Marcia Ashong is as good a champion for inspiring women leaders in Ghana as there can be. Born in the United Kingdom to a Fante heritage, she spent her early childhood in Ghana and completed her undergraduate studies in the United States. Now the co-founder of Brace Energy and TheBoardroom Africa, her earliest professional role was as a fellow with the Commission on Human Rights after winning a Human Rights fellowship competition. There she worked with Anna Bossman, the then acting commissioner and Ghana’s current ambassador to France. She found Bossman’s strength and grace exhibited while working in a tough role and male-dominated environment inspiring. An aspiring lawyer, Ashong soon found herself knee-deep in the oil and gas industry while studying energy law at the graduate level.
Upon her return to Ghana, she set up a non-profit for Oil and Gas Energy professionals; an initiative which found her rubbing shoulders with executives of some of the world’s leading energy companies. She was subsequently hired by Halliburton and finally by Baker Hughes as their West Africa Business Development & Ghana Government Relations Manager. Ashong’s work with Baker Hughes would take her all over the world serving in different capacities. She notes Dubai as one of her favorite places because of the leeway she was given to not only lead, but also to have a seat at the decision-making table. The travel enthusiasts remembers her time in the cosmopolitan and culturally diverse United Arab Emirates city fondly, describing Dubai as “a confluence of different things and different experiences”.
Ashong remains passionate about development in Africa especially where women’s leadership and youth development are concerned. She sat down with Circumspecte editor Jemila Abdulai for our 2018 Sisterhood Matters Facebook Live Conversation series where she shared timeless insights on career development, business, women in leadership, personal growth and more. Captured below are excerpts of their conversation and responses to audience questions.
Catalysing Women’s Leadership in Business
Circumspecte: You’re an active proponent of ‘women’s leadership’ – what do you consider it to be?
Marcia Ashong: Women’s leadership to me doesn’t necessarily mean getting women into leadership positions or getting women at the top – even though that’s what I do on the daily basis with TheBoardroom Africa. It is not just about the ideal or the title; it’s more about how you step forward and lead an organisation, an effort, a movement, a society. Leading in general with integrity, ethical standards.
I want every woman I meet to pick up something they’re really passionate about and say I’m going to lead this and I’m going to be ahead of the pack and ensure that they follow me.”…It is not that we are special, but society does have a way of curbing our ability to shine. So women’s leadership is definitely a broad component about being able to lead and shine.
Circumspecte: You mention Ambassador Anna Bossman as being an inspiration for you. Which other women do you look up to?
Marcia Ashong: One woman I grew up hearing about was Grace Ayensu; one of the first Members of Parliament in Ghana. In my family, she was a superstar because both my grandparents were her protégés. They respected her immensely and learned a lot from her. That is the caliber of women’s empowerment I grew up hearing about. In my own family, I was surrounded by women who run things in the family in the no-nonsense type of way. My pressures growing up were not about my abilities being curbed but rather, how do I top what this woman did in my family? I’ve always had this need to break barriers and do better than those before me.
In terms of women who currently inspire me, there is Oprah because she embodies true success and is a true pioneer. Also, Maya Angelou who I read growing up; I loved how cutting and deep her words were. The first book I read of hers was ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ and after reading that I found out that she lived and worked in Ghana for a period of time. So I kicked myself for not being alive when she was around.
Circumspecte: You touch on something important – mentorship. How do you think girls can find the mentors and support they need – especially those who may not have the most favourable circumstances or have no other women to lean on.
Marcia Ashong: I’m very careful not to suggest that women have only women mentors; mentors come in all shapes and sizes. One thing we think of at TheBoardroom Africa is that if we are trying to get women in leadership positions, it is imperative that we get men involved in the leadership agenda of women. The best way to do that is to have men as mentors – men who endorse women, who can join the network and be part of the movement. I love this quote by Jeffrey Halter – profoundly he said “If men are 90% of the leadership problem, they are 90% of the solution”. We have to come into the fight for gender equality always expecting men to be a part of the discussion. If it’s just women sitting around tables it’s not going to work. If we get men involved in a positive way, it will reduce the amount of pushback. There are more men who want to be involved than we think.
The best way to get yourself out there is to read about what other women are doing. Allow yourself to be immersed in the world of learning, be it online through YouTube or books. I believe the best way to break barriers is to learn so that you can grow. Constantly search for information and put yourself in circles that allow you to thrive. For example, if you know that you have a teacher that you really respect that speaks to you in more than one way, you could ask to spend more time with them learning and picking their brains. There is a myriad of ways, you must consistently search for inspiration in both men and women.
