Dare to find your voice
Dare to find your voice – women taking their rightful place in the workplace, relationships, and in marriages.
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you so much for the opportunity to share a few thoughts in this important dialogue. I am not worthy to say something to such a knowledgeable audience on a topic you are more qualified to speak about than I can. I sincerely hope that my ignorance and lack of suitability will be partly masked by the passion and interest I have on these matters as a father, a husband, a member of a team and as a leader.
I hope to share…share my experiences and perspectives as one brought up and shaped by powerful God –fearing women, one who is married to a caring and loving woman, as a father of two daughters and lastly as one who has led and been led by remarkable women. I hope that my reflections and thoughts about my experiences of women empowerment in my personal, family and corporate life will add something worthy of your noble endeavours. I hope to address how women should find their voice through different aspects of their life.
1. Finding your voice through the pain – The story of Liza Dipenaar
In my previous role at Standard Bank I was responsible for 13 000 staff members, the majority of whom were women. I received a lot of letters or emails from employees on a range of issues. Of these hundreds of letters, none touched me more than a letter from Liza Dipenaar, who wrote to me in 1995.
Liza wrote that she was brutally abused by her husband over a long time. It got so bad that he would go into the branch, beat her up and humiliate her in front of customers and other employees.
She wrote: “Things became so bad that I dreaded going to work. Staying at home was not an option, as the beatings would continue. After pressure from management because of the impact of the abuse on customers and employees, I chose to leave the bank. This was a huge decision after more than 18 years of loyal service.”
Unfortunately, that was the final straw for her husband. He severely assaulted her and almost killed her. He was sentenced to five years in jail for assault and attempted murder and released after six months.
Liza continued: “After this, I changed my name, moved to a different address and set about rebuilding my life. I applied for a job in the bank, but was told that since I left the rules had changed. Because I did not have a matric, I could not be taken back.”
She concluded: “Could you please help me, Mr Mali? I have two children and I am battling to make ends meet. I did not leave the bank out of choice; I was forced to by circumstances way beyond my control.”
This was one of the most shameful episodes of my banking career, because we as an organisation had clearly failed this employee in her hour of need. However, I am not, for one moment, passing judgement on her managers or colleagues. All I’m pointing out is that, as an institution, we could not just wash our hands and play no part in firstly protecting this employee, and secondly, welcoming her back and supporting her when she had fought alone to escape her husband’s murderous intentions.
We made arrangements with one of our managers, Annette Schonken, for Liza to be taken on board in one of our Centres in Pretoria. Annette’s condition was that Liza should complete her matric.
Three years later, I received this email from Liza:
“Dear Mr Mali. You may not remember me. Through your help, I was employed by Ms Annette Schonken at the BFC after recovering from an abusive relationship. I am happy and proud to inform you that I passed my matric at the age of 48 years. I would like to invite you to my graduation party at my home. Thank you for changing my life. God bless.”
I found this message so moving and inspiring. This woman, who had placed the welfare of customers, colleagues and the bank above her own; who had endured pain, suffering and humiliation at the hands of her husband and who had been rejected by her beloved Standard Bank; had, against all odds, triumphed against adversity. Liza had found her voice and she spoke clearly and loudly that her destiny is in her own hands.
Liza is the type of bold and courageous woman that we should celebrate, who against all odds continue to do their best for themselves and their children under the most difficult conditions. Liza epitomises the spirit and resilience of thousands of women in most companies and institutions. Every day, these women put all their domestic problems behind them to serve customers. They hide their pain and frustration to smile to customers. They overcome their own financial difficulties to sell products, services and solutions to customers that they personally may not afford. They suppress their longing for their own children to make the children of customers happy. The makeup they wear sometimes cover bruises and abrasions from assault and humiliation.
It is these unsung heroines who daily fly our corporate flags high, who deliver exceptional service and produce the profits for shareholders. Liza carried her pain for many years. How many other women have such scars, are in pain, are battling to make ends meet and are victims of abuse, neglect or rape in our organisations?
