Faith Zaba: The realities of being a woman in media leadership

On 16 December 2022, WAN-IFRA Women in News held a virtual graduation ceremony to celebrate the achievements of its largest Leadership Accelerator cohort in history. It was a phenomenal result – 183 women journalists and editors from 10 African countries were empowered to transform their newsrooms.

They join a cohort of more than 4,000 others who have successfully gone through the intensive leadership, coaching and networking programme that runs in three regions: Africa, the Arab region and Southeast Asia.

At the Africa graduation, this year’s motivational talk was delivered by the 2022 WIN Editorial Leadership Awards Laureate for Africa, Faith Zaba. Here are snippets from her speech.

Faith’s Leadership Accelerator journey

I am a beneficiary of the Leadership Accelerator programme. It has been very helpful to my career, and personal and leadership growth. When I did my career roadmap, I stated that I would be an editor in five years. This made me believe that what I thought was impossible could be possible. I was appointed editor of the Zimbabwe Independent within three years of the roadmap, becoming the first female editor at Alpha Media Holdings.

I learnt a lot from the programme. It prepared me for the leadership position I hold today. I earned a sisterhood that gave me so much support when I almost quit the industry in 2016. 

A woman of many firsts

I am a mother of two wonderful kids. I am also the editor at Zimbabwe Independent. I have 30 years of experience in the media. I have worked for both public and private media.

I have broken many records, becoming the first female political editor, first female news editor, first female deputy editor and now the first female editor at my organisation – one of the few women in Zimbabwe that hold the editor position.

However, the road has not been easy.

I am a strong person raised by a strong woman who told me that the sky is the limit, that I can be whoever I want to be.

Growing up, I would never have described my grandmother as a feminist. Now when we speak about her with my family, we come to the realisation that she was an early pioneer of feminism.

Under my grandmother’s roof, the boy-child and girl-child were considered equals. She taught us to be independent thinkers and self-reliant. My grandmother valued education. She taught me that being female did not confine me to traditional roles. She told me that marriage was not the ultimate goal of our lives as women.

She taught me that I could be anything I set my mind to and achieve whatever goals I set out for myself. She also taught me that it is through hard work, determination and the choices we make that we shape our lives and successes in life. Believe in yourself and your dreams, she always said.

I am who I am today because of these life lessons from my grandmother. We need to raise strong daughters; powerful girls who grow up feeling secure in themselves.

The story of resilience

My story is one of determination, resilience, a spirit of never giving up, a spirit of wanting to see and influence change, to give women a voice and to create opportunities through mentoring. It is a story of sisterhood, without which I might not be speaking here today.

I have gone through it all, from depression caused by what was happening at work and at home to bullying at the workplace, cyberbullying, discrimination, sexual harassment. You name it, I have been through it.

So I can relate to each one of you and your stories as you navigate the newsroom.

What I want to say to you today is never take the easy route to the top. For most people, the road to success is a staircase, and the number of floors to the top differs from one individual to another. For a lot of our male colleagues, they start their staircase to the 10th floor on the fourth floor because there was an elevator from the ground. For women, life isn’t easy. 

The challenges that female journalists face are not unique but cut across all business sectors. The story is the same across Africa, where women hold just 9% of top business posts and 33% of editorial positions, as the WIN 2022 Leadership Mapping research showed.

In Zimbabwe, women hold just 12% of top business posts and 18% of top editorial positions.

It has been a long and difficult journey for me to be recognised by my male colleagues who have always considered the newsroom a “boys club”. To date, every single day I go to work is war. Every single day I have to prepare myself for battle. I always ask myself: for how long, for how many more months, for how many more years?

The media in Africa is lagging behind in changing attitudes towards women. My story illustrates these challenges.

I have had to work extra hard to prove myself. In 2012, I had to challenge the status quo after having been passed over for promotion but performing tasks that go with a higher position. The excuse given then was that I would not cope as it is difficult to balance my career with family – despite my putting in more than 12 hours daily.

Between 2010 and 2012, I acted as news editor, in some cases for as long as seven months, only for the role to be given to a man. There were three males recruited from outside the organisation to fill that position – two did not last beyond a three-month probation period. 

It took me almost four years to get to the position of deputy editor. I was eventually promoted to the editor’s position in 2019.

But instead of celebrating the great milestone of a female editor being appointed to lead a top business newspaper in the country, I faced cyberbullying. I was called all sorts of names. I was attacked with sexual innuendos. I was attacked on Twitter for a whole month. My years of experience did not count.  

They said Zimbabwe Independent would collapse under my leadership. The worst part was that some of the attacks were coming from women.

My rise was long and bumpy in comparison to my male colleagues. Most male editors in Zimbabwe get into those positions in their late 20s or early 30s.

There was resistance from my subordinates. In the media, the dominant culture is that of long working hours and networking after hours – anything less is seen as a lack of commitment to the job and organisation. That alone can discriminate against women who often have to balance between work and responsibilities at home.

A brighter future

For companies to reach maximum success, including financial ones, they need to take advantage of all the leadership competencies in the organisation. We need to create workplaces where men and women can learn and grow on equal footing.

We need women and men to function together in leadership teams, developing winning organisational cultures where people are aligned, loyal, share a passion for their work, help and encourage their colleagues, and respect their senior leaders.

Media companies should strive to create a healthy organisational culture to increase productivity, growth and efficiency, and reduce counterproductive behaviour and staff turnover. To do this, companies need to accept and appreciate diversity, treat each employee fairly and respect their contributions. 

Sexual harassment is a deterrent to a lot of young journalists joining the media. Companies should make sexual harassment a dismissable offence and frame it as a violation of human rights.

Finally, as we continue to work hard and smash glass ceilings, we must always remember to take care of ourselves. We must always set aside me-time and family time. I struggled with that. From lessons learnt, a lack of balance can have serious consequences on one’s health, well-being and family relations. 

Keep climbing the staircase. Never give up – and together we will celebrate more women at the top.

I am the epitome of success in a very difficult environment. It can be achieved through hard work, a good work ethic, never giving up, never allowing anyone or an organisation to drain your passion. Most importantly, be teachable. 

Despite all the adversities, I speak before you as the 2022 Women in News Editorial Leadership Awards Laureate for Africa. And if I did it, so can you!

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