Women: The Conversation 

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Women: The Conversation 

I had an opportunity to answer some questions for the publication : Women: The Conversation. I thought that my leadership conversations readers might benefit from this conversation. 

 

  1. In your personal view, is Women’s day still a relevant commemoration? Do we need a specific day to recognize and celebrate Women?

 

Women have come from far for their voices to be heard and be recognised as equal contributors to our society, so I think that this remains a very important day in our annual calendar, where we celebrate and recognize women’s contribution, take stock of their achievements and chart a way forward for the future. It has progressed to become a Women’s month, with activities throughout the month and this is now the norm across the public and private sectors.

I however, feel very strongly that we should ALL focus on women in the workplace beyond the month of August. it must be a daily and deliberate focus on the real challenges facing women in our organisations. Our duty as leaders is to create an environment where women will not only succeed but thrive because:

  • Their voice is heard, loud and clear 
  • The work environment takes into account their family commitments
  • We are brutal in taking action when there are incidents of sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, corporate bullying and abuse of positions by those in leadership positions
  • There are clear career opportunities with visible progress and promotions into senior roles
  • Women are paid in a fair, transparent and equitable manner and are not prejudiced because of their gender
  • We are supportive when women are going through a divorce, are in an abusive relationship, can’t have children, have a child with disabilities and are balancing their work, home and studies
  • Young women can see many role models in key positions in organisations

This is only part of the barometer by which we should judge our progress or lack thereof. Such a barometer must evaluate all of us from the highest levels of organisations, through to business units, to individual teams and to the lower levels of organisations.

This can only be done if this becomes a daily and regular focus and not something we focus on only in August. Finally, although we have some pockets of progress in certain organisations, we are way behind from where we need to be. We must tackle women empowerment with the speed and urgency this deserves, beyond mere lip service and public relation exercises. 

  1. What measures have been put in place in your organisation towards achieving balanced gender representation?

Our organisation has made great strides in trying to achieve gender representation. We have seen women at the highest levels of our C-Suite such as, Sola David-Borha, Margaret Nienaber, Funeka Montjane, Disebo Moeophuli, Peggy Sue Khumalo and others. We also have formidable leaders such as Adv Kgomotso Moroka, and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi on our Board of Directors.

Despite these successes, the dominant culture in our organisation, and others remain male dominated. We still have the following challenges that face women in our organisation:

  • High staff turnover; 
  • Stunted career growth; 
  • Lack of respect and appreciation of their skill, effort and capabilities; 
  • Work – life balance in an unsupportive environment; 
  • Lack of sponsorship and mentoring and 
  • A general lack of voice in all key decisions throughout organisations.

There are a lot of programmes that are being done to address these, and other Challenges  If I were to focus on those issues, in my area, that really excite me,  I could highlight the following:

  • We have prioritized the appointment of Black women in general, and African women in particular, whenever we have had any vacancies, this is accelerating women development and leadership in our team; 
  • We have prioritized, the opening up of learning and development opportunities for women, with specific emphasis on exposure to core Card and Payments skills, and training opportunities here and abroad; 
  • We have actively identified the most talented women, earmarked them for key roles, and then placed them in Mwamba ( our flagship women development programme) for accelerated development;
  • We are maximizing exposure of key women talent, senior managers and executives to more senior leaders, local and international forums. We regularly invite key leaders and influencers to engage, inspire and motivate women; 
  • We do regular gender parity exercises and always look at gender pay parity during appointments, recruitment, promotion or market mapping exercises to ensure that we do not discriminate on gender; 
  • As leaders, we are do regular feedback and review exercises about our own conduct as males, to ensure that we learn from the feedback about inappropriate behaviours or language; 
  • We have a very strong Diversity and Inclusion committee, made up of people from all races, across all areas of seniority (from junior staff to executives), who drive an aggressive and interactive learning and development programme about race, gender, religion, diversity etc and lastly 
  • Women’s only feedback sessions are held to gain more of an appreciation of some of the stumbling blocks that remain in the party of women’s empowerment and development.

