OER: May we meet you madam?
Allanah: My name is Sonye Allanah. I started in the civil service actually. I was headhunted by Total when I was already a senior officer because they wanted to start a government relations unit. They needed someone with in-depth knowledge of government to come on board to head the unit. And that’s how I joined the industry.
OER: Tell us about the journey
Allanah: It was an interesting journey; a big step virtually into the unknown. The thing is that when you have a good foundation, you can actually function anywhere. I think the woman by her nature is multi-faceted, although, sometimes, what we lack is the platform to express ourselves. So you never know what you can do until you are challenged. Initially when I heard it was the Oil and Gas Industry, I was a bit uncomfortable because I knew nothing, as it were, about oil and gas. All I knew was palm oil, groundnut oil and whatever (general laughter). But I had a very supportive and inspiring boss at the time that encouraged me to learn. So, I believe that if you are teachable and willing to learn, you can do exploits.
OER: How did you rise through the ranks?
Allanah: I started as a manager and now I am the Deputy General Manager. I have handled Public Affairs in the company in relations to conferences such as this (The Nigerian Oil and Gas, NOG, Conference), sponsorships and related issues. So, it has been quite interesting. Anything to do with the public, the public space and what I see lacking in the industry is that whereas people have the technical skills, they don’t always have the soft skills to compliment their technical know-how. We need to strike a balance a bit more in this area because by the time you grow through the ranks in the technical field maybe as an engineer or a driller into the management level, those skills alone are no longer enough. This is where soft skills come in to smoothen the rough edges. Soft skills play a major part in being influential, to speak to the decision makers and to executives in government. To do this, you need diplomatic skills and tact to influence decisions, one way or the other. How do you now manage interpersonal skills, gain access and sustain relationships? I can say therefore that we are the bridge between government and the industry. We take the message from government to the industry and vice-versa. We have found that at both ends of the spectrum, there are lots of misconceptions.
OER: So, how easy or difficult was it for you to become the Deputy General Manager for Total, one of the biggest IOCs in Nigeria?
Allanah: I had many years of experience in the civil service as I said earlier and also a very supportive boss. That gave me the enabling environment to express and develop myself and of course, visible results, and positive feedback.
OER: What is your experience in a male-dominated world that the Nigerian Oil and Gas Industry is? What were the obstacles you had to surmount, the competition from colleagues and all that?
Allanah: I find it sad really that things haven’t changed much. It is a global phenomenon that in the boardroom, you still find very few or none at all. The figures are fluctuating and now shrinking. I remember making a presentation about two years ago on the occasion of the International Women’s Day about the UN initiative for stepping up gender equality by the year 2020. I made a presentation using pie-charts showing the ratio of male-female in the company, top executives and what have you. This is a very thin slice of the cake. It is sad and I believe we can do so much more. Very often, women are given positions in form of tokenism. It seems some corporations feel that once they’ve ticked the right box once a while, all righteousness has been fulfilled. This ought not to be because given the right platform and encouragement, we can excel. When a woman is in a position and sometimes she fails, they always use that as an example but when the men fail and they are failing every day, not much is said about it. We are still in a position where it seems we have to prove ourselves but the point is that we have a lot more to give than we’ve been given credit for.
OER: You may wish to throw more light on the woman having so much to give. It appears the woman is always in the spotlight, trying to prove herself time and again.
Allanah: There is lot of pressure, no doubt on the woman either subtle or overt because by our nature, we stand out. The woman is a very strong entity and in many respects, stronger than the man. She has the capacity to balance, juggle between children, home, husband, family, shopping and others needs. It is not an argument that intellectually, we hold our own. What remains is to be given the platform to speak and now we are in energy, how many women do we have here? A session (at the NOG) on local content just ended and there was only one woman on the panel. We want more representation because we can do more based on merit.
OER: Let’s talk about pressures you earlier alluded to. As a career woman, how have you managed to handle it given the place of family and work?
Allanah: If you want to be a career woman, you have to make up your mind and definitely, there are sacrifices to be made, otherwise you will wear yourself thin and collapse. When my children were little, I had nannies but I also spent quality time with them especially during the weekends or whenever I could. In Total, we have a crèches in our major locations in Port-Harcourt and Lagos to ensure that the nursing mother can be at ease because her child is well taken care of. She can go breastfeed her child and still give the input required of her. This is a massive support system that I think our company is bringing to the table. Apart from this, you still have to go shopping, wash clothes and or sometimes care for your sick child. Sometimes, when you return home, the children are sleeping but we do make up during weekends. It is about trying to strike a balance.
OER: You are working with a multi-national company that understands the work-life balance and equity, ready to help their staff to be focused and avoid distractions. And I think this is why they established crèche for the nursing mothers. Looking at Nigeria’s work sector, do you think career women like you are being properly attended to in the workplace?
Allanah: Generally speaking, women are disadvantaged and people don’t really care much about women. It is the big multi-national companies and like-minded organizations that are really taking these issues seriously. I don’t think much of the clarion call by the UN has been heard. You hear it once in a year and the question is after the celebrations, what next? It is like the Mothers’ Day when everyone celebrates motherhood, but the following day it is business as usual. A lot can be done by government, the Ministry of Women Affairs, the NGOs, in terms of awareness to help the woman to achieve her full potential. I believe so many women died with their talents buried with them. This is a shame because I always look at the woman like a flower, like a bud which contains lot of promise-flagrance, essence strength but if not allow to develop into full bloom; that will be the end of it.
OER: What are the challenges you face as a mother, wife and a career woman?
Allanah: It is the challenge of being profiled a woman, generally. You are looked at for being pretty but when it comes to serious things, they talk about the men. That is a challenge but by and large, this is not a problem in my organisation. It is not a yardstick at all. At international conferences, it is the same thing, whether black or white. You see one or two women and the rest are men.
OER: How were you able to adjust yourself to this reality?
Allanah: I am unapologetically a woman and I celebrate my gender. I believe I know what I want and what I bring to the table. My quest each day is to bring value to the company. The day I think that I’m no longer useful is the day that I should withdraw. It is a mindset thing and I believe excellence is not a skill but an attitude. I approach everything with an attitude of excellence, knowing that I have something to give. When I retire to bed each night, I ask myself how I fared during the day. It’s a kind of self evaluation of trying to do better the next day or build on whatever platform I have to develop myself.
OER: What’s your advice to the up and coming women who look up to you as their role model?
Allanah: I would advise any woman not to be intimidated and to discover her passion in life. Continue to do your best and keep improving yourself. You will get to the top. Always remember that you have a voice; let it be heard.