Namibia’s journey towards gender parity
In 2021, the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report ranked Namibia sixth globally for gender equality, out of 156 nations. The index examined gender gaps across four key areas: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment. Namibia jumped up six places in the rankings and was one of only two sub-Saharan countries in the top ten.
So, how was this comparably small and predominantly agricultural economy made its way into the global top ten for gender equality? When it comes to business and finance, is Namibia’s success translating into executive roles? Does the country demonstrate the effectiveness of quotas?
An introduction to Namibia
Situated on the west coast of Africa, in the south of the continent, Namibia is home to approximately 2.5 million people. It is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa, and despite its dominant agricultural industry, a very small percentage of land is arable. Namibia is also one of the least densely populated countries in the world.
Colonised by Germany at the turn of the 20th Century, Namibia was subject to genocide and occupation by neighbouring South Africa after the First World War. The country was known as South West Africa, and apartheid was imposed. By the 1960’s, activism sparked calls for independence, and in 1990, Namibia became an independent country.
Today, Namibia is politically democratic. In 2013, Bloomberg named Namibia the top emerging market in Africa, and 13th top emerging market in the world.
Gender equality and the law
Post-independence, Namibia enshrined gender equality in its new constitution. In 2013, the leading political party implemented a gender equality policy which required an entirely equal split of men and women in parliament.
However, while these actions have led to some definite successes - such as achieving 44% of women occupying parliamentary seats - there remains a conversation around the overall effectiveness of quotas to change attitudes at a societal level.
In Europe, when it comes to business, the introduction of quotas and legal gender parity requirements has been met with a mixed reaction.
“Quotas bring society closer to gender parity, but they may not directly bring equity and fairness,” says Morten Huse, professor emeritus at BI Norwegian Business School, in his paper ‘Gender in the Boardroom: Learnings from world-leader Norway’. “Quotas may be an important tool, but it is necessary to understand how quotas and other initiatives can work together in creating value for women, for business and for society.”
In the World Bank’s ‘Women, Business and the Law’ index (2021)5, Namibia got a perfect score when it came to laws affecting women’s decisions to work, inheritance and property. However, the index found there was room for improvement when it came to women’s rights to work after having children, and constraints on starting and running a business. These findings reflect the notion that a shift in societal attitudes is also required to help promote women in the workplace.
Banking in Namibia
The country has a highly developed financial and banking sector. There is widespread use of advanced banking technology in cities, with online and telephone banking available. The Bank of Namibia, the nation’s central bank, keeps the economy moving.
There are five authorised commercial banks in Namibia, and interestingly, three of these have employed female executives since 2014. Does this prove that women are finding success in powerful financial positions within Namibia, or is this an example of positive discrimination or ‘tokenism’?
According to Dr Grace Lordan, a Behavioural Scientist and Economist at the London School of Economics, positive discrimination is necessary in the journey towards gender parity.
“I really reject the label ‘positive discrimination’. We only need quotas because the women who are at least as talented, if not more talented than the men, aren’t getting the seats.”
According to both Dr Grace Lordan and Professor Morten Huse, issues around childcare and parental leave play a significant role in gender discrimination in business and finance organisations worldwide. Namibia is no exception, despite its success in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index.
“One of the big barriers to women progressing in financial services is that they still take more time out, to look after children and fulfil other caring responsibilities,” says Grace. “And, it isn’t the time out that’s the issue for women. It’s more the attitude towards it.
“There’s a kind of unconscious bias on average, that assumes that I now have low labour market attachment because I’ve gone to look after children. So, I think we must battle that and let both women and men take the time off they need look after their kids.”
Overall, Namibia provides an interesting case study in the possible success of a nation committed to gender parity. With its advanced banking sector and equal parliament, this small sub-Saharan African nation is proving a more equal gender environment than many Western countries. However, Namibia faces challenges around its income disparity. The divide between its urban and rural communities is large, and societal attitudes must shift overall, for progress to continue.