As a Corporate leader, I salute each and every one of our thousands of women employees for their dedication, professionalism, sacrifices, hard work and commitment. I hope and trust that the drive, passion, commitment and tenacity of Liza Dipenaar and thousands of women in Corporate South Africa will be matched by decisive corporate leadership and that we will never fail our employees as we nearly did Liza, all those years back.
The pain and misery being suffered by many women in our institutions, in our corporates and in the public sector include:
- Unsupportive husbands;
- Recovering from traumatic divorces;
- Raising children without any support;
- Becoming heads of families at a very early age;
- Being victims of rape and abuse by those close to them; and
- Facing a constant battleto make ends meet.
Sometimes I wonder how much do we as male managers really know and understand the woman members of our teams. Most managers will argue that they know their team, but is this really true? Do we really know the people who report to us and especially the women …their past work experiences, the skills and talents they possess? Have we truly cared about and inquired about their aspirations, their short- and long-term goal, their dreams and aspirations and personal challenges?
In my own experience, knowing and taking an interest in the total life of my female colleagues has allowed me to better understand them; to support them; to anticipate things that may affect their performance and to provide coaching, guidance and mentoring.
2. Finding your voice in the choices you face
As managers and leaders, we must fully understand what the majority of our employees go through so that we can be supportive and helpful. I would further argue that, as men, we have to take extra effort to support our female colleagues to ensure that they are not prejudiced in their careers because of their commitment to their children and families.
Most importantly, we must never, ever place women in situations where there is a conflict between their roles as wives, mothers, leaders and community members. Women should not be forced to choose between such roles and their role in the corporate. Our role is to facilitate matters so that they can be successful both at home and at work.
This is easier said than done. There comes a time in the life of every woman when these roles seem to be in conflict. It is at this time that a woman needs a sympathetic ear, wise counsel, a sounding board and the time and space to make up her mind.
Those who stifle women’s progress in the workplace normally place a false choice in front of most women: career or family. It’s not really a choice at all, because there are trade-offs that women will make for themselves; not as a response to paternalistic pressures from males, bosses or unsupportive partners.
In his book, Find your Strongest Life, Marcus Buckingham argues that the double burden syndrome – the combination of work and domestic responsibilities – weighs heavily on most working women. Working women remain at the centre of family life, with all the attendant constraints, such as maternity, child-rearing, organising family life and care of the elderly. The situation is further compounded by the significant number of single mothers. Women have to rely on extended family, relatives, and crèches and so on to help.
For a woman today this is almost impossibly hard, because the choices are so numerous and the stakes are so high:
- Should you have a child firstand then focus on your job?
- Should you follow your artistic dreamnow or wait until you’ve saved money in the bank?
- It is better to take the job with fewer responsibilitiesif it means more time with your family?
- Should you keep your child at homeor send her to day care?
- Should you work longer hoursto afford a better-qualified nanny?
- Should you answer that e-mailor finish your son’s puzzle?
- Should you care for your motheror take that better job to help pay for the nurse for your mother?
- Should you stay in a job that numbs you or riskit all for one that doesn’t; risk everything for yourself or stay settled for others?
The questions are endless; the answers open-ended; the consequences of making the wrong choice almost too frightening to contemplate. You may hope that being at work while your child is at day care is a sensible option (research shows that it can be), but you know you would never forgive yourself if your choice proved to be the wrong one.
These conundrums, coupled with outdated policies and poor leadership, have a huge impact on women’s mobility, career success and job satisfaction. Buckingham argues that a strong life is the opposite of juggling. Juggling requires you to keep everything at bay, up in the air, away from you. The secret to living a strong life lies in knowing how to draw a few things in toward you. It asks you to be discriminating, selective, and intentional. You can find energizing moments in each aspect of your life, but to do so you must learn how to catch them, hold on to them, feel the pull of their weight, and allow yourself to follow where they lead.
This means that you have to learn how to intentionally imbalance your life. So often you are told to strive for balance. But balance is the wrong target –it is almost impossible to achieve and unfulfilling when you do so. Study the happiest and most successful women and you’ll realise that they ignore balance, and strive for fullness instead. The deliberately tilt their world toward those few moments that genuinely fill them up. This isn’t self-centeredness. It is the strong life practice that gives them the strength they need to provide for all those who rely on them.
