Women often have to choose between career, family — Funmi Oladeinde-Ogbue

ec funmi ogbue
ec funmi ogbue

I started off my career as a sociology graduate. My dissertation dwelled on the impact of structural adjustment programmes on delinquent children, and how to get them reintegrated into the economic space. What I am doing today is very far from what I thought I would do. I knew I was not going to get into social work, but I really thought I would be working in the youth development and economic empowerment space.

But, when I got out of school, my first job was with an oil company. That was really how my journey in oil and gas started. It was a Canadian oil firm that had just come into Nigeria, and they needed to set up an office in Lagos. It was to begin in Apapa, and I lived there at that time. So, when they approached me to join them to establish themselves in the Nigerian space, I did not realise that it would be a 30-year career. But, it has been really exciting.

I am one of those that just stayed the cause. There have been a lot of challenges. The oil price is always fluctuating. When it is up, everyone is excited. When it is down, everyone would be thinking if it is the end of the industry. It depends on what point it is when one joins. I think I was fortunate to join when the oil price was at $10. So, I started climbing from the bottom, when it was like there was a depression. At $100, it felt strange, because I knew it could always go down. When it is up, we start doing projects. When it is down, we hibernate. But, it made me see life as a marathon, and not a sprint.

Yes, I think it just happened. I thought my career was going to be in economic and social empowerment for young adults. Going to work in the oil and gas sector was almost accidental. I still always say that I would eventually return to my original career, perhaps, by going to work in the United Nations and looking at things more from a global perspective. I just found myself in the industry and I stayed there. I went out (of the sector) for a couple of years but I came back. I went to work with British-American Tobacco and Ibadan Electricity Distribution Company, but I came back to oil and gas.

But, when one thinks about it, the year that I graduated was the year the oil firm came to Lagos and set up an office just five minutes from where I lived in Apapa. So, was it really accidental?

I think it would be when we were featured in the global ExxonMobil sustainability magazine as the company that helped the most during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can imagine our firm being recognised and supported by the largest oil company in the world. For me, that was, perhaps, my proudest moment. But, again, we didn’t plan to be impactful during the pandemic, but we were.

That was a time when a lot of companies were not supportive, but we were. We all had laptops and could work from our homes. Everyone was willing to pitch in. Even our company lawyer then, at some point, was in Mushin, Lagos, doing procurement and looking for ventilators. Everyone on the team was running around, trying to provide the needed in-country support to the oil firms that did not really have that set up. Anything they needed, they had to plan for and procured. Then, COVID-19 came and they needed all those things that they had, hitherto, not historically been buying because the borders were closed. They needed to find companies that had the cash and the willingness and manpower to support from their houses. They also needed people who would be willing to risk their lives for the materials. That was what we were doing then, because no one was going around looking for anything in any market. Everyone was scared. But, we had to go to work. We had to go into the markets to look for supplies for those oil firms, clinics and hospitals.

There was one time we had to make a delivery in Port Harcourt (Rivers State) from Lagos, and we spent a week on the road trying to get there. Meanwhile, it was just supposed to be an eight-hour journey. I called everyone I knew— from the military to government officials and colleagues. That was the period when the Niger Bridge was cut off on both sides because of the virus. Our tagline is always supporting the oil and gas firms, and I am glad to say we have lived up to that tagline.

It is driven from a place of supporting organisations and really wanting to industrialise Nigeria. For me, the real sector is critical. We have to move from a consuming to a producing nation. Anything that we can do to support that is what drives me.

It looked like it was COVID-19, but it really was not, because we started talking about it the year before. The first idea came when I attended a Practical Nigeria Content conference in 2018. I look around the room and I was the only woman. I could not believe it. It was just myself from the industry that owned a service company. Anyone else that was female that was in that room was either a government official or someone managing development for a company.

So, I put up my hand when they asked what needed to change in the Local Content Act, and said we needed to, fundamentally, change the way the sector was run and governed. I told them that we needed to be more inclusive. We cannot really speak of local content without balancing the genders. You cannot have local content made up of just men. I had read the Act, and didn’t see any definition of who a human being is or is not. I didn’t see where it read that the Act would be targeted at companies that were owned and managed by both men and women, representative of what Nigeria is.

