This women’s month I reflect on womanhood and what I have learned throughout my many travels in South Africa and the continent. Read more…
In my travels throughout my beloved continent, Africa, I am constantly inspired by the amazing stories of extraordinary people who are shaping its destiny. Each one of them, each of their stories, and every one of their experiences is a lesson that broadens my outlook, challenges my assumptions, and increases my connection with my identity.
With August being Women’s Month in South Africa, I have taken some time to think back on the state of womanhood in Africa and what I have learned about it at home, in South Africa, and on my travels around the continent.
I take inspiration from amazing women
Earlier this year, I met Dr Bettina Ama Boohene-Andah in Accra, Ghana. She is highly regarded in medical and professional circles and made an impact by becoming the first female in Ghana (and probably in the whole of Africa) to be appointed to serve as a president’s personal physician. She also attained this at a young age. I listened starry-eyed to her remarkable story, amazed at her humility, and she gave me a copy of her recently released book, The President’s Physician: Bumps on a Smooth Road. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which I now treasure, and would highly recommend it to aspiring young men and women alike. It tells of her journey to becoming President John Kufuor’s personal physician.
Dr Boohene-Andah eloquently narrates the level of ridicule, hostility, and resentment she experienced when her appointment was announced: “Incredulity, shock, surprise, curiosity, anger, and envy were but a few of the reactions exhibited by many people when the news broke. The norms of African society being what they are, this was really going against the grain of many an expectation. One pathetic myth of our African society (and some others, I dare say) is that, for a woman to be appointed to such high profile, sought-after position, she must have sacrificed her virtue. In plain English, she must be involved in some amorous relationship with her male employer or some influential power broker.”
She concludes that being made the subject of ridicule and cheap gossip only strengthened her determination to excel in her position. Having become the youngest person and first female to serve in this position, she felt she had a duty to make sure that, at the end of it all, she could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that age is just a number and gender is just for classification purposes. She expresses it thus: “The FIRST, I couldn’t let the youth and the female gender down… I wouldn’t!”
Across the African continent – indeed, all over the whole world – women can relate to Dr Boheene-Andah’s experience. Their credentials have been questioned, their commitment called into question and their competence placed under scrutiny, just because of their gender.
Ms Anne Waiguru, Kenya’s only female Cabinet Secretary in the Presidency, is another case in point. She is both complimented and criticised, as she pushes hard and works long hours. The media described her cabinet appointment in April 2013 as “a meteoric rise”. Ms Waiguru was a trailblazer in government reforms and upset the status quo.
The rumour mills on social media went into overdrive. As she had worked with President Kenyatta while he was Finance Minister, her appointment was seen as a reward. She was seen as a woman who had suddenly risen from nowhere.
The stories got to her: “I cried and worried in the beginning, until I got used to the newspaper articles. I now read comments on Twitter and laugh.”
Looking back, she wishes she knew earlier on in her public service career that she would need to have the skin of a rhino. “People asked why I was given the position. The same was not asked about my [male] colleagues. When we [women] do very well, people are surprised. When men do very well, it was expected. I see it even now when people tell me that I am doing very well as if they did not expect me to. They would not be surprised if a man did the same.”
Ms Waiguru says women have to work four times as hard as men to get recognition because society is still patriarchal. “For a woman, half the time you must have proved a point before you are even considered for a position. It is very rare to hear someone say a woman has potential. A woman has to have a few accomplishments.”
Despite the high expectations, Ms Waiguru does not have sleepless nights.
So, women face prejudice, gossip and stereotyping. They also face labelling, bullying and conflicts that test their mettle. One such woman, who has had her fair share of battles on issues of principle, ethics, and her integrity, is Ms Arunma Oteh, Director-General of the Nigeria Securities and Exchange Commission.
She has the Herculean task of transforming the Nigerian capital markets and unlocking the country’s economic potential. In tackling this tough job, she has crossed swords with various players, getting involved in major battles.
She says: “I knew that there would be risks attached to fighting back and that I would be misunderstood, but I also felt that standing up for what was right far outweighed any costs attached for me. If I didn’t do it, who would?”
To those who have labelled her as the Iron Lady, her retort is as forthright as it is inspirational: “If leading change, being passionate, resilient, and decisive about a great course is what makes an iron lady, then I proudly raise my hand up high to that tag.”
Let’s tackle prejudice
The experiences of these remarkable women largely mirror the daily travails of many women in the corporate and public sector. These hardships are influenced by overt and sometimes subtle prejudices about women. I hope and pray that this year’s Women’s Month will not be characterised by the tired speeches, meaningless rhetoric, empty gestures and public relations stunts we have seen in the past.
