that uplift and protect women,” said Somefun.

Read: Nigeria’s Top Firms Aim to End Gender Inequality by 2023

Across banks, there are now dedicated desks, loan products targeted at women and extended welfare packages for female workers.

“There is so much more ahead for women, not just in Nigeria, but Africa,” Somefun said. “I believe that this is not a blip or the banks latching onto some trend that will wane over time.”