"My pressures growing up were not about my abilities being curbed but rather, how do I top what this woman did in my family? I’ve always had this need to break barriers and do better than those before me." – @marciakayie Tweet this
Circumspecte: Tell us more about what you’re doing with TheBoardroom Africa
Marcia Ashong: The whole idea of TheBoardroom Africa is to increase the number of women in boardrooms across the region. There is this myth that women are either not interested or not qualified to be in such positions. Our first goal is to dispel these myths by developing a database of women who are interested and qualified. For the past few years, we have developed a database of over 300 women across the region from the north, south, east and west. We reach out to women with about 10 years of specific experience in any given field; who are top executives in their roles and are either ready to sit on boards or already sitting on boards. For those who haven’t sat on boards or do but looking to gain additional insights into being more effective board members, we have a training programme called ‘Open Doors’. Open Doors is in partnership with CDC Group and accredited by the London Institute of Directors; a globally recognised and certified board training initiative. The idea is to increase the pipeline of board-ready women, and ensure that they have the tools and resources needed to be most effective in the boardroom.
The data shows that actually first-time women board directors are rarer than first-time men board directors – this again goes back to some of the barriers holding women back. There is also our program ‘Sustain’ which allows women who are already sitting on boards to have more support with coaching and training because the worst thing you want is for a woman to get onto a board; fail in some way (that may not be her fault) and for her counterpart men directors to say “look we gave her chance and she blew it”. We are looking at all the different barriers and plugging each one.
Circumspecte: How does a woman know whether she is board-ready?
Marcia Ashong: The reason we ask people to sit on boards is that they bring specific insights into the field. So if you’re thinking of being a board member, you should be asking what experience you would be bringing on board. If you feel like you’ve built up enough experience in your field to make meaningful contributions, you should go ahead. Our criteria of requiring at least 10 years of gained experience is to ensure that you can bring something to the table once you are in the boardroom. This is what we consider board-ready.
Marcia Ashong’s Career Insights & Lessons on Salary Negotiation
Circumspecte: There is a lack of a systematic and structured approach to career guidance in Ghana and other African countries. What should women be thinking about in terms of starting a career or transitioning into a new career?
Marcia Ashong: Interestingly enough I never went for career guidance. I went once and figured out it wasn’t for me because it just wasn’t personal enough. I believe that everyone has different journeys. What I did really was to go where my interest was. To be honest, I didn’t plan anything. When I was younger I was told I was very talkative and so I was told a lot that I should be a lawyer. When I entered university I always liked the politics, engagement, and activism; it was my thing. I didn’t really have a focus on the law, I just knew I wanted to learn more about politics, about the way the world works in terms of international organisations. My goal was to work in the United Nations as a super-activist, going around the world saving the world.
My life has been a whirlwind of change. I went from engaging in human rights advocacy, speaking about prison reform and sexual rights to working in the oil and gas industry. It was my interests giving way to my career path and not something I had planned which dictated my career choices. So I would ask any young woman, what are your interests? What are you passionate about? Are you passionate about politics, saving lies, speaking to the youth? That’s where I would start.
Circumspecte: Salary negotiation is something many women feel uncomfortable doing. Do you have any tips for women who have a hard time talking about money or who feel intimidated when it comes to negotiating salaries?
Marcia Ashong: For the first five years of my career I never negotiated my salary to the death because I understood that gaining experience was of more importance. But when I reached a certain level I fought tooth and nail for what I believed I deserved. I think there is a tendency among young people starting out to get overexcited. We think we are owed the world and we are not. What we are owed is the opportunity to come in and learn. Afterward, when you become indispensable to your company, that’s when we can talk about money.
The first real job I had was with Halliburton…I was interviewed and hired on the spot so I thought they were going to pay me what I wanted. When I got the offer I was shocked – I went to my uncle and said what’s this offer about? He looked at me and asked, have you ever worked a day in your life in the oil and gas industry? I said no. He wasn’t very kind to me and told me not to utter a complaint. I almost didn’t take the offer because I felt that even the lawyers leaving school were earning an average of about $70,000 a year, so why would I take anything less when I have a master’s degree? I had a reality check – I had a master’s degree and so what? I was not being hired because I had a master’s degree, I was hired because they wanted to bring somebody on board who would be of immediate impact to them. However, they were also going to build up my experience in the industry.
I had to manage my expectations of what I thought I was worth with my expectation of what I was going to get and not necessarily what I was going to contribute. Because frankly, the first two years of your experience in a company are spent learning. You’re not giving as much as you think you’d be giving. They are putting you with people who are going to teach you and they are expending a lot of resources getting you to be where you need to be in order to be effective in your role. You are not contributing much and you are certainly not indispensable. They could take the offer they have given to you and offer it to someone else who is willing to learn. So you always have to be careful about that: weigh your expectations and your ego. After a few years of experience when they want to promote you, you can afford to negotiate.
