She’s a no-nonsense type of woman. Bold. Creative. Courageous. Persistent. Outspoken. She refers to herself as “constructively aggressive”. I have never really embraced a role model before beyond my mother and my maternal grandmother. But this woman, I find so many of her principles captivating and out of the norm for Ethiopia which now makes me feel like I may have found in her aspects of a role model I can relate with outside of my family.
Meet Brutawit Dawit Abdi, now President/CEO of Zemen Bank. Her previous public profile as the president of Wegagen Bank put her as the first and only woman president of a bank in Ethiopia. Now she is one of three women in key leadership positions within the Ethiopian private banking sector. I first met Brutawit ten years ago as a young professional in the software industry while she was at Wegagen Bank. The men in the company I worked for had immense respect for her, if not borderline fear of her. I admired the way she held herself in a place of leadership yet felt immensely intimidated by her. She was loud, straightforward, no time for sugar-coating kind of attitude. At that time for me she embodied everything that I was socialized into believing an Ethiopian woman should not be like. I was in utter awe.
Last week I had the pleasure of being in her presence again ten years later. This encounter was nothing short of a re-awakening of the phenomenal woman in each one of us that were in her midst that evening. Brutawit shared her story of her climb up the professional ladder by placing it alongside her observations of the characteristics and ingrained detrimental behaviour that hampers a woman’s career growth in Ethiopia. I related to a number of them and had a flashback of the occasions when I had to come to terms with deconstructing these behaviors.
Shyness: Number one on her list of growth impeding behaviours of Ethiopian women was shyness. Growing up in a culture that values excessive female modesty, it’s understandable how shyness can be damaging to a woman’s career and personal growth. This notion of equating female reservation with greatness or chewanet has left one too many women without the capacity to speak up and let their intentions, needs and desires be known. The “endeee, set lij atechohem” (girls don’t shout/speak-up) syndrome places those who abide by it into a growth stagnation and those who don’t into a label – “bitch”. Food for thought: Speak up, say what you feel even if the response is not what you expect, vocalize your thoughts anyway!
Accepting: Secondly addressed was this idea of being the all accepting female. Brutawit noted that many of the women that have passed in employment through her take at face value whatever conditions are placed upon them. Be it a low salary offer or demands to undertake tasks that do not fall within their terms of employment for fear of losing this opportunity that has come by. Not negotiating for a higher wage is inextricably tied to devaluating one’s own professional worth. That a woman can be hired for half the salary that a man is hired for the same job is testament to how women have been socialized into not demanding for more and for what they actually deserve. Food for thought: Know your worth and don’t settle for less than what you know you should be getting!
Young Marriage – Young Babies: This one of course was a contentious issue given how the Ethiopian norm is gabicha be lijinet, lij be lijinet (get married young and have children when you’re young). In a humorous observation, Brutawit noted the high prevalence of babies being born nine months to the date of the wedding and advised the young women who were present to take time before jumping on the childbirth wagon. I have to agree, of course putting into consideration that the impact of getting married young and having children young is individually determined. Meaning, you’re either cut out for it or you’re not. Anyways, the whole “to have” or “to not have” discussion is worthy of a separate entry but the crux of the matter is understanding what the influence of having children at a young age is on a woman’s personal and professional growth. Food for thought: If you’re getting married young and having children young, do it for the right reasons and because it feels authentic to you not because there are cultural expectations of at what age you will be jumping on the spinster wagon if you don’t conform!
Personal Time: Literate Ethiopian women don’t read much she said and asked why. Those present echoed the lack of time in a working woman’s life between the demands of her job and that of her home. Aha, the double burden robs a woman of personal time. Those present and who had children were asked to raise their hands if when assigning chores at home, their assignment was gender neutral. Meaning they did not tell their girls to go work on tasks that were “female oriented” and their boys to work on “male oriented” tasks. Only one woman raised her hand. At home is where it all begins. Of course if you’re raising boys with the idea that there are chores within the home that only boys or only girls do, then you are sending them off into the world with this perspective entrenched deeply within them that when they become husbands and fathers, their chores stay pre-defined. Therefore, the brunt of the domestic responsibility falls on the woman. Food for thought: Take responsibility for the information you feed your children and the consequences of that information on their lives later on. Consider that some of the circumstances in your life are your own design and no one is going to grant you personal time unless you design it for yourself!
At the end of this inspiring evening I knew why i saw a reflection in her of how i wanted my role model to be. Because my role model needs to be a woman who fearlessly challenges established norms.
Later, I walked up to Brutawit and shared with her that ten years later she does not intimidate me anymore. She broke into a smile.
For more info on Brutawit…http://www.thefreelibrary.com/PROFILE+Brutawit+Dawit+Abdi+I+shot+for+the+moon.-a0235574790
Love and Light