Breaking stereotypes and challenging bias

17 March 2022

Full-time MBA student Safiya Sule talks to us through some of the challenges she has faced in the workplace and shares her thoughts on this year's International Women's Day theme: 'Break the Bias'.

Firstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Currently, I am a Manager for the Documentation and Projects Team, a department in the Corporate Services Division at IHS Nigeria. My responsibilities are centred around process improvement, operations optimisation and project management. While supporting business activities, I identify process improvement opportunities and proffer solutions. Recently, I spearheaded the development of a Document Management System for the Legal department.

Outside of the office, I am committed to helping small businesses and start-ups achieve operational efficiency. I have developed processes for a fashion business, managed projects for a fitness community, managed a sustainability discourse for three years and currently support a digital services company's business decisions.

My passion for helping scale visions into thriving businesses that create value for humankind and the environment have shaped my core values: Reliability, Accuracy and Integrity.

Who would you say inspired you the most? This could be a role model, mentor, etc

Definitely my dad. He is easily the most amazing person I know. His work ethic is exemplary and he does not compromise his values. I have watched him at his highs and at his lows. He has remained true to his values, irrespective of whatever situation he finds himself in, and to me that is golden. Like we say back home in Nigeria, “problem no dey finish” which means there will always be challenges but the ability to remain uncompromised is priceless.

How has WBS supported you in your career?

WBS is home! I believe that if you do not feel comfortable in your environment, you cannot be motivated to push yourself to achieve more. WBS has helped me build a strong community with my MBA colleagues who continually push and support each other. The wealth of knowledge delivered by the seasoned professors, the challenging & engaging coursework & tasks, the conducive & experiential learning environment, and a healthy community of diverse individuals are phenomenal strengths at WBS.

What does your average working day look like?

My last role before the MBA was a managerial role. As a manager, 90% of the day involves supporting your team with their deliverables or mentorship. This became even more important during the pandemic. Though deliverables were very important, doing my part to manage my teams well-being and mental health was equally, or dare I say, more important. I would typically spend evenings working on my own deliverables.

Have you ever faced prejudice in the workplace? How so? How did you handle the situation?

Yes I have, and not just because of my gender but also because of my age. Experiencing a combination of gender and age bias can be awful. I was on a project with a major client and in a briefing meeting with top Executives where we were brainstorming and setting up project deliverables. I tried to give suggestions numerous times but I was shut down publicly every single time by an older male client. At the time I was a young 22-year-old. I also always watched my female boss at the time struggle to project her voice and push forward her points so she could be heard. To anyone watching from the side-lines, she would have seemed loud, and just possibly a tad annoying, but I understood what was going on as we were the only two women in the room.

How did I handle this situation? I did nothing at the time as there was nothing I could directly do. However, I then had a conversation with my dad as well as with my boss, and they both said similar things which was, unfortunately this is the world we live in and that you have to go the extra mile to assert your presence. Things I never thought were important were apparently yardsticks to be measured against - like your appearance, your level of confidence, the first handshake and introduction, where you sit in a meeting room. It sounded ridiculous but after paying close attention to female role models, I saw the pattern and I adopted this. It is definitely not a solution but it puts you at a good vantage point.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career so far?

The biggest challenge I have faced, as cliché as it may sound, is coming to do my MBA. I had a good job with a strong supportive system. Deciding to leave paid employment and my family and friends behind to pursue the next step in my career was a difficult decision that took me almost 3 years to accept. After the pandemic hit, I realised there is no better time than now to do whatever you want/need to do, and with so much anxiety I picked myself up and made the move. It is definitely the biggest challenge I’ve faced but equally the most rewarding.

What is unique about the path you chose to pursue? In terms of academics or work?

I’d say what is unique is the fact that I never chose a career path, it sort of shaped itself along the way and yes, that is very risky but it worked out for me. My undergraduate degree was in Accounting but I started working whilst studying. I interned every summer in the same company, where I eventually worked for seven years after graduating. It was a transformational time in the organization and there were acquisition projects lined up in various countries. I was chosen to be on the implementation team and with that came great responsibility that required general business knowledge in areas like risk management, due diligence, project management, strategy and corporate governance. I learnt on the job and I had amazing superiors who guided me along the way.

What does this year’s theme ‘Break the Bias’ mean to you?

The concept of anyone being able to “Break the Bias” strongly implies non-conformity to me. I particularly like the choice of “break” as a word in this year’s theme. It reminds us of the impact of bias in the world and how there has never been a better time than now to smash the stereotypes. To be able to “break” the bias, you have to be strong. This theme to me also signifies the strength of women as we navigate the world.

What inspirational message can you give to young women reading this?

My advice is aligned to the theme of International Women’s Day this year. Ladies, Break the Bias! Do the unexpected, step into doors that seem shut towards you, have a no-nonsense attitude towards your hopes and dreams irrespective of existing stereotypes. I believe the more we collectively break the stereotypes in society, soon enough, they will cease to exist. It has to start from each of us individually challenging ourselves in environments that are setup to work against us because of our gender and slowly but surely, I genuinely believe there will be a global shift.

Find out more about our Full-time MBA programme here.

Find out about other Inspiring Women at WBS.