“When you are playing these roles, ask yourself: is this role going to be more of a learning experience or is it going to be more of me giving all of the experience that I have gathered and bringing it into a role? “
– Marcia Ashong, TheBoardroom Africa
Circumspecte: Our editor Jemila Abdulai wrote about the importance of not just negotiating on salary, but also negotiating job benefits. What else should women be paying attention to when interviewing for jobs and/or negotiating an offer?
Marcia Ashong: It actually goes back to why you are being picked…If I pick you for a role I want you to fight as hard for my company as you would fight for yourself. So in order to show your muscle a little bit, you need to understand that however you behave during the negotiation period also reflects on how you approach the job you’re seeking and if you can stand your ground. It reflects on how employers will treat you in the future. If you shy away from these discussions what you are effectively saying is ‘I’m a pushover and you can treat me however you want’. It sets a bad standard for how people will treat you. For women especially, the constant devaluing of our skill and our ability is also partly due to our inability to ‘lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg would say. Sometimes you have to take that chance of them saying no. It happens. There are situations where you simply need the job but there will be situations where you have to say ‘No. I’m not willing to undersell myself’.
Women (Not) Supporting Women & Personal Struggles
Circumspecte: There is the perception that men are more supportive of women professionals than women. That women try to undermine each other or limit each other’s opportunities. Have you encountered anything similar and how did you deal with it?
Marcia Ashong: To me, this isn’t necessarily true because people are people. It is possible that you have just met really horrible women. I don’t think it’s them being a woman that makes them detrimental to your career. In my career, I have been fortunate to meet a great mix of people in both my personal life and career who have brought me up and brought me down. I wouldn’t say one specific gender was more prone to doing that. You may meet people who are great – who know how to lead, who know how to bring the next generation up in terms of encouraging them, and helping them find their own light and power. Or you may meet others whose entire spirit is to bring people down., I haven’t found it to be gender specific; I have met great women in my life. I mean in the job that I do, I speak to the most incredible women on a daily basis – you will be shocked at the number of incredible women who go unappreciated in this continent…I mean we can use examples in our lives, I have a thousand instances in life where women have been my champion and no other.
"If you find yourself surrounded by women who are not supportive, you need to change your circle. Once you receive support, you need to pay it forward. Sometimes it's as simple as listening." – @jabdulai #SisterhoodMatters Tweet this
Circumspecte: What do you struggle with and how do you deal with those struggles?
Marcia Ashong: You would be surprised to learn that I still have issues with confidence. I turn down so many public events because I just cannot deal with the anxiety that comes with it. I downplay my abilities. I have imposter syndrome. I am constantly telling myself that I am not as great as other people would have me believe and so I constantly feel like I am a fake or that I have arrived where I am simply by mistake… I have started reading on it to help me improve. I have started talking to friends and other women as well as women mentors who help me re-constitute myself. They assure me of what I have done and remind me that I did it because I was talented enough to get to where I am and that I have the skills to get me to where I am. I am worthy of where I am.
Even Oprah has talked about this a number of times. You constantly feel like you are pretending to be somebody that you’re not because you have dared to be successful in something that you have done in your life. Or something that other people want to hear about, or other people just want you to share your story. So that is a constant struggle. Even our talk is something that will help me get over this constant struggle over should I share or should I not. It’s something I struggle with but I am working on it.
Leadership & Navigating Careers As A Woman Professional
Audience Member Question: What are your thoughts on the idea that women may need to be more ‘aggressive’ or ‘masculine’ in order to get ahead in their careers or leadership?
Marcia Ashong: I have always operated from the perspective that there is nothing that requires you to be more ‘manly’ to fulfil your roles. Naturally, I have always been more of a go-getter, but I don’t think that is a male trait. If we link our ability to speak up and have a voice – saying something is wrong when it’s wrong and so on – if we link all these things to male traits, I think it’s wrong because we have been conditioned to believe that we ought to behave in a certain way… I think we confuse leadership with being bullish and that is also an issue. I have had lots of really amazing leaders that I have reported to in my career…Those that I have seen who are more of leaders – many of whom were men – are those who have allowed me to express myself even in the face of seniority. They have allowed me to sit in rooms with leaders who were way above me and have allowed me to speak my truth. So to me when we talk about women being required to be more like men, we are underselling ourselves.
When you think about that question about whether you should lead as men, it’s clear that you should lead as yourself. Do not be a leader emulating any bad standards; if you are going to emulate anything, let it be good, ethical standards. Good leadership is really how you relate to other people; how you treat other people who may not be in the same position or stage of career. It’s about making sure you help those behind you to find their way to where you are. Doing this is more important than doing things the way one gender would do it over the other.
