Female leadership in action at Africa Week


Leadership is shown with actions – not with what you say, Leeds’ first Lord Mayor of African descent said in an inspiring panel discussion about Women in Leadership.

Councillor Abigail Marshall Katung, who grew up in Nigeria, advised women to be optimistic and hopeful while finding solutions to implement change. She was speaking during an event at the University of Leeds to mark Africa Week.  

I am so proud that this banner will live at the University of Leeds - a place that means so much to me.” 

Councillor Abigail Marshall Katung, Lord Mayor of Leeds.

The University of Leeds alum was also presented with a new banner which will live on the campus precinct, celebrating her achievements since she joined the university community in 2000. 

Councillor Marshall-Katung, who was officially named the city’s 130th Lord Mayor this week, said: “This is where my life in the UK began. Without the University of Leeds, I wouldn’t be here. 25 years on and I still live in this city which I love. It’s an absolute honour to be invited to sit on this panel alongside such wonderful women. 

“I am so proud that this banner will live at the University of Leeds - a place that means so much to me.” 

Councillor Marshall-Katung appeared alongside a line-up of impressive female African academics, led by Director of Internationalisation Professor Lisa-Dionne Morris from the University of Leeds and including Professor Marcia Wilson, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience & Institutional Equity from London Metropolitan University, Professor Opeolu Beatrice Olutoyin, professor of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry and Founder and Director of BEE Solutions and Consultancy Services, and pioneering academic of engineering education technology Professor Sheryl Williams from Loughborough University.  

A group of five women smiling at the camera

Councillor Abigail Marshall Katung, Lord Mayor of Leeds with the Africa Week women in leadership panel.


Sharing their journey to their current positions, Councillor Marshall-Katung said: “I grew up knowing that I had to find the true enrichment of life and a sense of leadership. Leadership is a verb, it’s what you do – not just what you say.  

“No one is going to bring anything to you and say, here you go. No chance! If you’re an African woman waiting for that, you’ll be waiting forever.  

“I had to educate myself for what role I wanted. Social injustice and inequality - that has been my key line in what I do. Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice.” 

Professor Wilson shared: “Hostility, isolation, lack of support, it’s all there. There have been many challenges for me, but to counteract that, you’ve to find your support and those people who have your back - and that’s what’s kept me going.”


Asked what advice they would give to women looking for promotion opportunities, Professor Wilson answered: “You really need to be prepared. No one is going to knock on your door. Know that you will get there, but also think about the kind of leader you want to be. What will that look like inside? Integrity - to make really difficult decisions.”

She added: “Stay focused on what you want to do, and take opportunities when they arise. Reach out to people who can help you get where you want to go.” 

Councillor Marshall-Katung added: “Don’t fold your arms – open up!  

“As a woman, it’s tough in politics. As a woman of colour it’s tougher. I always say to women, half the world’s population are women, and the other half – we made them.” 

Councillor Abigail Marshall Katung, Lord Mayor of Leeds with Professor Sheryl Williams from Loughborough University.

Councillor Abigail Marshall Katung, Lord Mayor of Leeds with Professor Sheryl Williams from Loughborough University.

Cultural programme 

Their rousing words closed the first conference day of Africa Week, an inspiring academic cultural programme celebrating the strengths, diversity and impact of African, African in Diaspora and Dual Heritage scholars, organisations and partnerships. 

The programme opened with an uplifting cultural performance by Thanda Gumede and Simeon Walker, whose songs had delegates on their feet dancing and clapping. Poet in Residence for Africa Week Khadijah Ibrahiim and Lebo Mashile spoke about the experience of African women in the world, and how their voices are being heard as more barriers are broken down.  

Professor Hai-Sui Yu, Interim Vice-Chancellor and President at the University of Leeds, welcomed delegates and celebrated the opportunity to enable open intellectual exchange and build purposeful relationships, before Professor Luis Francheschi, Assistant Secretary General of The Commonwealth, spoke about Africa’s contribution to the world, and named it as being key in the changing world’s future.  

Prior to the conference starting, a day of networking and conferences was held including the Black Female Academics’ Network, the Yorkshire African Studies Network and the Women’s Leadership programme.  

Black Female Academics’ Network  

The network’s inaugural meeting celebrated global Black female academic research culture, academic excellence and the contributions of Black female professional services staff. The network showcased the strength and diversity of the Black female work content, open education, discussion, knowledge and exchange.  

Professor Lisa-Dionne Morris, CEO of the Black Female Academics’ Network said: “The University of Leeds is leading the way in African research and dual heritage scholars, fostering a diverse and inclusive academic community that enriches our understanding of global research cultures.

“We want to see BFAN members at every global higher education institute and in every commercial organisation in the future."

During the day, the network heard from keynote speakers who shared their experiences of career progression and gave insight into how to become successful in academia.

I hope today has left women feeling empowered to follow their dreams.”

Professor Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso.

Professor Esther Titilayo Akinlabi, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange at Northumbria University, shared how perseverance helped her career journey.  

Professor Opeolu Beatrice Olutoyin shared how having oriented and focused goals helped her self-motivation. She also highlighted how professional communities and networks can help with your career. Professor Opeolu started as a member and is now the first Black female Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) World Council President.    

Iman Federico Awi, a PhD Researcher and Generation Delta Champion in Sociology and Social Policy, added: “Attending this conference was a profound experience, highlighting the constant battles that Black women face in academia. We are often expected to embody the 'strong Black woman' stereotype, never showing weakness. 

“Yet, in this safe space, we could break down our walls and embrace vulnerability without fear of judgment or consequences. 

“I left feeling empowered and deeply grateful for the trailblazing Black female academics who have paved the way for us. 

“We are especially indebted to our Black mothers and their sacrifices, who have and continue to excel despite the challenges. They deserve all the flowers and more for their resilience and strength.”

A large group of women from the Black Female Academics Network smiling at the camera in the Nexus foyer.

BFAN at Nexus.

Currently, in the UK, there are 66 Black female professors. At the network a panel of five Black female professors spoke about progression, promotion and reward. The panel discussed their routes to becoming professors and how they achieved promotion. The group spoke about their challenges and how to overcome them and the skills they developed along the way. 

Speaking after the panel event, Professor Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, of the Centre for Plant Sciences at the University of Leeds and Co-Founder of Black in Plant Sciences, said: “It was inspiring to see so many women of different generations aspiring to be academics. Through our experiences, we hope they can achieve what they set out to do.  

“I hope today has left women feeling empowered to follow their dreams”. 

Further information 

For further information please contact corporate communications officer, Becky Pascoe at r.pascoe@leeds.ac.uk

Picture credit: Simon & Simon 

Africa Week, held on 22-25 May included cultural, scientific and artistic events in honour of Africa Day (25 May), when the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) now African Union (AU), was founded in 1963. 

Sessions included debate and discussion on open education and knowledge exchange, led by African academics and researchers.  

The packed programme included network events, panel discussions and keynote speeches from researchers, Higher Education institutions, partnerships and networks.   

Africa Day will be celebrated with a variety of free events taking place in Leeds University Union (LUU). For more information and the programme of events, visit the Celebrating Africa website