Women in South Africa, and particularly black women, face enormous challenges in trying to advance to senior management positions. Our first challenge is our colour and the second, our gender.
Corporate South Africa remains Eurocentric and patriarchal; men clearly set the rules of engagement, and women are considered as a subordinate workforce. A tacit lack of trust in our abilities as women exists simply by virtue of our gender. We often get passed over for promotion due to preconceived notions about our roles and abilities, despite our valuable contributions.
Many corporates require women to defeminise themselves before they are recognised as effective and worthy. Our leadership styles are generally regarded as lacking or ineffective, simply because they do not resemble those of men. We are often told that our negotiating skills are poor, or that we lack confidence or problem-solving skills.
We are often held to frustratingly conflicting expectations by those who want us to reflect masculine traits by being dominant and aggressive. And, we need to prove our credibility beyond reasonable doubt.
I believe that the origins of these prevailing socioeconomic dynamics in corporate South Africa can be traced to the gender stereotypes introduced during childhood, and the paucity of black African females in leadership positions can also be traced to the manner in which our democracy was achieved.
Our country’s discriminatory past, with its policies explicitly designed to benefit whites at the expense of other races, has left a legacy of significant socioeconomic differences between the population groups. This legacy, which marginalised black people in general, has extended to corporate South Africa. The ongoing discrimination and exclusion of black people is even more intense for black female professionals, as evidenced by our continuing low numbers in management and leadership positions.
For this reason, organisations such as the Black Management Forum were established to focus on the development and advancement of black managers and professionals. While a lot has been done as far as the promulgation of anti-discrimination laws, these laws have not effectively eradicated inequalities. The question of how and the extent to which companies comply with prevailing empowerment laws intended to redress past injustices remains unanswered.
The solutions employed by corporates are merely intended to comply with the minimum requirements of the law, which does not necessarily translate to real empowerment. This is evidenced by the recruitment, promotion and skills-development patterns exercised by companies that still favour whites over black men. If a “black executive” is considered, then a black man is top of mind. When they think about “female executives,” then white women are top of mind. When a black woman is wanted for a position, then Indian women are the norm – black and coloured women are simply overlooked.
And, should we secure a corporate executive position, we tend to be held to higher standards than those of our male counterparts and counterparts of other races. We are often judged in more extreme ways and need to prove ourselves by working twice as hard to achieve the same level of acknowledgement.
As women leaders, I implore you not to bow to the external pressures imposed by society. We are often hindered by our own internal barriers, holding back in many ways by a lack of self-confidence, by not raising our hands and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. Ridding ourselves of these internal barriers is critical; career progression depends on us taking risks and advocating for ourselves.
We must approach leadership opportunities with gusto and confidence, and once we occupy these positions, we need to step up and perform as executives equal to the task. And, let us not forget to prepare the way for those who come after us, because it is only by having more female leaders that we will ensure equality, fairer treatment, and better working conditions for all women.