“There is nothing that requires you to be more ‘manly’ to fulfil your roles…When we talk about women being required to be more like men, we are underselling ourselves. “
Marcia Ashong, TheBoardroom Africa
Jemila Abdulai: Owning your truth is very important because part of being accepted into a role, to fulfil a certain need is because of who you are. If you get into certain opportunities and start trying to emulate what men in those spaces are doing, you are substituting the very things that got you that position for other things which might not necessarily serve you. When people are hiring they usually look at team dynamics, they usually look at balance across the team to ensure the skills are there. I feel like it might be counterproductive to try to change yourself. That said, in some instances you do have to stand your ground.
In my previous job, I worked with a lot of African Government officials, people who are highly placed in their countries – one of the first ways they described me at our very first meeting was that I was ‘the youngest’. The fact that I was a young woman making decisions would constantly come up. I would have email interactions before meeting people and they would always be surprised that I was the person behind the emails. They were surprised because although they would say ‘oh you’re the youngest or you’re the woman’ it didn’t take away from the work that I was doing. Your quality of work should always be top notch and yes, as a woman you do have to go the extra mile in order to be taken more seriously.
Audience Member Question: What sort of resources are out there to help younger woman professionals gain confidence and negotiate the right way without jeopardising their opportunity?
Marcia Ashong: I just say reach out to people who are qualified or have reached a certain level in their career where they can give you that type of advice… Industry-specific expertise is important. I say that because if I went to someone who had experience in the legal field or banking or finance, the type of advice they would have given me would have vastly differed from that of someone in the oil and gas industry. That person can give me advice from a specific industry perspective on what my salary should be, what my general expectations should be. I have always preferred personal relationships.
When we talk about mentorship, we don’t necessarily need to pick out someone with the title of a mentor before we reach out. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes. I reach out to specific people for specific advice and I reach out to other people for different kinds of advice. So it is just about using your network in a way that is beneficial to you and in a way that speaks to what your concerns are at any point in time. But it is also about cultivating that relationship such that when you do come to seek that advice it is provided to you in a very open manner. If the person who is providing this information sees you as someone who only reaches out when you need them, that is a problem. In all my mentorship relations I see it as I am a friend to them if they need me I can support them and when I need them they can support me.
Jemila Abdulai: I agree with Marcia 100%, especially on the two-way relationship when it comes to either mentorship or networking. It shouldn’t only be when you need help. Most times you’ll be surprised where the opportunities come from. A lot of the opportunities I have had this year have actually been through Twitter. We are in a social media era, so all the people in your network could potentially be that point in the connection that you need to make in order to go into the next stage. If you don’t treat people well, they won’t think about you. If you don’t let people know what you are passionate about or what you are good at, even when they are searching for people like you they are not going to come across you. As you use social media tools, try to think – how can I showcase what I am good at? You can even take it one step further by offering it your service and value to others.
If you are an expert in your field, find ways and means to make that knowledge accessible. This is something we are generally not good at as Africans; we are hesitant to share information because we think we have less by doing so. We think that we are ‘losing’. It is only in rare instances that you lose out when you share information; if nothing at all you will clarify for yourself whatever that information means. So it is important to share that information.
“The fact that you had to struggle to find your career path – that you had to move from one job to another – does not mean someone else has to. This is the time to step in and be the sisters that we may not have had.”
Jemila Abdulai, Circumspecte
Practical Advice For The Journey Ahead
Circumspecte: Any final words of advice?
Marcia Ashong: A career is one of those really tricky things that can either set you up for success or failure, so you have to navigate it in a way that is meaningful to you. It is important to find careers that can support you financially, but I think you should be as passionate as possible whether you are picking a particular area or job or setting up. If you need help, speak out and ask for help, even it’s personal. So many are depressed and can’t speak about it. So many of us have been or are being abused. Some of us have questions about life that we cannot answer and we do not speak about these things. We feel like we need to keep that inside because it is a show of strength and it’s quite the opposite. Think about the fact that when you make decisions alone you do not have a sounding board and may not be making sound decisions about life. So be it traveling to another country, negotiating a salary, or thinking about what you want to do next, having sounding boards will actually help you filter out the chaff in your head and lead you to a quality, sound and effective decision. I cannot speak enough praises for speaking out and asking questions.
Jemila Abdulai: I’m listening to this audiobook by Shonda Rhimes – the creator of Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder – in which she narrates how she chose to say yes to opportunities in her life. She said she frequently gets the question ‘How do you do it all?’ and she says ‘I usually do nighttime laundry and then when we wake up we don’t have to deal with it.’ She would always give vague answers, so she said today I’m going to tell you what is the complete truth. And that is that ‘I do not do it alone’ – that was powerful to listen to. You do not have to do it alone…I believe that there are no stupid questions. As Marcia said, you come to different realisations at different times. Something that Marcia realised ten years ago may be something I am realising today. Asking her is just an opportunity to learn. If I never ask and assume that it is a stupid question, then I am going to go through ten more years of trying to figure it out alone.