The role of women in corporate and entrepreneurial South Africa (Part I)


On the 29th of August 2019; Birguid hosted its first official panel discussion (True Blue Thursdays – #tbt). As it was “women’s month”, we figured it would be best to host a role of women in business discussion. The conversations were split into two. The first was women in corporate South Africa and the second was women in entrepreneurship. Our key question was to find out whether changes were taking place in corporate South Africa where women were treated equally to men; including their being afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

The panel consisted of eight women and a male host. The panellists included a law firm partner, a candidate attorney, an advocate-in-training, three entrepreneurs, an academic and a senior project manager for a leading health and financial services company. The first question was met with a lot of scepticism with regards to where we were going with the conversation. Perhaps the fact that a man was asking the question could have resulted in the near backlash I got from a feedback standpoint. The question asked whether women were under-represented in corporate South Africa and if yes, what needed to be done to address the issues. To ground the conversation, the questions were positioned from the perspective that it was women’s month. This was not well received by panellists and based on their feedback, I now understand why. Their feedback was that if women are to be considered equal to their male counterparts, then women shouldn’t just be thought of or recognised during the month of August alone but throughout the entire year. This made sense to me and is something that will guide my input for future conversations.

Despite it being 2019, it was still a man’s world. Yes, changes have taken place and women now have more of a say within corporate South Africa, but it isn’t enough. Recognition is too loud for the mile that has been travelled, yet the distance that should be covered in total is 1,000 miles. The sentiment shared was that if a woman does make it to the top of the corporate ladder, she is often isolated and outside of her sponsor, lacks the support and peer camaraderie she may need to thrive even more and go further. Admittedly, getting to the top has a lot to do with who and not what you know. If a sponsor is not willing to take a chance on you, then your ascendancy in an organisation is limited. Sadly, it is still mostly the males that dominate South Africa’s c-suite and board positions. This implies that for you to ascend, your sponsor will most likely be a man. One panellist mentioned that for you to get this sponsorship nod, you may need to behave like one of the boys. Some acknowledged the same but felt it was not sustainable for you to be a pretender to get ahead. “Live your truth and get ahead by being authentically you,” was echoed as the right way to do things. It came with the benefit of longevity.

So evidently a sisterhood is required to balance the inequality which continued to exist within corporate South Africa. But how could this network be established and what is needed to sustain its existence? Building a talent pipeline was highlighted as a key resolve. Most of the panellists felt that due to frustrations, corporate South Africa was losing out on female talent that had the potential to rise all the way to the top. Frustrations were borne out of rigidity when it came down to how things are supposed to be done. Examples included how females were treated if they got married and had children that their priorities changed. Instead of creating a conducive environment for them to thrive based on their life changes, most would often walk away and either stay at home or start their own small business which allows them to work according to their schedule as opposed to one that is dictated to them. Another frustration was meeting scheduling which would clash with a mother’s responsibility to pick up her kids or attend her child’s ballet recital or other sporting event. Other panellists mentioned that they wouldn’t even mention that they were attending their child’s event but would rather say that they had stepped out for a while as they had something urgent, they needed to address. This treatment was different to their male counterparts who would often be celebrated for requesting some time out or being released early to attend their child’s event. Due to these double standards, some of the panellists highlighted that they had opted to move out of corporate and become entrepreneurs. To own their own destinies so to speak.

To avoid such frustrations, extant policies need to be revisited. Policies need to change with what currently prevails within the world we live in. Flexible working hours, the ability to work from home and lastly the aptitude to multi-task need to be taken into cognisance to shift policy in a positive direction. This in essence, will ensure that over the longer-term the frustration fallout rate is reduced, and the female talent pool is to a large extent preserved and extended. In addition to policy, culture also needs to evolve. By this, it was emphasised that gender-based roles should become a thing of the past and talent should be recognised for what it was and not because someone was a woman. Each of the panellists felt that from a talent viewpoint, a lawyer or any other professional should be celebrated because they’re exceptional at what they do and not because they’re a woman first. This again made sense and if culture is the barrier, then it is time for culture to take a long leap forward to rid society of this gender prejudice.

In addition to building and sustaining a sisterhood, nurturing talent, shifting policy, pushing for culture evolve and, building one’s own table were recognised as key steps that women needed to make in order to be counted within this man’s world. Getting a seat at “the men’s” table comes with the burden of having to abide by their rules. In some instances, playing their game is frustrating and may conflict with whom one inherently is. Building one’s own table through their own entrepreneurial exploits could, therefore, be the solve required for women to thrive and flourish beyond what a corporate career could afford them. Although this ideal stands out as the befitting defiance, the panellists acknowledged that this was a path less travelled as it wasn’t easy. Most of the women felt that support to “build your own table” is limited (even from their spouses) and requires an exceptional measure of tenacity if pursued individually. A coming together is also needed to ensure greater success for female entrepreneurs over the longer-term.

True blue Thursdays (#tbt) are a Birguid initiative that brings people together to discuss and recommend a practically effective way to building the country and continent’s economy. Panellists include practitioners, academics and subject-matter-experts and our deliberations are all centred around unpacking the problem and establishing workable solutions for the greater economic good of the continent. Let’s talk…

This content was supplied by James Maposa. 

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