As women find their voice, 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.
3. Finding your voice as a Male Leader
As we think about these issues, we need some candid answers to the following questions:
- Are women good enoughfor lower jobs, but not senior jobs? Is there a view among senior men at executive and senior management levels that women should be at home looking after children? Do we, as men, have this prejudiced view because our wives do not work (which is their democratic choice, just as working is a choice)? What do we expect from our own female children?
- If we profess to be interested in women’s development beyond mere rhetoric, why are the vast majority of appointments, promotions and bursariesnot favouring women? What programmes are there in our Corporates to promote women development?
- How many of our policies and practicesin the Corporates are built around the realities of our employee demographics? Our employees are largely female, divorced or single, with children, and receive very little support from either a broader family or state agencies.
I raise these and other questions to argue for change. We must all do everything in our power to make dramatic and sustainable changes in the working environment for women. As a Corporate leader, I commit myself to advance the cause of women in the workplace in all my spheres of influence across Africa and off course South Africa, my homeland.
You may be wondering why I bother with the issues facing women who work with me. I bother because I care and care very deeply about every person who works in my organisation, secondly I was brought up by strong women and lastly I would want my daughters to grow up in a more equitable society.
Addressing these issues is also a business imperative, if we cannot handle these issues as managers and support our team members, this will impact on their ability to perform. This, in turn, will impact the overall performance of the organisations.
In many cases, poor or mediocre performance is the result of the people in our teams dealing with personal issues. Most managers will apply more pressure for results; push for more improvement. The correct approach is to look at the underlying issues. If they are addressed, it changes the mood of the team.
The essence of my message is that we, as leaders, particularly male managers, must get closer to all our employees, particularly women employees, so that we can address issues that may affect or hinder their performance.
I want to challenge male leaders to think through the following matters very carefully. In working with your team, the majority of whom are women, how would you support a team member or colleague in the following circumstances?
- An abusive relationship;
- A horrible custody battle;
- A nasty divorce;
- Inabilityto have children;
- Financial difficulties;
- A disabledchild or a child with special needs; or
- Doubts about continuing with work or staying at home to raise children, or indecisionabout having another child.
These are just a few issues I have had to deal with in working with women in my teams at all levels, providing that support, lending a sympathetic ear and giving space and time for people to work through these issues has improved my own understanding and cemented my relationships with these colleagues for life.
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. I have a challenge to offer my fellow men. Let’s use every opportunity 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 organizations to promote their success.
4. Finding your voice as a Woman Leader
I have laid out many challenges that face male managers and I feel we need to play a role in addressing these issues because of the current power dynamics at senior levels in Corporate South Africa. However, I would be remiss if I did not challenge women leaders on the following:
- How many of you actively championthe cause of other women, regardless of personal career consequences to you? Do women leaders tread carefully on this issue for fear of being labelled?
- How many women leaders have a majority of their leadership teammade up of other women? Or is it more convenient to move up the ladder alone without empowering other woman leaders?
- How many women leaders have other women as their successors?
- How many women mentor younger women?
- How many of the very issues that hinder women’s performanceand development are dealt with unsympathetically by woman leaders?
- Are woman leaders ready to drive changein Corporate South Africa and women’s development beyond the celebrations in August?
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.
5. Finding your voice through the stereotypes and prejudice –The story of Dr Bettina Ama Boohene-Andah
Two years ago, 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. As she found her voice, she expressed 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.
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 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 March or August, but then the struggle continues, manifesting itself subtly and overtly beyond the months of March or August.
Such prejudice emerges on such issues as promotions, appointments, resistance to encouraging or even permitting a work-life balance, sexual harassment, victimization, 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 decision-making in old boys’ clubs. Black women executives face not only gender bias, but also 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.”