We have achieved so much, in such a short space of time, but there is much more to be done. What gives me comfort that we are making progress and changing the narrative, are the following key things:

  • Women in our team are finding their voice and are increasingly using it to shape our next plans and how we change our environment; 
  • We have now got an amazing pipeline of young women leaders, who are not encumbered by past mental barriers;
  • The women leaders we have appointed have smashed stereotypes and biases, they are driving their business to success, whilst proudly retaining their identities as women; 
  • More and more people are starting to show up at work as their true selves, and not as poor replicas of others. We are slowly removing the corporate masks women are expected to wear for so called success; and 
  • The young men in our teams, are bringing a very welcome gender sensitive nature with them, this makes for the building of a good culture going forward.

These are daily efforts, they are not only for August, we see women’s empowerment and development as something that goes way beyond August.

    1. A common theme in the woman’s conversation is that many men comfortably accept the notion of women being boss/authority in their personal space (their mothers and sisters etc), yet display reluctance to accept women as leaders in the workplace. What is your take on this perceived disconnect ?)    

I think the biggest disconnect is our failure to largely reflect on and accept our own biases. 

Even some of the most progressive thinkers, who are male, do not fully appreciate the jaundiced view they have on women, sometimes condescending, sometime patronizing and most horribly laced with misogyny. It is only the people we led, those who are our colleagues, those we love and those with whom we interact who can give us a dispassionate feedback about our real attitude towards women in our workplace. It is also concrete actions, appropriate behaviours and policies and practices set, in our spheres of influence, that will determine the progress we make in: 

  • Creating an enabling environment for women to thrive in our teams; 
  • Genuinely hearing and respecting the views of women in debates and discussions without belittling them by throwing comments such as “you are being emotional”; 
  • To have the humility to continuously do personal reflections, learn and change from the feedback you get from those you lead; 
  • Ensure that the policies and practices in your organisation are progressive and favourable towards women, should they not be like that, you actually have to be at the forefront of advocating for change. 

As men, and as leaders, we must use moments of reflection and introspection to examine our own thoughts, our biases, our private conversations, what informs the decisions we make and the overall attitudes we have on women.

We must ask ourselves, how do women in our teams see us, how do their experience us, is the congruence between our words and our daily deeds? Do we align ourselves with change or the perpetuation of the unjust status quo? What are we teaching young men? How do we motivate young women in our society? How are women treated in our organisations, under our leadership? What voice do women have in our marriages and relationships? How are women treated in our institutions? 

We fought for a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa. We have taken some great steps towards these noble goals, but we must work harder, do much better and confront our bigotry and prejudices. 

A dear colleague, Funeka Montjane, always challenges, even those of us who think we are progressive, or who think we are gender sensitive, to be vulnerable enough and humble enough to always examine if we do not have any unconscious biases, hidden prejudices and subtle sexist behaviours. I highly recommend this, I get regular feedback from those I work with, those I lead, those who are closest to me and from many friends who are women about my own blind spots. My wife and two daughters are also my conscious through all these feedbacks I learn to strive to be a better person, and a better leader- it is lifelong learning.

  1. In a country grappling with inequality across several levels – race, gender, financial- how do you decide to place priority? Can we equally tackle all social ills with the same urgency?

When I reflect on our world, our continent and our beloved country, I am always haunted by the seminal words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr when he said:

“When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact…that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance; We’ve learned to fly the air like birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters…”

South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with the largest part of the population suffering from unemployment, poverty and under-development. 

When you overlay racial, gender and youth dynamics on this, then you have a huge challenge facing us.

By whatever measure you use, black women are the worse off from an employment, inequality, poverty and underdevelopment point of view. There are several interventions plans by different stakeholders to address this, most will take decades, and require enormous resources to turn the tide.