At that time, the Permanent Secretary of one of the ministries told the Executive Secretary of the Content Monitoring Board that he would look into it.

That was where my gender radar became really active, even though when I worked at Shell, I was the Head of Diversity and Inclusiveness. That was within an organisational context, and I needed more people to drive that inclusiveness. I had not, before then, noticed that gender imbalance in a broader context in the business world. It was really bad.

Looking around that room that day (at the conference) and making that comment made me start to realise that the struggle, journey and pushing that I had to push to get anywhere really did not need to be like this. I did not really have to go to meetings where people were asking me where my husband was and why I needed all the money I was amassing. They made all those jokes and snide comments about things that were not necessary, and were not asked of the men.

No one asks men why they are so greedy or why they don’t stop working. It is so annoying. Before, I did not really make any serious issues out of it. But, as I became more gender aware, all those snide comments became more representative of a deeper mindset where people just think that as a woman, we have no business being on the table.

They will tell us that we are not supposed to be so driven, hungry, aggressive, or desirous of success. They want us to be happy being in the other room and supporting the men, which is fine. I am not saying it is something that we should not do, but I began to realise that, if I do choose to set up a company and provide any type of service or product, I should not be judged on the basis of gender. If my product or service is good, it should be in that context. So, we decided that it was time to open up a network of women in energy to answer the question, “Where are the women in energy”? This is because, most times, there is talk that there are no women in the sector.

We also had to set up WIEN to encourage other women to come into the sector and be bold by putting a stake in the ground and say, “I am going to have a career here and I am going to stay”. As we went along, we realised that there were many women in the sector but they were just in their little corners battling this bias.

Additionally, we started to get advocates from the men as well. We have two men on our Board of Trustees. One is a former Managing Director of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas, Mr Tony Attah; and a former Director, ExxonMobil, Mr Udom Inoyo. They joined hands with us to call the attention of companies, regulators and fellow women in order to give women more opportunities in technical and leadership positions and grow the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics population. We found out that when young girls looked up and did not find more women in these fields, they might not be interested in STEM. So, we have a programme for girls in STEM and to guide younger ladies in the sector.

We have also noticed that a lot of young women get missing in the middle of the work ladder. It is a big problem. That is when they start to have children and start to come into marriages where the men ask them to choose between their careers and families.

I had to choose. I think that women have to choose. In the end, fundamentally, if one has children, one is the mother. One is the primary caregiver, even if one gets support. That is the way I see it. I see myself as the core of my children and husband. However, I have co-carers. I nurture those relationships as much as I nurture the relationships in the workplace.

I always made sure that I had strong family support. My mother, when she was alive, provided a lot of support for my children and my life. Even within my home, I always had very mature nannies and stable drivers. I also employed lesson teachers/home tutors. I believe they are sort of the extension of my family. They are there to be able to help me play my role as a wife and a mother. Also, my husband is involved in my children’s education and their lives. It really helps.

I would say that, fundamentally, one has to marry a man that understands. Then, one has to educate one’s children. They have to know that they would have aunties who would support them in caring for them. My children understood that from an early stage.

I try to minimise it, but, if I need to be somewhere and I cannot be there, my husband is always willing to step in. It could be a school game. There was one time my children had a campout and I could not make it. My husband joined the kids for the programme, and he was the only man amongst all the women. People understood and told me how lucky I was. He also understands that he needs to support me and my business. I don’t take it for granted. It is really rare that it happens. Also in the workplace, I do have staff that really pitch in. When I come in, everyone steps up and takes over from what the other person had started off with. I have had employees that have had two or three children in the company, and when they go on maternity leave, staff members are always joyful to jump in and take over their roles and combine with theirs.

In that context, the workplace is supportive of women that have children and their primary responsibility as the caregiver of the child and home builder.

As women, when people say, ‘you can have it all’; you really cannot. One will have to choose and make sacrifices. I always advise women to choose their families first, and I believe that one can combine it.

There was a time when I was the human resources director of a firm, and was overseeing as many as 13 countries. I had 40 employees reporting to me, and I was earning a lot of money. It was an expatriate position. They were paying my children’s school fees. It was a really good company to work for. It was a very exciting role and very powerful but my husband got a transfer to Liberia, and I had to go with him. That is because we had always made a decision as a family that wherever his career was taking him, I would move there. I had to resign from that job and move.