Fighting against stereotypes
Stereotypes create additional misleading perceptions when it comes to leadership. Inherent in gender stereotypes is the assumption that masculine and feminine characteristics (including “taking-care” and “taking-charge” behaviors) are mutually exclusive. While these perceptions target the “outsiders”— women leaders—to a larger extent than they do men leaders, they in fact affect all leaders. By creating a false dichotomy between women’s and men’s characteristics, stereotypes place both women and men leaders in relatively narrow categories of style and behaviors while limiting the range of effective behaviors within the workplace overall.
Because stereotypes create an invisible barrier to women’s advancement, they are often difficult to combat or even detect. Another challenge consists of stereotypes’ prescriptive nature: people believe that men and women should behave in ways that are gender-consistent; the prescriptive nature of gender stereotypes prevents change by making it difficult for women and men to go against norms that enable them to “fit in” for fear of social rejection and of all the negative consequences it might entail.
Stereotypical perceptions create several predicaments for women leaders—all of which put women in a double bind. Women who lead are left with limited and unfavorable options no matter which way they go, no matter how they might choose to behave as leaders. Essentially, women leaders are “damned if they do and doomed if they don’t” meet gender-stereotypic expectations.
6. Finding your voice at home, marriage or in your relationship
Thousands of women are in pain in our workplaces – they are silently agonising over crumbling marriages and dysfunctional relationships. Their silent prayers, their sleepless nights, their physical and emotional scars and the burdens they carry reveal the lack of voice and empowerment in their marriages and relationships. Finding your voice in a relationship is a strong basis for success –this is easier said than done because we as men come from a dominating patriarchal upbringing. It takes a strong woman, and I would argue a stronger man to create a marriage or a relationship of equals. This voice is important to define and find consensus on some of the most divisive issues in any relationship or marriage. These issues on which a woman’s voice has to be heard are:
- Family finances
- Rules of the house
- Infidelity and temptation
- Children’s upbringing
- Future plans
- Career and family choices
- Relationship with broader families; and
- Household chores
These are not easy issues to address, my wife Sva and I have been together for 28 years, and married for close to 20 years, and we have worked on these issues over these years. Ours is not a perfect marriage…it is daily work in progress….it is that work that makes our marriage to be enjoyable, exciting and worthwhile. We have benefitted a lot from being equal partners with the same level of “airtime” in our relationship. My challenge to women is to find your voice in your relationship or marriage. To my fellow men, I urge you to allow that voice of reason from your partner as it always brings a richer and different perspective to our everyday decisions. God had a plan to give us one mouth and an incredible two ears…if we spoke less and listen more to our partners or wives, we would understand their fears, appreciate their contribution to the success of the relationship/marriage, benefit from their advice and insights and ease their pain, frustrations and suffering. In such environment love thrives, harmony prevails and children have a happy environment in which to grow up.
Most importantly, and often ignored, our wives or partners are not spectators in our game, they are not mere supporters to our success, nor just people to be loved and protected, although that’s important, they ARE and should always be, full and equal partners in our relationships and marriages.
They have dreams, careers, ambitions, fantasies, friends, interests, hobbies, passions, values, principles…these must be fully supported in words and deeds. I am proud to say that my soul mate Sva is an independent, assertive, successful woman who is living her life to the fullest, in fulfilment of her own dreams and desires. In some parts of her life, my best role is that of being an enthusiastic supporter.
Those men who succeed and are happy in their relationships or marriages will confirm the critical role played by their wives and partners. Maintaining and improving a relationship or marriage is a joint responsibility –it is not only the responsibility of women. In my career, my family life, my marriage and my role in society, I have truly benefited from the wise counsel, swift reprimand, stern warning, words of support and new ideas from my wife, Sva.
Whenever she is in the limelight, I’ve learnt to be in the background, when she speaks, I’ve learnt to be silent and to listen, whenever she is down and frustrated I’ve learnt to be supportive, and whenever she has dreams or ambitions I’ve learnt to share in those dreams, whenever she has felt wronged, I’ve learnt to apologise and makeup. Whenever she gets upset…I’ve learnt to disappear…..
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 marginalized 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 pay homage 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 … for the sake of our daughters, our future generation, the hope of Africa.