There is, however, a priority that I think is within our grasp as men, and that is “ Eliminate the fear that women live under” Many women in South Africa and across Africa live in fear – fear of being robbed, raped, mugged, killed, harassed, mistreated, humiliated, discriminated against and even sold as a slave. We hear daily of, vicious and cruel attacks on women and children; high levels of violent crime including rape and murder; single mothers battling to make ends meet without support; and sexual harassment in the workplace by senior corporate executives and powerful politicians. We know of countless stories of physical and emotional abuse in relationships and marriages. We, as men, are the source of that fear, we have made life unbearable for so many women – they feel less safe in their homes, places of worship, schools, universities, places of work, communities and even in places of fun and recreation. This fear knows no age, race, religion, nor geography- women are under siege everywhere in our country and on our continent. They are losing trust even to those of us who are meant to be the closest and most trustworthy – husbands, boyfriends, managers, religious leaders, teachers, coaches, tutors, brothers, uncles, fathers and even sons. We are the source of that fear. 

We may argue that we are not involved/party in any of this behaviour, but the reality is that there are many men doing this thing, everyday. We should loudly declare – “ Not in our name”. As men, in South Africa, and across the African continent, we need to each take the most concrete steps to do the following : 

  • Listen deeply to the pain, anxiety and fear being felt by women from their personal stories;
  • Challenge our own prejudices, bigotry and sexist views and the influence we may have on others; 
  • Openly stand up against all forms of abuse, rape and violence against women and children, regardless of how powerful, prominent, or connected the perpetrators are; 
    Become role models to younger men on how to treat women as equals, and how to appreciate their contribution, skills, expertise, experience and unique attributes in all spheres of our lives; 
  • Raise our daughters to be fiercely independent, confident, self-assured and ambitious to realize their true potential; 
  • Raise our sons to be loving, caring, considerate, respectful, sensitive, hardworking, ethical and conscientious about all people, especially women, given the current fears women have; 
  • Make sure that in all our environments, be it work, home or place of worship – we are sensitive to any words, actions and behaviours that may create fear, discomfort and pain to women and children; 
  • Ensure that women have an equal yet unique voice in our relationships, marriages, places of work, places of learning and places of worship; 
  • Examine and review our practices, norms, rituals, rules, traditions in all sphere of society – we must preserve what creates unity and diversity and change what promotes and perpetuates misogyny and patriarchy; and lastly.
  • Educate and inform other men, who are our friends, brothers, colleagues, family members and members of our community about the benefits of a non-racial and non-sexist society, where women thrive, succeed and prosper. 

We need to start in our own environments, where we stay, work, study, play and hang out- with those we love and are closest to us. Here is where I hope we can start this journey and then continue our quest to be that generation of brave men who will stand up and be counted. Some men have started on this journey, some are further ahead, but we need ALL men to be on this journey. 

There will be setbacks on this journey, disappointments, differences of opinion and moments of doubt and anguish, but we must stay the course, each of us, as individuals, as friends, as families, as colleagues – our common enemy is the fear we must eliminate. 

We must take steps to eliminate that fear in our homes, places of work, families, places of worship, places of recreation and throughout the country and our continent.

  1. 25 years into democracy, what strides do you think women have made, and what more needs to be done? 

Against all odds, in spite of all the obstacles in their path, over the last 25 years, we have seen:

  • Amazing women leaders smash the glass ceiling and take up the most senior roles in large corporates and businesses; 
  • International bodies recognize and appoint South African women as leaders in their top echelons; 
  • Women take up leadership roles in all spheres of government; 
  • Brave and undaunted entrepreneurs build amazing businesses from the ground up; 
  • The girl child starting to show better results than young boys in both schools and universities; 
  • Women finding their voice, asserting their rights and setting the agenda in all sphere of South Africa life; and 
  • Women are beginning to challenge patriarchy and misogyny in all its forms in religious, cultural and traditional matters.