 When one knows the thing that matters to one, one will make sacrifices for them. I had always known that my family was first. Work has to work around my family, and not the other way around. That is what I have always done.

When I resigned from Shell, it was again for family reasons. My husband had got a transfer to Ghana. I don’t believe that work is a static thing. If I am put in a can of sardines, I would find work there. I make sure work revolves around my life. I always choose my life and I would find work around that. I am always flexible, which was why when COVID-19 came, we were able to adjust. I am always ready for favours and to be flexible for my work to move around my life.

I have never been a man, and I don’t know if I would have had to work less as a man. The work ethic I have is the only one I know, and I have always worked like this. The only people I saw at close range were my dad and my husband, and they worked very hard. My husband is a banker and he goes on and on, and sometimes, I ask, “Why do you have to work so hard?”

My mum was a hard worker, too. My dad was in the military and he was extremely disciplined. He showed up anytime and every time there was something to do. Also, I haven’t surrounded myself with people that are lazy or are not result-oriented. This is what I have known and what I have always done. There is a Yoruba proverb that I grew up hearing– “The antidote to poverty is hard work”. I have always had that at the back of my head, and made sure that I kept my word. When I say I would do something, I do it and don’t make excuses. I don’t see something that needs to be done and leave it for someone else.

The first thing organisations can do to aid women in the workplace is to develop a policy that understands and lays out a framework for diversity and inclusiveness. That is because if one does not have an intention to do something, one really would not have to do it. When there is a policy, then, it can be a stepping point.

I think the business case for gender diversity has been long established. There are a lot of statistics that show that companies that have women at the top or in decision-making do financially better. That has been proven. For me, making that case is not where we are. It is now that intentionality of putting pen to paper and saying, “This is what we are going to do” and talking about how we are going to do it.

We are going to then change the mindsets of men and women. Oftentimes, it is the women that do not want to stay in the workplace, because they don’t think it is even possible to combine work with family or override the bias in the workplace. So, building women’s networks such as WIEN to inspire and educate each other would be key. Within organisations, it is important that there are networks that women can tap into.

Finally, one thing that is critical is sponsorship. That is because the women are not at the table where decisions are made, so the men that are there are going to have to sponsor other people that are women to be allowed into the room.

For example, during COVID-19, we noticed that the panels that were set up were more or less like ‘manels’. This is a term we coined because the panels were only filled with men and no women. That was what used to happen before, and no one noticed it. Nobody noticed that those things were not right. We began to call out the organisers to say, “If you want to have a panel, make it about men and women.” They did not even use to have women as moderators. Women moderating started when the talk was loud about the ‘manel’ concept. Another argument then was that the women did not know the content. So, we had to help them find out that there were women who knew the content. The government, most times, releases board appointees to something like the Nigeria National Petroleum Commission Limited, and they are all men. Imagine a government organisation having only men in leadership positions. To me, that is unacceptable. How do you do that? That sponsorship is going to be key. People in leadership positions have to deliberately scout and sponsor women who are competent and capable, in the correct number, to do the job. It needs to be balanced and they have to be competent. We don’t want women there who would be pushed around and bullied. In that way, the value would be lost.


I think one fundamental thing that has helped me is attending conferences and networking with men, and not being afraid to take on anything. For example, we have the Nigerian Oil and Gas Opportunity Fair coming up next week in Bayelsa State. I would like to encourage everyone to attend. That is because information is power. When one attends forums like that, one gets information about what people are planning and what opportunities are out there. One also meets decision-makers, and shows one’s self as one who is knowledgeable, savvy and capable. I don’t sit in my house and wait for things to drop in my lap.

NOGOF is an opportunity fair that was birthed by the Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board— the local content agency of the Nigerian government. They work with the industry to organise NOGOF. That is to create a platform where the oil companies at both the up, mid and downstream will come and present their plans, opportunities and projects for the next two to three years, so one knows what is coming as a service company or someone in academia or one who is planning the conference.

Jake Riley, which is my other company, is working with the NCDMB and the industry committee to organise NOGOF. It is held every two years. At the end of NOGOF, all the opportunities are collated, and it serves as a Bible for the sector. This is so that one knows what is happening in the oil and gas sector.

