#Breakthebias: A Conversation with Blessing Abeng, Mobola Akingbala, and Olurémi Martins-Areola

In celebration of IWD, OurPass sat down with three exceptional women – Blessing Abeng, Co-founder and Director of Communications at Ingressive for Good; Mobola Akingbala, CMO Hirefoster; and Olurémi Martins-Areola, Founder & Chief Experience Officer, NaturalGirlWigs.

#Breakthebias: A Conversation with Blessing Abeng, Mobola Akingbala, and Olurémi Martins-Areola
Blessing Abeng, Mobola Akingbala, and Olurémi Martins-Areola

In celebration of International Women's Month, OurPass sat down to answer these questions with three exceptional women of diverse backgrounds – Blessing Abeng, Co-founder and Director of Communications at Ingressive for Good; Mobola Akingbala, CMO Hirefoster; and Olurémi Martins-Areola, Founder & Chief Experience Officer, NaturalGirlWigs.

For International Women’s Day this year, the theme was #BreakTheBias. What does #BreakTheBias mean to you?

Blessing Abeng: For me, I think that #BreakTheBias is less about women and more about everyone else who has biases and stereotypes formed in their minds. People have unconscious biases that say that this is how a woman is, this is the role of a woman, this is what a woman should do, this is what she shouldn’t do. And this affects the opportunities they make available for women. And so I think this year’s theme is saying ‘We know your biases exist but break them. We know there are cognitive biases and unconscious biases, but break them.’

Olurémi Martins-Areola: I think I agree with Blessing, in that breaking the bias is about looking outwardly, and checking as a society, what kind of biases we have about women, and how we perceive things, either in leadership or in taking on women for opportunities. Though I would say that it’s not just about men, I think it’s very important to centre men when we talk about bias because right now, men are mostly known to be leaders all around the world. But even beyond leadership, in the family unit, what kind of bias do we have against women?

Beyond telling people they are biased, we need to also break it down. It’s systematically looking at things and seeing how we can change the way we look at things.

Mobola Akingbala: In my perspective, I see that in many ways, men try to hold this trump card that says that women are their own worst enemies. My work so far has given me a lot of insight into how biases creep into many workplaces.

I used to work with a boss that said, “When there’s an event, who told women that they should be uncomfortable when their profile is being read? Who told them that it’s normal to say, Oh, it’s too much. I want to be humble about it.” The day she said that to me, my eyes opened. She said she witnessed a particular incident on a big panel, where a man who reports to her had his profile being read, and she watched Johnny Bravo unfold, with the way he opened his shoulders and absorbed all that was said about him. And she said, but for every woman on that panel, they seemed to shrink with every line of achievement that was read about them.

So when it comes to biases, who told you, as a woman, that you shouldn’t open up your shoulders to absorb everything that you have achieved? #BreakTheBias is on the centre table, whether you are a man or a woman. What is the bias that you have against women?

What do you think are some of the biggest gender biases that exist today and how do they affect our lives?

Mobola Akingbala: One of the biases I have seen is that somehow, there is an expectation that audacity does not belong to women. And I have seen that play out every time it comes to my line of work, which is recruitment. And I think that it’s a lot of things that come into play, from upbringing to societal expectations. There are a lot of things that funnel into that ideology—things like, ”Be great but don’t be too great. Be beautiful, but don’t be flamboyant. Be audacious, but not too loud.”

Blessing Abeng: I completely agree with the audacity conversation. The only thing I would have added is that it’s not that audacity doesn’t belong to women, it’s that women don’t know that they can harness it to the best of their ability. But I see that it’s also changing, because the more that they see women like them take things by the jugular, and go for opportunities, the more they feel inspired to go ahead and thrive.

I also see that community is helping us. Community is helping, in terms of, the more women in your community, the more you can ginger yourself. We don't feel confident 100% of the time, and sometimes, we just need somebody to remind us of our awesomeness. And if you don’t have people to do that for you, another thing you can do is to keep a file, you can call it a win file or praise file. It’s just somewhere you can keep a record of your wins and the things that you’re proud of. It’s something that can help you remember your wins, accomplishments, and your awesomeness.

Also, don’t be comfortable being the only woman in the room. Bring another woman in. Find a way to hold another woman’s hand. It’s okay to be the first, but it’s not okay to be the only.

I think those are easy ways we can try to break some biases that currently exist.

Olurémi Martins-Areola: To be honest, it’s difficult for me to point out a specific gender bias. I think that there are a lot of biases in different aspects of how we live and how we do things. I think the way to reduce these biases is by starting from the root. I think it’s ironic how we say to young girls, “You need to be humble, to shrink yourself. Aim high, but don’t forget that at the end of the day, it’ll all be to the glory of your husband.”, and then expect that when she is thirty years old, her demeanour will automatically change.

And so I genuinely cannot have a conversation where I’m asking women, “Who told you not to do this?”. Because if we look at it, we told women these things, from young years. So I think that what we can do is to consistently identify these biases, and try to make it easier for the next generation —- in that, we raise women the way we have been raising men- to be confident.

What is a personal experience that you’ve had that showcases gender bias?

Mobola Akingbala: I was working in a new agency and when you are in marketing communications or digital media, there's some kind of bias that social media/ content creation is the work of a lady. The more technical roles, like media buying, and analytics were supposed to be a guy’s thing.

