The culture ceiling

13 November 2020

Ugochi Agoreyo, Head of Channel for SAP West Africa, and Full-time MBA alumna, explores the concept of the culture ceiling in the work place, discussing if this is why women in some geographies are not negotiating their way to the top and sharing her advice for those looking to break it.

Across the world, research suggests that about 20% of women don’t negotiate at all. This percentage is cited in a research-based study by Linda Babcook titled ‘Women don’t ask’.

My experience, working predominantly with teams in Africa is that the percentage could be higher in these parts. The increase in percentages, in my experience sometimes, is heavily influenced by the culture in which we operate.

The African stereotype of women as mild mannered, agreeable, softly spoken, unproblematic and accepting in the workplace, helps to build an imaginary glass ceiling that women are inclined not to cross. This stereotype juxtaposed against an idea that a negotiation, usually a difficult, hard-nosed, unrelenting exercise, helps to explain why many more women in Africa will choose to settle with what they are offered.

Women in Africa have come a long way since 30 to 40 years ago, when female representation in various aspects of work-life and business was virtually non-existent. Now we have women playing leading roles in public office, business and professional careers across the continent. While their unique experiences are diverse, their stories are usually almost strikingly similar in their ability to stand up and be counted, to insist and negotiate their just rewards and to fight for an equal seat at the table despite cultural nuances. While there is a cultural shift in some countries in Africa, a great example being Rwanda where we see a good number of ministerial positions occupied by women, many other African countries continue to trail behind.

The Culture Dynamic

I recently had a conversation with a top female executive in financial services about women, their careers and progression within organisations and she explained, often when a position is open and applicants interviewed, negotiations are usually quite different depending on the gender of the applicant even if they have the same qualifications and experience.

A woman would usually start negotiations with ‘what are you offering?’ and then proceed to accept what is on offer if it falls within a pre-defined imaginary bracket she’s set. She doesn’t want to be seen as disagreeable or forceful. On the other hand, men would usually enter the same negotiation cycle with a clear ask, often, a lot higher than the actual value of the role and proceed to negotiate downwards hard. Where people are taken aback if a woman negotiates hard for the role, they often view men doing the same as assertive and confident.

Breaking the culture ceiling

Culture is developed over a long period and as such could take years to change, so how can we break the culture ceiling today? Despite the cultural factors at play in organisations across many countries in Africa, most companies are united in wanting to hire the most effective person for the role. In my experience, there are a number of strategies I have seen women deploy that seem to work.

Be prepared and be intentional! I always say when preparation meets opportunity is where the magic happens!

  • Research the company and what they are looking for- it’s the only way you can position yourself as that person that embodies it.
  • Identify and list all the value and skills you bring to the negotiation - what differentiates you and makes you the best fit – you will need it when you ask for that big paycheck.

Just ask! I mean you aren’t going to get what you don’t ask for are you? Besides you already have at least five reasons (hopefully) why the company will be getting premium value for their money.

  • At the beginning of the negotiation, make an ambitious, confident request and be ready to back it up.
  • If someone says ‘don’t you think that is a bit too much’ be sure to respond with ‘no actually I don’t because…’
  • Be perceptive and emotionally intelligent. As with all things in the African culture, your responses are more likely to be better received if you are considering body language, tone, expressions and words. That should tell you where you’ve found a hook that you can continue to push towards…obviously without settling.

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