Aside from the opportunity section, there is the technical section. In this edition, there is a section on Environment, Social and Governance. The other is about linkage industries that can be impacted by the oil and gas industry.

My dad was very strict and disciplined, but he was balanced by my mum who was very gentle. That whole dynamic was one of extreme love in our home. Growing up, there was a lot of love and strictness. But, that strictness is because one needed to be properly guided. Then, my mum would balance it with why things were done the way they were. When we went back to play – ride bicycles and climb trees – for only 30 minutes, we understood why. The whole regimented life was made clear why it was important. My dad was not frivolous at all. We were never confused about what was coming. In that case, he was very predictable.

No, I was only caned once. For my dad, we were clear about what would happen if we did what we were not supposed to do. No one was confused growing up in our home. We followed the rules, and I think that is why, till today, I follow rules to the letter.

We had to move a lot. There were a few years when my parents thought we really needed to stop moving, and they took us to our grandmother’s house in Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, to stay with her. So, I spent some of my primary school years in Ado-Ekiti with my grandmother. My grandmother was quite a strong politician in the area. At that time, there was some political issue going on and they burnt her house, where we lived. We had to leave and go back to our parents. So, we sort of knew that it was fate that we didn’t have to go living with anyone else. So, we always moved with our parents. Perhaps that was where I got my flexibility of thought from. That is because I am not tied to material things, and I have no problem with building and rebuilding. Every time we moved, my mum always had a home business. So, when we moved, we had to rebuild at the next place we were going. I grew up seeing that ‘build and rebuild’ concept constantly. The flip side is I don’t have any friends that I have known for 30 or 40 years. I made friends everywhere I moved to.

At what point did you travel abroad, and whose decision was it?

My dad went to a military school in the UK. At that time, I must have been around three years old. That was the first time I moved to the UK. When I was about five years old, he got transferred to the United States, and we had to move. He came back to Nigeria and we continued moving, but this time, around Nigeria.

When I married my husband and we got transferred around the world – Liberia, Ghana, the UK and Kenya, where he is currently– I had to also move with him. I am already used to the expatriate life.

The power sector was privatised. The privatisation was done in bits and segments. So, we had the transmission components kept by the government, which is the one in the middle – taking power from the generating part of the value chain to the distribution part of the value chain. There was also no fiscal access. There were also zero foreign investors. When one said they did a privatisation or anything and see that foreigners are not interested, one is supposed to look at that thing again. Many people told them then that the privatisation was not being done as it should, but they refused to listen. Foreign capital is very important, and it will go where it will get its return on investment.

For me, the privatisation was not structurally done properly. But, because the Nigerian investors had seen how successful the privatisation of the telecoms was, everyone jumped into it. A few years down the line, we can see. If we don’t have a cost-reflective tariff, it is going to show. One cannot open a supermarket and the cash machine is discounting all the products in the cash machine by 30 per cent. It won’t be long before that supermarket will close down. That is what we are doing in the power sector; that is why no one wants to invest in such a business. We don’t have adequate metering and tariffing. There are a lot of technical losses. If you cannot invest in upgrading the lines, you will lose power. The transmission lines need huge investments, so they can be upgraded. There is no investor there; it is only government.

The DISCOs get the power that they cannot successfully transmit to the customers. So, they are losing power along the line. This means there are commercial losses. It is not viable in that segment of the value chain. If those structural bottlenecks are not fixed, we cannot really get foreign investors, and the local ones are not going to be able to get back their investment.

I, honestly, don’t like subsidies of any kind. I believe in economic empowerment, and I believe subsidies are always impossible to structure properly in a way that it would get to the right hands. People should be empowered and educated to go out there and fend for themselves. I don’t believe someone should sit somewhere and create a scheme that would give people food, which is, for me, generally what subsidy is trying to do. The subsidy takes good intentions and implements them badly. So, a person with seven cars at home will also be subsidized, same as the person who is boarding a bus to work. Meanwhile, they cannot build the train and water systems because they are spending 90 per cent of their revenue to subsidise something of which only 20 per cent is getting to the people that really need it.

Comfort is the watchword for me. I love a lot of silk, and I love to look feminine. I don’t like to look like a man.

 I love to travel and spend time with my family.