The other day, I was marvelling at the sheer talent and potential displayed in the Mail&Guardian 200 Young South Africans. The young women in that publication are not only some of the best in South Africa, or our beloved continent, I would strongly argue that many of them are world class. They are making huge inroads in areas that were previously exclusive or dominated by men. Failure to acknowledge this progress will fail to see the huge strides women have made, and how they are now shaping the kinds of products or services provided to them. Companies that do not see the growth, the potential, discernment, independence and assertiveness of this demographic will be left with either a dying customer base or an obsolete business model. To see this demographic, companies and top executives, will have to examine their own paternalistic views about women, the voice of women is growing louder as buyers, decision makers and opinion shapers.

Although all these are great steps, and more positive developments are taking place, there are some hard realities we still have to confront, these need to be addressed urgently, the five big ones for me are:

  • Rural women bear the worst brunt of poverty, unemployment, inequality and underdevelopment, our collective efforts have to be focused on changing this picture over the next 25 years or so. 
  • Our cultural, traditional and religious practices need a sober and dispassionate review, to see how much they perpetuate patriarchy, misogyny, unfair discrimination and prejudice against women. All our religious, cultural and traditional institutions must allow for this deep and penetrating introspection in order to bring about the changes necessary for a more egalitarian and more tolerant society.
  • I have already highlighted the scourge of violence against women and children, we have to really make a step change in tackling this sickening phenomenon. 

I would, however, like to emphasize two more aspects, within this sphere, these are matters that we must also emphasize, let’s we get stuck only in dealing the general violence and rape crisis. What are these matters that require more attention and focus, by all of us, but especially by men: 

  • We have grossly underplayed the level of sexual harassment in our corporate and public institutions – more and more leaders are abusing their positions of authority to demand sexual favours of women. Many women suffer in silence because the institutional culture is not supportive of those who stand up to this. In many cases, the institutional culture promotes and celebrate a machismo culture that denigrates women, and some of the culprits, who are the worst abusers are the most senior, the most talented and the most loved and admired. As they say, the fish rots from the top – the culture identified at places like Uber, Fox News, is not only limited to those companies, or Hollywood, it is also prevalent in South African institutions. This must be addressed as a matter of urgency as too many people are hurting, mental breakdowns, marriage and relationships breakdown as women suffer in silence. South Africa is ripe for its “ Me too Movement”. Much more must be done to educate all employees, across all ranks, with a particular emphasis on men about what constitutes sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour, bullying and all types of unwanted advances. 
  • Women who are entrepreneurs depend on acquiring new clients for their businesses; to retain their existing clients; to negotiate favourable terms with suppliers and to partner with various entities for growth and success. All these require them to interact with potential clients, partners, suppliers and stakeholders in network sessions, cocktails, dinners and meetings. 

Attending these sessions is not an invitation to be harassed, belittled, or subjected to unwanted sexual advances and demeaning sexist comments. 

We have come a long way, but much more needs to be done.

  1. What do companies miss out on when women are not part of the equation? In other words, are there specific skills that women bring to the table? 

I am inspired by the incredible stories of women who stood in the face of adversity and paved the way for millions of women who followed. The fundamental premise is that when you exclude more than half the population, or more than half of humanity, you will never truly realize your true potential as a country, a company or as society.

Whether it’s Charlotte Maxeke being the first Black woman who graduated with a degree in South Africa in 1896, or Mary Malahele-Xakana, the first black woman to qualify as a medical doctor in South Africa in 1947, or Mandisa Mfeka who is making major waves as the first black female fighter pilot in the South African Air Force – women have shown for decades that they have the ability to take on any role. Companies or institutions that do not fully harness the capability of women lack the diversity of views; the alternative perspectives and the richness of lived experiences that women can bring to any team, profession or leadership role. Women are not homogenous but having a more diverse leadership team; team of colleagues or workforce that has a strong women presence is a huge advantage. When women form part of such teams, they must be allowed and encouraged to be their true authentic selves and not perfect replicas of how we as males would like them to be.

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