Guyanese women in power and decision making in the forty years of independence
History This Week
By Cecilia McAlmont
July 27th 2006
In two previous articles the situation of Guyanese women in positions of power and decision making specifically in the hierarchy of political parties, as Members of Parliament, Ministers of Gov-ernment, the Local Govern-ment system, Trade Unions, the Public Service, Public Boards and Commissions was examined.
The discussion was set against the background of Guyana's commitments to the recommendations for Action in the Beijing Platform for Action and the guarantees of our 1980 People's Consti-tution.
The discussion revealed that in the abovementioned areas progress has been slow and uneven.
Furthermore, they endorse Mondisire and Dunn's finding in their 1995 report that there continued to be "inequality in the sharing of power and decision making at all levels in the region." In this article I shall continue to examine Guya-nese women's achievements or lack thereof in both political and economic decision making.
For the most part, Guy-anese women continue to be nearly invisible or at best have a token presence at the very apex of decision making in both public and private sector institutions.
However, the last decade of the 20th century and these first years of the 21st indicate some interesting trends especially in terms of the qualitative increase in woman's participation.
The Judiciary is one such area. In Guyana's 1999 CEDAW Report the significant increase in women's participation in judicial affairs was demonstrated.
In 1998, Ms. Desiree Bernard was appointed the first female Chief Justice in Guyana. She continued to score several other firsts as Chancellor of the Judiciary and is currently the first and only woman on the Caribbean Court of Justice.
In 1994 women represented 2 out of the 12 Supreme Court Judges, in 1998 there were 3 female and 12 male High Court Judges, and 5 of 15 Magistrates were women. There were then no female Appeal Court judges.
Currently, a woman acts as the Director of Public Prosecutions, there are two women Puisne Judges, a female High Court Judge, while the most senior member of the judiciary, the Appellate Court Judge is a woman.
Unfortunately, the Gov-ernment has put on the back burner the appointment of a new Chancellor a position for which her seniority makes her a leading candidate. What is significant about this current trend is not only the comparative youth of the judges and magistrates but the fact that they are wives and mothers who have managed to balance their twin responsibilities of home and family, one of the main constraints against significant participation of women in public life.
Additionally, more women than men matriculate for the Law Degree at the University of Guyana and even more importantly the salaries paid to public servants make private practice more attractive especially to male lawyers. This is a trend which should ultimately lead to significantly larger numbers of women in the higher echelons of decision making in the legal system.
The disciplined services, primarily the army and police show contrasting trends. In both these organizations, the very top positions - that of Commissioner of Police and Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force have never been held by a woman even though women were inducted into the army almost from its creation. In the aforementioned CEDAW report it was stated that "women's involvement in the military forces of the country especially at the senior level is characterized by imbalance and under-representation, typical of political and public life". At the time, there were 13 or 7% women in the officer corps of 188 persons. In 1991, a woman, Ms. Brenda Aaron, attained the rank of Lt. Colonel. She retired in 1994. By and large opportunities for the advancement of women in the hierarchy of the military still exhibit all the characteristics of tokenism.
The Guyana Police Force (GPF) certainly seems to allow women greater opportunities to hold and achieve decision making positions especially at the middle and lower levels.
Presently, approximately 19% or a little over 500 members of the Guyana Police Force are women and 14% of Sergeants are women.
In 2004, women made up 40% of Assistant Commissioners, while the percentage's range from 13 to 35% in the ranks of Senior Superinten-dents, Deputy Superintendents, Assistant Superintendents and Superintendents.
In the regions, several women are Officers-in-Charge of police stations. Several years ago in a conversation with ranks of both the police force and the army women indicated that they were made to feel as unwelcome intruders into a man's world. Perhaps now that their numbers have passed beyond the range of tokenism and their performance has earned them promotions they may feel more welcome. The attrition rate of men in the police force clearly supports the trend that men tend to desert any occupation where the remuneration is unacceptably low. It should be interesting to see whether this trend eventually facilitates the acceleration of women into positions of power and decision making in the Guyana Police Force.
So far the discussion has focused primarily on elements of political decision making. For the rest of this article the discussion will centre around women's situation in economic decision making in both the public and private sectors. The conventions earlier mentioned, also enshrined the policy of equity in economic decision making. Guyanese women generally before and since Independence have constituted a minor presence in the economic sphere in general but in economic decision making in particular. No woman in Guyana has held the substantive position of Minister of Finance, Trade or Foreign Trade even though a woman, Dr. Faith Harding served briefly in the 1980's as Minister within the Ministry of State Planning. In 1965, the Central Bank was created and in 1975 a Government owned commercial bank GNCB was established while foreign owned banks mainly Barclays and the Royal Bank of Canada were nationalized. However, after the implementation of the ERP the two latter were privatized and within the last decade and a half two new banks, Demerara and Citizens Banks were established.
There is a dearth of, or rather mere token representation of women in the power and decision making structures of these institutions especially their Board of Directors. By its 25th anniversary in 1990, no woman had ever been appointed to the Central Bank's Board of Directors or as Governor and only one woman had served as one of the several Chief Economists in the Research Department. From 1994, two women by virtue of their positions as Secretary to the Treasury in the Ministry of Finance and the Bank's Corporate Secretary served on the Board. At December 31, 2000, of the five members of the Board of Directors, one was the Chairman by virtue of her position as Acting Governor, 8 other women and 16 men made up the senior managerial team. At December 2005, there were no women on the Board, the Governor and his Deputy are male, while 7 women and 9 men make up the rest of the senior management structures. While the latter represents a significant percentage overall increase it is counter balanced by the lack of any woman on the Board, the highest and ultimate decision making authority at the Bank. An examination of the Boards of some of the privately owned commercial banks show how few women there are at this level. The Annual Report for GBTI 2004, 2005 show that the Board had 1 woman, the same for both years and 9 men.
In the case of the Demerara Bank, since 1996 the Board of Directors consisted of 9 men and 2 women. Interestingly though, roughly 60-75% of the staff are women. In the case of Republic Bank 42% or 8 of the managers in its branches countrywide are women. There are several more women, at a lower level of decision making as Officers-in Charge. However, never more than two, often just one woman sits on the Board of Directors. Currently that sometimes, lone woman on the Board of Directors, Ms. Yolande Foo is Executive Director and Second-in-command at the Bank after more than 28 years in different decision making positions. Certanly a significant qualitative position in that Bank's decision making hierarchy. The mortgage bank, NBS is at the bottom end of the scale in both the qualitative and quantitative representation of women in its decision making structure. Only 18 months before its 60th anniversary in May 2000, a woman was employed as Secretary/Director, and was one of two women on the seven-
person Board of Directors. However, that appointment proved to be little more than an anomaly in the scheme of things. By 2005, the Secretary/Director, who is responsible for the day-to-day running of the Bank and all the other members of the Board are once again men.
Women who make up well over forty percent of the mortgages are now denied even that token representation.
Currently the issue of the composition of the Board is engaging the attention of the courts.
In the next article, Guyanese women in economic decision making and wider 'political space' will be discussed including with a balance sheet of how far we have come.