IWD: 16 Nigerian women breaking the glass ceiling in diaspora

MINORITY women in white-majority countries often find it difficult to advance to the top of their careers as they face a subtle, yet damaging form of discrimination, first because they are women and second because they are black.

Despite their best efforts and suitability, women are unable to explore the opportunities right in front of them as research suggests that they are 18 percent less likely to be promoted than their male co-workers and hold below five percent of board of directors and corporate officer positions in most corporations. Women have also been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, representing 54 percent of overall job losses.

The glass ceiling is, therefore, a metaphor for the invisible barrier that prevents people, especially women, from rising to top positions. The barriers are most often unwritten, meaning that those affected are more likely to be restricted from advancing through accepted norms and implicit biases rather than defined corporate policies.

However, women’s equality/empowerment is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and by 2030, the world is expected to have achieved some gender equality as set out in the targets under SDG5. The International Women’s Day 2021  is themed ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’ and focuses on the role women can play in ‘building back better’ and take on more challenging roles in the workplace.

To mark this year’s International Women’s Day celebration, The ICIR, in this report, highlights women of Nigerian decent who are already making significant groundwork all over the world to accelerate a cultural shift in the social perception of women and ensure that they have equal access to economic opportunities, as well as more voice in decision-making.


Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, an economist and international development expert, is the current director-general of the World Trade Organization(WTO), the first woman and the first African to hold the office. She also sits on the boards of Standard Chartered Bank, Twitter, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, and the African Risk Capacity. 

Okonjo-Iweala had previously spent 25 years building her career at the World Bank and scaling the ranks to the number two position of managing director, operations. Back in Nigeria, she served as the first female finance minister and worked in that capacity with two Nigerian presidents between 2003–2006 and 2011–2015, the only woman to achieve that feat. 


Obiageli Ezekwesili is chartered accountant and works as a public analyst/senior economic advisor at the Africa Economic Development Policy Initiative (AEDPI), a  programme that advises African heads of states and relevant ministries on economic and policy reform issues. She was a co-founder of Transparency International, serving as one of the pioneer directors of the global anti-corruption body. 

Ezekwesili also served as the vice-president of the World Bank’s Africa division from May 2007 – May 2012 and is also a former federal minister of solid minerals and later headed the Federal Ministry of Education. She was a 2018 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in transparency in the extractive sector.

READ ALSOMale Nation: Number shows how Nigeria discriminates against women in political leadership

Ebong, Okolo, Badejo in Biden’s cabinet

In the U.S., at least three Nigerian women are currently serving in the President Joe Biden’s administration. Enoh T. Ebong was appointed to serve as the acting director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, an agency that partners with the U.S. private sector to develop sustainable infrastructure and foster economic growth in emerging economies, while supporting U.S. jobs through the export of the country’s goods and services. 

Osaremen Okolo, a former senior health policy advisor at the United States House of Representatives, was appointed as a Covid-19 policy advisor to the president. Similarly, Funmi Olorunnipa Badejo, a former counsel for policy at the White House Counsel’s Office, was appointed as a White House counsel. Badejo was also attorney advisor at the Administrative Conference of the United States during the Obama-Biden administration.


At Intel Corporations, California, Nnennaya Udochu, a power integrity engineer, works as an analog engineer, leading platform designs for 2020 Microprocessor Projects and the technical collaterals of the Platform Design Guide. She had previously worked with Cisco and has been an adjunct professor at the University of Portland, Oregon. Udochu also serves on the board for Society of Women Engineers, Columbia River Section, and Engineers Without Borders Portland, Oregon. 


Pamela Adewoyin is the counsel, business & legal affairs at Netflix, where she negotiates and drafts development agreements for a multitude of unscripted series. She also provides legal support and advice to department heads on all corporate, vendor, lease, and sale agreements.

Do women need the approval of male relatives before adopting children in Nigeria?