So, we had started working and we were doing very well and somehow, the Head of Business at the mother agency came up with the idea that they needed some kind of structure in the creative department, and so they're gonna bring in someone. I was qualified for like the lead of the team, but they said no, that they needed someone logical and forward-thinking. They were using all these words that, supposedly, wasn’t associated with a woman. And so they were gonna bring in a guy. And of course, I was upset, but I just took it as, “It”s a man’s world.”

I was very hurt, but  I had not acquired how to express myself or put myself forward, to say, “No, I can do this. In fact, you can put me on trial to see how well I perform.” I didn't have that kind of confidence.  So, I just took it and shrunk.

Blessing Abeng: I don’t know if mine was because of my gender or my size, but because of how tiny I am, when I move into particular spaces, people see me and think, “What does this small girl have to say.” Then they always underestimate me whenever I have something to say.

Initially, I used to complain about it. But later on, I had a conversation with myself where I thought, “I could keep complaining about this issue, or I could just harness it.” I realized that when people underestimate you, you don’t even have to do way too much to blow them from their seats, based on how excellent you are. So, I just committed to doing my best, and to not think about it as a fight. It’s not a war between me and any man, or any ‘bigger’ looking person. You always just have to show that you’re the better person in every space that you go into. And if they look down on me because I look tiny, it's their loss. They would be missing out on the opportunities and ideas that I have to share, just because they have unconscious biases.

Olurémi Martins-Areola: Recently, I had to go get new phones for myself. And I have this customer at Saka Tinubu, who I always get my phones from. I’ve been getting my phones through him for over eight to ten years now. So I was there trying to set up my new phone when a particular man came in. He was also trying to get a new phone for himself, and I think my customer was telling him that he could get my type of iPhone. And then he said that he’s not like me, that he’s sure that there’s someone taking care of my bills, and that he’s working for his own money.

And it was just weird that the man saw me dressed up officially, just as he also was, and was still quick to judge that I was there to spend another man’s money and not mine. And that’s a bias that women face every day. Even if you’re your own boss, someone will still think that a man is taking care of you and your bills.

That was a funny yet hilarious story to hear. A listener, here, also wants to contribute a personal experience

Ada (Listener): I have a story to share about my previous place of work. It was towards the end of the year, and my HR was working towards a raise for everyone on my team. Keep in mind that we were mostly females on my team. So, after the regular quarterly review was done, it was time for the raise, and a review was sent to the COO. And when the COO saw it, he said, “Why do you want to give these girls a raise? What do they need money for?”. Other guys on a different team had positions similar to my team and when it was time to consider them for a raise, it wasn’t even an issue. My team was performing better than theirs, which was so clear to see. Fortunately, my HR was amazing. We just had to show the work we had been putting in so far, and that helped clear the situation.

I’m sorry you experienced that. And it also shows how gender biases can affect women in the workplace, which is why I want to pivot and talk to our speakers about their careers and how these biases affect them.

Blessing, as someone in the communications field, what role do you think the media plays in breaking gender bias?

Blessing Abeng: That’s a good question. I think, first, just being able to show off role models. And not show them as “A female engineer did this”. Instead, “An engineer did this”, and then we can go on to explain how she’s a woman. While I don’t think it’s bad to say, ‘A female engineer’, you just sort of single the engineer out and make it look like what she's doing is so unique and special, when what she’s doing is showcasing the same skill that other people have. So, we should try to highlight that while it’s great to own certain skills as a woman, it’s not unachievable, that it’s not a feat.

Another thing is reporting. We need to tell our stories by ourselves. We shouldn’t wait for communications people to do it, and if they're not doing a good job, let's do it, let's take the mantle. Share more stories –stories are so powerful. Let more women see women like them achieving things that they also want to achieve so that they can see that their dreams are possible.

Mobola, do you have anything to add?

Mobola Akingbala: She made very key points. Representation of every kind of story matters.

There should be less of a narrative that when a woman doesn't get what she wants or has come across challenges, that it’s supposed to be daunting, that she's supposed to cry, and that people should hug her and want to comfort her. So like she said, we should tell more perspectives of women embracing challenges, not crumbling under them, and consistently moving to the next thing for their win.

I’d like to throw this question to everyone– what were the most important bias breaking career moves that you’ve made, and why?

Chukwu Adaeze (Listener): I’m a designer in a predominantly male industry.  And one of the things I encounter is that whenever I put up work on my page, especially when my profile picture did not signify that I am female, people would always refer to me as “sir”. They would see my work and comment, “Sir, Boss, you dey do good work o.” So whenever people did that, I would immediately correct them. And it has gotten me to a point where I don’t have to do it anymore. Immediately someone makes such a comment, there's another person that does the correction, without me having to speak up.

And so I think it is important to recognize biases when we see them and immediately confront them. Don’t be quiet about it. When you confront it, that’s when you begin to correct it. And when you correct it, it becomes a culture.

I think that occupying space in the design field is magnificent enough, and I hope that together, we are all going to try to break gender biases in our individual spaces.

We have a long way to go when it comes to getting rid of such biases. How do you think that women can navigate such in the meantime?

Mobola Akingbala: From the lens of career, I will say that the standards women put on themselves are too high. That is why, many times, women deal with imposter syndrome. We have been socialized to hold ourselves to a higher standard every time, we can't enjoy the greatness of where we are now because we just keep thinking, ‘There's somewhere higher than I am. I'm not there. I don't deserve to be at this table.’

We need to understand that if you’re showing up as your best self every day, you are already magnificent, you are awesome. People also need to document their successes, such that when the time comes and you don't feel a hundred, those things would remind you of how awesome you are.