Girls need to see more CEOs like Maria Ramos


The news of Maria Ramos' retirement as Absa Group CEO left me gutted.

Naturally, the thoughts that followed were about who might replace her and if a woman would be appointed as CEO. These questions are warranted - PwC's 2018 executive director's report notes that there is only one woman CEO among the JSE's top 40 listed companies. Anyone can deduce that CEO is Ramos, and now she's leaving, a whole 2.5%.

I'm not just disappointed because Ramos is the first person whose face I see when someone asks me to name a female CEO, but truly it’s because she had a role to play in a pivotal moment of my life when I decided to become a journalist.

Six years ago, I was a student who got a spot as a delegate of the Absa Capital Pioneering Young Women conference. Apart from meeting 29 other young women – some of whom have gone on to do great things – we also had a chance to engage with leaders like the executive director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

We also heard from Ramos, who shared how she worked as a banking clerk before she eventually became CEO.

Lasting impressions

I suppose you can hear many speeches about pursuing your dreams. But the speeches that really leave a lasting impression are probably the ones that come from someone who could have been you. A room full of 30 students - who are women - heard from leaders who made invaluable contributions in shaping the country and business, and who are also women.

A lot of dreams must have been reawakened that week.

Among the 30 delegates, one is now a maths teacher, another one is a PhD candidate in the field of sustainability, others are now placed in some of the biggest corporates in the world, and some have started their own youth development platforms. 

Having spent a week digging into the role of women in society, the value we bring to it, and the peer education over and above the official programme, it felt like someone reached out and unlocked the vault holding the courage I needed to do what I always wanted to.

I went home and, although it took a few weeks before I told my parents I was going to try this journalism thing, I started working on getting into journalism school.

Four years later, I was fortunate enough to report on a briefing in which Ramos announced Absa would be breaking away from Barclays and pursue a strategy as a pan-African bank.

It was rare to be in the same room as Ramos again, so I stole a moment to thank her for having a programme which supported the development of young women. She seemed pleased to hear it had such a powerful impact on young women.

She might not ever know the full extent of what her being a CEO of one of the big four banks meant for girls. 

Leaders like Ramos are trailblazers for women in my generation. They've planted seeds, with the hopes that we will run even further than they have, so that there won't only be 2.5% of women CEOs represented in the JSE's top 40 in years to come.

Lameez Omarjee is a senior financial reporter at Fin24. Views expressed are her own.

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