I say this because hundreds of my colleagues, friends and relatives daily face the harsh reality of a hostile world of work and business. Our places of work remain an environment of struggle for many women. They struggle for acceptance, respect, growth, development, choice, job satisfaction, recognition and appreciation. We celebrate their achievements each August, but then the struggle continues, manifesting itself subtly and overtly beyond the month of August.
It emerges in such issues as promotions, appointments, resistance to encouraging or even permitting a work-life balance, sexual harassment, victimisation, a lack of support, the allocation of resources and the assignment of projects in the workplace.
These prejudices are aptly captured by one of the most eminent business executives in South Africa, Ms Khanyi Dlomo, founder and MD of Ndzalo Media:
“… female business leaders report the continued existence of a glass ceiling, often underpinned by surreptitious collusion and decisionmaking in old boys’ clubs. Black women executives face not only gender bias, but racial prejudice. Also, the problems associated with traditional cultural values, which demand deference towards elders, make it difficult for them to exercise authority in the workplace towards older, but subordinate, employees.”
Her views are not unfounded, as a re-examination of an article published in The Star newspaper on 26 November 2012 shows.
The article, by Letepe Maisela, is titled Still tough going for women. It was an opinion piece on the overall performance of women in the CEO role and the title seems to imply sympathy for corporate women’s cause. However, a closer examination shows that instead, it is a reinforcement of the prejudice women face in the business world.
The article chronicles the setbacks suffered by Ms Cynthia Carrol and Ms Pinky Moholi, who resigned as CEOs of Anglo American and Telkom respectively. Mr Maisela also outlines other “failures” of women leaders and poses a startling question: “Is South Africa and even the broader world out there ready for women leaders in the private sector and the government?”
He then states that “maybe in the quest to become politically correct, our South African male-dominated authorities have been pushing women prematurely into positions they are not attuned to, all in the spirit of gender parity.” In other words, he moots that these women were promoted to their roles solely because they were women and they were not qualified to fulfil the role requirements.
These comments, made 18 years into our democracy, clearly demonstrate deep-seated prejudices about women in the corporate and public spheres, as well as in civil society. I venture to suggest that these prejudices have not disappeared in the intervening two years.
The resignations of Cynthia Carrol (Anglo American), Pinky Moholi (Telkom) and Siza Mzimela (SAA) are still used by those who never believed that women were qualified or suitable for high office to bolster their argument that “parachuting women into senior positions before they are ready is a recipe for disaster.”
Fair is fair
I am not for one moment arguing that women should not be held accountable for performance, neither am I arguing that a different standard of performance or capability is required for women. My gripe is that Mr Maisela and those who think like him focus on these leaders without undertaking a deeper analysis of their track records, experience, industry dynamics or possible challenges they faced in their roles. Their failure is not compared with the success or failure of others who came before them, who are in the same industries or who may be male, nor is it seen in the light of any analysis of their tenure in office. Their gender is singled out as the cause of their failure, which, such thinkers argue, could have been foretold..
Mr Maisela’s most revealing and hurtful comment, which represents the view held by many key men in both the private and public sector, clearly articulates this attitude: “I think South Africans should own up and face reality – it will take a while for our women to acquire the right capacity to manage adequately and lead multibillion-rand entities.”
I take issue with this opinion and find this statement hurtful and offensive on three levels:
Firstly, it’s sexist. It presumes to understand the business acumen and capability of women to lead multibillion-rand entities. The reality is that there are hundreds of women, both here, in South Africa, and on the rest of the African continent, who are currently running or are supremely capable of running such entities successfully.
Secondly, I have worked and continue to work with some of the most amazing women – and I’m no Johnny-come-lately, nor is my experience an isolated incident. My career has spanned over 20 years, across the public and private sectors, in more than nine countries on this continent. The skill, capacity, achievement, work ethic, drive, business acumen and capacity to take on bigger roles of the women I have encountered have matched and often exceeded those of the men I worked with.
Thirdly, I am father to three children: two girls and one boy. I want the best for my children and will always invest time, love, energy and money in their future. I cannot accept the notion that my son, by virtue of his gender, is likely to be able to run a multibillion-rand entity, but my daughters are not. Each one of them will be given all the support and guidance I can give them. It will be up to them as individuals, agnostic of their gender, to take on challenging roles.
