In Summary
  • Kenyan firms score above average on gender inclusivity, with the percentage of women in boards going up to 21 per cent in 2017, from 18 per cent in 2015 and 12 per cent in 2012.
  • If you find yourself, young and seated on a board, you still need to understand what to sell in the power room and what to limit to private mode.

Phyllis Nyambura explores what it takes to get a slot in a boardroom, how to be different, and how to increase one’s impact after joining the board.


What comes to mind when you think of being a board member? Do you think — is this not the role of those women who are about 60, dressed in boring pinstriped suits, wide rimmed spectacles with a sneer stretching from cheek to cheek, and with a matching snort to boot?

Or perhaps you perceive it as a role for those born in the right families and with right political connections? You may be right in a way, but the truth is all these are perceptions.

“You can be a board member at any age, with any expertise and without having been born into an elite family. That includes if you are man or a woman,” says Catherine Musakali, the founder and chair of the Women on Boards Network.

The organisation, which was founded five years ago, promotes and encourages women into board leadership.

But perhaps you do not hold these perceptions. You are at a point where you are an expert in your field, and you have proven your leadership skills.


You are at the pinnacle of your career, and you think, ‘why can’t I be a board member?”

You yearn to sit at the decision-making table. But then you wonder, ‘how am I going to get there? Where do I even start? Do I have what it takes?’

For starters, let’s agree you are at the right place. Not only does regulation favour you, but more and more boards today are looking for women like you because they acknowledge women aid in better decision-making.

“When I get out there and I am requested to provide women to sit on boards, I ask ‘how many?’ I hold that I am into the business of offering women who have certain skills and offer value to an organisation,” Catherine, whose network has 367 paid-up members, says.

Catherine says it’s encouraging to see more women take board membership positions. “We have stopped crawling; we are now walking. We have placed 67 women in boards over the last five years. We can double that number this year,” Catherine, who is currently the company secretary of a number of firms, and sits on various boards including Faulu Microfinance Bank and Kasneb, says.


This holds true for Eunice Shamalla, who sat on her first board at the age of 34.

“I actually sat on a board out of curiosity. I neither had training nor did I get any mentorship, but I was open-minded and it helped me. I was fearful, yes. But I take fear as a good thing. It helped me generate excellence and I overcame it,” the partner in Lumallas, Aching & Kavere Advocates, says.

Today, she is 38 and sits on two boards. She is a board member of a multilateral company, Skipperseil Ltd headquartered in India and Dubai — a global player in the power and infrastructure sector — and in the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators Kenya Branch Board.

“I was anxious at first. I reminded myself that I had travelled a long journey to be in India for the board meeting and that I was at the board by right. Yes, the other board members were prominent, some were retired former ambassadors, but I felt confident that I brought value. I soon found my voice and place,” Eunice, a dispute resolution practitioner, an advocate of the High Court and an arbitrator, recalls.


Sitting on a board has it clear advantages. There is the access to a broader network, it will boost one’s confidence, public profile while helping you to become a better decision maker as well as enhancing your opportunities to new experiences and skills.

But while women across the country continue to take their rightful spots in boardrooms, progress is slow.

While a quarter of top management positions are filled by women, the number of women heading boards still remains low at just five among listed firms.

This is according to a 2017 report, the result of a two-year study by the Kenya Institute of Management in collaboration with other partners.

Kenyan firms score above average on gender inclusivity, with the percentage of women in boards going up to 21 per cent in 2017, from 18 per cent in 2015 and 12 per cent in 2012.

Part of the reason that women are now sitting on boards is because businesses appreciate the role women play in improving boardroom conversations.

“I can attest to improved tone of conversations in our board meetings,” says John Ngumi, the chair of Kenya Pipeline Company.


He notes that other benefits have been the increase in confidentiality, attention to detail on board matters, applying of common sense — women ask the basic questions which are important — and better behaviour from the men as ‘there is less power competition from the men and more civility’, with women around.

Besides, women control 70 per cent of home policy and retail decisions, and also make up a company shareholder. So, it only makes sense to include them when you are making important decisions as a company.

A lot of increased numbers, however, are attributed to the constitutional requirement of gender parity.

And this is where cracks begin to emerge. Industry leaders argue that while affirmative action has done its work, women still have to work harder to be taken seriously.


A lot has to do with women understanding of the dynamics of a board and what is expected of them.

“I think the next step is to get women to speak up in these boards. To show value. I have chaired boards where I have had to ask the women present to stop hounding together in a corner saying nothing,” Ngumi, who has sat in many other boards previously, says.

He acknowledges that while the old boys network exists and is not going anywhere anytime soon, women can still show their prowess by being different.

“It’s not a problem to be different. I have stammered for the whole of my life, yet I have never allowed it to hold me back. Find your voice, don’t be like other people. Be you,” the entrepreneur says.

Ngumi advises that rather than compete with men, women should embrace diversity, find ways of excelling in their space and forge ahead.

“You must find your own way. You don’t have to go out to a club until late to network with men. Networks are a state of mind. Networks congregate around power. If you make yourself powerful, we as men will find you,” he points out.


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