Human rights activist, writer, strategist and community organiser, Opal Tometi, is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and has campaigned for advancing human rights, migrant rights, and racial justice worldwide. She is also former executive director of the United States’ first national immigrant rights organisation for people of African descent, the Black Alliance For Just Immigration (BAJI). Tometi was included in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020 and she was on the list of the BBC’s 100 Women announced in November 2020.


Blessing Omakwu is a deputy director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she leads the Goalkeepers initiative, which is a campaign and community that serves as a catalyst for action on the Sustainable Development Goals. Prior to joining the Gates Foundation, she had worked with and advised a variety of international organisations and government agencies, including the ONE Campaign, the Nigerian Federal House of Representatives and the United Nations Development Program. 

A recipient of the 2012 USA National Association of Women Lawyers Outstanding Law Graduate award, Omakwu was also recognised as one of the top 50 emerging global policy leaders by the British Council in 2017.


Similarly, Nigerian women in the UK are breaking through barriers, especially in the political arena. Chinyelu Susan Onwurah, a Labour Party politician, has served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Newcastle upon Tyne Central since 2010. She was shadow minister for industrial strategy, science and innovation from October 2016 until 9 April 2020, when she was appointed as shadow minister for science, research and digital.

Prior to joining politics, Onwurah had been head of telecoms technology at Ofcom, with a focus on broadband provision. In 2018, Onwurah was added to the Computer Weekly’s ‘Most Influential Women in UK IT’ Hall of Fame alongside Hannah Dee, Sarah Wood and Sherry Coutu and in 2020 was made an Honorary Fellow of the British Science Association.


Helen Grant, born of an English mother to a Nigerian father, is an orthopedic surgeon by training but veered into politics. She was appointed special envoy of UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on Girls’ Education in January, 2021. Before her appointment, she had become the first black woman of mixed heritage to be elected in 2010 as an MP under the Conservative Party. She also became minister for sports and tourism in 2013, a post she held until after the 2015 general election.


Ofunne Kate Osamor is the Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Edmonton since 2015 and has consistently argued for much fuller representation of Black and Ethnic Minority communities in political bodies, causing her to successfully win re-election in 2017 and 2019 general elections. She is a former minister for women and equalities and former shadow secretary of state for International Development. Osamor was appointed to the House of Lords in 2018 and is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Nigeria.


Another Labour Party politician in the UK, Taiwo Owatemi, was first elected as the MP for Coventry North West in the 2019 election, making her one of Coventry’s three female MPs, alongside Zarah Sultana and Colleen Fletcher. She has served in a number of roles in the Young Fabians and as a trained pharmacist has published several articles on health policy.


In February 2020, Olukemi Badenoch was appointed exchequer secretary to the Treasury and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Minister for Equalities) in the Department for International Trade. She has also been a Conservative politician since 2017 when she won the seat of MP for Saffron Walden, becoming the first woman to represent that constituency, and was later appointed minister of children and families by Boris Johnson in 2019.




    At the Central Bank of Ireland, a young Nigerian woman, Nono Okeke, recently won the Spotlight Award, the bank’s highest award which she dedicated to Okonjo-Iweala for being a source of inspiration to her and many young women.


    Nigeria’s Tito Daodu is the first black woman to become a pediatric surgeon in Canada and currently works at Alberta’s Children’s Hospital Foundation. Daodu has a passion for global health and promoting justice and equity in medicine. She is actively involved in Global and Public Health Research, focusing on improving surgical outcomes and making surgical care more equitable and accessible in Canada and around the world.

    The 2021 International Women’s Day is celebrated today with the hashtag #choosetochallenge and is spotlighting the achievements of women and calling attention to the need to create a more inclusive world with equal opportunities for women of diverse backgrounds.

    Join the ICIR WhatsApp channel for in-depth reports on the economy, politics and governance, and investigative reports.

    Support the ICIR

    We invite you to support us to continue the work we do.

    Your support will strengthen journalism in Nigeria and help sustain our democracy.

    If you or someone you know has a lead, tip or personal experience about this report, our WhatsApp line is open and confidential for a conversation


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here

    Support the ICIR

    We need your support to produce excellent journalism at all times.

    - Advertisement


    - Advertisement