I do not know Mr Maisela, I do not hold any views against him as a person. However, I do have a problem with prejudiced and ill-informed views that may lead to more prejudice against women in the workplace.
We must all take action
The depth of my commitment to the cause of women empowerment should not be judged by the length my words but by the consistency and efficacy of my actions in all my spheres of influence.
This August, I have a challenge to offer my fellow men. Let’s use this month to:
- re-examine our assumptions about women;
- evaluate our attitudes towards women as colleagues or bosses;
- think about our overt or subtle prejudices against women;
- have frank conversations about the role of women in the workplace; and
- assess the support we give to women in our organisations to promote their success.
I will not cease to identify, acknowledge, encourage, and empower women who continue to show their capabilities, and I hope even more men will do so from now on.
Those who stifle women’s progress in the workplace normally confront women with a false choice: career or family. It’s not really a choice at all. Give women the opportunity and they will make trade-offs themselves; not as a response to paternalistic pressure from male bosses or unsupportive partners, but out of choice. When they have made the choice, such a choice must be fully appreciated and understood. This requires a change in mindset from us as husbands or partners and from those of us who are managers or leaders.
Being a real man and a leader means having the ability to step aside and be led by those best placed to do the job better. I have been privileged to find myself in this position. I am led by capable women in our business. I am inspired by the zeal, vigour, competence and sense of purpose that they continue to show.
So much for my challenge to my fellow men. I have a challenge for the women in my sphere of influence too.
According to Ms Khanyi Dlomo, one of the most striking impediments to African women’s advancement in business – reported by women from all corners of the continent – is a lack of solidarity and support from their own sex. Far too many women who achieve leadership positions fail to play an active part in transferring either their skills or their empowerment to others. In a disturbing number of cases, they actually seem to regard fellow women as professional rivals. There is a growing recognition of the need for mentorship and networking among women.
Women have given birth to the people of this continent, raised its young, endured its harsh climate, been victims of its diseases, been displaced by its wars and been marginalised by the plunder of its resources. Through its darkest hour, they kept the faith, hoping for, praying for and working for a better day.
At the dawn of a new era, as Africa rises to its true potential, as it takes its rightful economic place among the nations, the door cannot be slammed shut in their faces. They deserve their place in the African sun, and, as Ms Dlomo asserts: “Finding a place in the sun begins with finding the confidence to believe in it, the courage to insist on it and, crucially, the voice to claim it. It is time for the women of Africa to make a noise.”
I hope more women will find their voice in the corporate world and the home, while more of us men will have the humility, good sense and maturity to hear that voice. Africa’s time has come and women must be at forefront of its rebirth, development and prosperity.
We owe it to our daughters; we owe it to future generations to tell the inspiring stories of Gloria Serobe, Gill Marcus, Phutie Mahanyele, Wendy Luhabe, Louisa Mojela, Orl Ojolloh, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Tsakani Ratsela, Funeka Montjane, Maria Ramos, Anne Amuzu, Rebecca Enonchong, Nicky Newton-King, Maureen Dlamini, Margaret Hirsch, Juliana Rotich, Jackie Kemirembe Rubuubi, Tebello Nyokong, Yolisa Phahle, Sola David-Borha, Portia Nondo, Irene Charneley, Christine Ramos, Baronice Hans, Dr Precious Motsepe, Cheryl Carolus and many more….
These are amazingly talented and accomplished women, but their prominence and visibility may blind us to the abundance of talent and potential around us. In each company, in each country, in each public sector entity, throughout our beloved continent, we have hundreds of capable women stifled and suffocated by prejudice, chauvinism and poor leadership. Their stories are as inspirational, their fight as brave and the odds they face as great as those faced by the ladies mentioned. They need our support and affirmation now and way beyond the month of August.
Each of these women can tell a story of courage, perseverance, inspiration, determination and victory over incredible odds. These are stories to be told, examples to be emulated and role models to be admired.
I dedicate this issue of Conversations to these unsung heroines who triumph over adversity every day. We must beat the African drums, blow the traditional horns and ululate in honour of them, and we must keep on doing it long after the end of August….. for the sake of our daughters, our future generation, the hope of Africa
Malibongwe igama lama khosikazi !!!
Forbes Woman (Africa) June-July 2014
Khanyi Dlomo, “Making a noise: Africa’s women in Business”, 2013
Sylvia Ann Hewlett & Carolyn Buck Luce, “Keeping talented women on the Road to Success”, Harvard Business Review, (Finding and Keeping the Best People)
Letepele Maisela, “Still tough going for Women”, The Star Newspaper, 26 November 2012