Everyday experiences: black African women in elitist spaces

This piece, based on original research in Kenya’s oil and gas industry, explores experiences of difference and belonging among black African women in the extractive industry.

In my work as a feminist scholar, I have always had more questions than answers, particularly on how the elite black African woman has evolved in post-colonialist times and how this evolution has changed their lived experiences and created an environment within which black African women can be considered equals in the workplace. However, the place of black African women in elitist spaces, such as extractive industries, which have long been the preserve of men remains precarious, tokenistic and without opportunity to grow. Their lived experience is such that they are equal but not equal enough, qualified yet not enough to fill top leadership positions. 

Photo by Leo Dalitte on Unsplash

From language to infrastructure, extractives remain foreign, white and masculine and the subjective experiences of black African women are not considered when companies are looking to increase the number of minority workers. This is where the problem lies as companies cannot talk of diversity and inclusivity when the realities of these women is akin to being an anomaly in the sector. Their identity is grounded in social constructivism and the language adopted by extractives as well as black African women’s subjective experiences in the industry need to be rethought and re-imagined, incorporating an African feminist perspective. This will not only give depth to black African women’s culture, politics and power; but will also provoke thought into changing extractive infrastructure. This will incorporate an environment reflective of the advancements made in technology and rid the sector of assumptions of need for physical strength. 

Everyday life in extractive industries is intense, different and unpredictable for the elite black African women I met during the course of my research in the Kenyan Oil and Gas sector. Many did not feel they belonged, and their presence was more of a privilege than a right they had earned through their hard work and commitment. This was due to many factors, including a lack of representation, cultural differences as well as infrastructure that made them feel unwelcome. Of interest was the orientation these women were given on their first day at work during which a funnel was handed over as part of the equipment and uniform. The significance of the funnel was the masculinity that is embedded in the extractive industry system, requiring women to be like men even in matters that are biological. 

This aspect of the toilet is significant as are the negotiations, bonding and decision making done in pubs late in the night. It was clear that if elite women wanted to belong in this ‘boys club,’ they needed to adjust and become like men- ‘man up.’ This notion is entrenched in day-to-day operations, systems and processes with equipment, rotas and recruitment skewed towards men. This has generated a systemised exclusionary process that has been justified as in keeping with the company bottom line. 

The female body has thus become a subject of capitalism and has been reduced to a system of inputs and outputs with assumptions that women are physically weak and therefore unable to fulfil the demands of extractive labour. Extractives are built – equipment, policies and processes- with a man in mind and recent work in academia on invisible women is synonymous to the masculinity exuded in male dominated industries. These are based on assumptions that these industries will remain male hence posing no need for infrastructural changes as more and more women enter the workforce. Elite women are assumed to lack the intellectual capability to belong in elitist spaces and in my research such women had to work twice as hard with very few able to break the glass ceiling. Findings indicated that elite black African women were offered leadership in times of crisis. It was almost like these women were set up to fail. 

Looking at feminist concepts of care, elite black African women struggled to balance their personal and professional lives in an industry that is white, male and foreign and key compromises had to be made. For example, younger engineers put off marriage and childbirth until after their career took off, while other chose not to have kids completely. Whilst such decisions on female body autonomy are a sign of liberation in Anglophone countries like Britain, in Africa it is frowned upon. As such an identity crisis ensues as elite black African women seek to find acceptance and belonging in what is a very matrilineal society. 

This is not just unique to extractives but is also evident in academia. Recent scholarship has affirmed that minority women spouse’s careers came first and as such when it comes to children, the question as to who will stay home with the kids is clear. This is especially problematic for elite black African women as many had additional domestic commitments. With marriage and children being a central part of an African woman’s identity, extractives did offer an interesting juxtaposition that forced elite black African women to rethink their identity as women, mothers and workers in the industry. 

Working in the sector therefore becomes a delicate balance between career and family and given the fast-paced nature of the industry, a year out of commission due to childcare is akin to career suicide. This prompts the need for the building of mining communities around extractives in Africa to remove the uncertainties and precariousness of the ‘place’ of elite black African women. Permanence such as that offered by mining communities in developed economies like Canada and Australia not only offer job security but also offer work-life balance for women that choose to have families which can improve mental wellbeing and productivity. 

Extractive spaces must therefore strike a delicate balance that will allow elite black African women enough power and goodwill to challenge the complex discourses of race, social class, sexism and tokenism. This is to allow the creation of an environment where black African women can flourish as professionals and have equal opportunities to break the glass ceiling; not as tokens but as hardworking and technically qualified workers.

This blog is the sixth in the series ‘The political economy of everyday life’ by SPERI’s Doctoral Researcher Network. You can access the full series here.