Career women: What it takes to break the glass ceiling

Her dream was to become a prominent business woman with a chain of multi-million dollar enterprises under her name. But Natasha Sukiranya did not realise this dream because it was not her true ‘calling.’
Betty Sayinzoga, Chief Executive Officer of Saham Assurance Vie Rwanda. (Courtesy)
Betty Sayinzoga, Chief Executive Officer of Saham Assurance Vie Rwanda. (Courtesy)

Her dream was to become a prominent business woman with a chain of multi-million dollar enterprises under her name. But Natasha Sukiranya did not realise this dream because it was not her true ‘calling.’

Her true calling was in the employment world where she started off at the bottom working as a service administrator for a private health care company.

However, because of her passion, dedication and hard work, she was promoted to a service manager, a position that helped her discover her niche-people management. She is now the talent and human resource manager at Akilah Institute in Kigali.

Sukiranya says it’s not all peachy when it comes to defining a clear path for one’s career. It takes courage, determination and persistence.

“When it comes to managing a human resource department, a lot of people think it’s just about enforcing the rules, but it’s more than that. The department is more challenging; someone has to enjoy working with people, sometimes you have to make tough decisions,” Sukiranya reveals.

She also says that though at times the career requires juggling of many activities, she prefers to be pushed to do more rather than have a ‘laid back’ role.

“In this field you just have to brace yourself and be organised; organisation is key, mistakes can be costly, hence the need to pay attention to detail,” she says.

Sukiranya says she is happy and heading in the right direction and hopes to aim even higher.

“I am proud to be at a place where I feel like I have built a human resource department which is poised for growth. And I am hoping for further success.”

Sukiranya is just one of the many women who are striving to make their mark in the career world. But what does it take for women to break this invisible barrier that sabotages their rise to success?

Betty Sayinzoga, the Chief Executive Officer of Saham Assurance Vie Rwanda, says a woman needs the same basic characteristics as a man in order to be successful.

“Success is usually the result of hard work, discipline, proper planning for success, chance and meeting people who believe in you. However, in our context, women would need more resilience in their career path,” she says.

Sayinzoga notes that the first challenge in this journey is to reconcile the two societies, the modern and the traditional society.

The ‘schizophrenic representation’ of a woman today can be extremely stressful, especially for our younger sisters who would still feel the need to show perfection. How to be a perfect mother, wife, cook, advisor, friend, church member, in law, director, board member, employee, she says.

“Society wants us to lead without showing it too much, to manage without managing too much, to be decisive without allowing us to make any mistake, to remain a mother but not show it at work, to show common sense but not use it too much whenever culture is mentioned,” she says.

Sayinzoga is of the view that only those who will find their inner balance (which can change over time) will manage to go back to the future or navigate between the different centuries we live in.

Harassment is an obstacle, she explains, “From the specialists who will always find dubious reasons to explain why you raised to the top to those who go as far as concluding that they should physically participate in your ascension. This is a serious area of concern that needs to be addressed urgently. I am glad that the discussion has started, but more needs to be done.”

Regarding how she made it in her career, Sayinzoga says it is a mix of good fortune and hard work.

“I met the right people at the right time, people who trusted me and believed in me. I had parents who instilled trust in me from an early age and made me believe that the sky was the limit. Despite being refugees, my sister and I always ended up in the best schools (in terms of curriculum and discipline). They valued integrity, fortitude, hard work, creativity, independence, open mindedness and magnanimity.”

She started as a human resource manager but felt that her contribution to the business could be bigger, so she aimed for the highest.

“I planned, went back to school, read a lot, met people, learnt constantly and when you want something, the entire universe conspires in helping you achieve it (Paulo Coelho). But let us not romanticise it too much; it also came with a lot of failure, slaps, sleepless nights, wrong decisions and mistakes. I am sure that many people can relate,” the CEO narrates.

Brenda Kalinda, an outreach officer at a government institution, believes she got to where she is now because she had the qualifications, but also observes the extra effort she put in.

Her greatest challenge has always been personal confidence, especially in spaces where men dominate, she says. However, motivation from women who have made it to the top helped build her confidence.

“I learned to look up to other women who have been successful. It has helped me sit on the table instead of always sitting behind the table. We tend to limit ourselves by not believing in ourselves. We also fear to publicly raise our ideas,” Kalinda says.

She, however, advises women to take risks and face their fears because it is with this that they will make it.

“Be yourself, take risks, and don’t fear failure. Don’t ever allow anyone to hold you down. Always follow your dreams even though some people won’t be able to handle your light. Just do it. Don’t give up,” Kalinda advises.

What can be done to bring more women on board?

According to Annette Mukiga, a gender activist, it needs to start at the grassroots. The expectations from girls are not as high as those of boys. Most parents expect their girls to finish university, get married and have children.

She points out that the pressure from parents, relatives and society in general is huge, hence parents need to be sensitised on challenging and supporting their girls to go beyond this and dream big.

For young women, Mukiga asks that they don’t rush into marriage, and enjoy their first years as career women.

“Women need to be supported to identify their interests early so that they prepare themselves for the careers that they are passionate about; because then it ceases to be a job and becomes a passion, something that you can enjoy for the rest of your life,” she says.

She suggests that since careers become satisfying when there is growth and development, women’s confidence, leadership and willingness to take risks needs to be nurtured.

“Friendly or progressive policies that ensure safety and women’s needs at the workplace are also important for women in the career world.”