Let’s stop window dressing and achieve real equality
March 8 is International Women’s Day. Depending on which metric you use South Africa has done very well – or incredibly poorly – when it comes to how we regard and how we treat women in this country. We have an incredible number of women politicians, many in senior cabinet policies. We have women generals in the defence force, fighter pilots, paratroopers and even submariners, all areas where women were traditionally banned from.
On the corporate front, we’ve got miners, engineers, train drivers and bus drivers as well as managers, executives, CEOs and board chairs. But we’ve also got unspeakable levels of gender-based violence; from harassment in the workplace to stalking, sexual assault and murder.
There’s a link. It doesn’t seem possible when you consider all the glass ceilings being shattered, but the reality is that gender equality doesn’t end with gender representation, it just starts there. True equality is based on respect and, based on what I’ve heard in boardrooms, that’s something in short supply.
We always tend to focus in on the big-ticket items, little thinking that every hurricane began as a thunder cloud. Wherever women are treated as supernumeraries in boardrooms; there to make up numbers and tick equity boxes, there are going to be problems. It might be a major aggression, like being told to go off and make the tea for the male directors or it might be a lot more subtle; micro aggressions like having to sit excluded from the conversation as all the men talk about their sporting prowess from the weekend – or fanboy their favourite soccer or rugby teams.
Sometimes it’s just naked prejudice; like having the temerity to ask when a meeting scheduled to end at 8pm will end, when the clock’s just struck 10 – only for one of the men to pointedly remark “that’s why we shouldn’t have women on the board”.
Being a parent and having the duty to care should not be a disqualifier from higher service, on the contrary it should be something employers and boards want to attract. Equally, not all single parents are mothers. But the biggest issue of all, is the naked cowardice of refusing to answer a reasonable question as to why the chair of a meeting is incapable of keeping to the agenda – albeit two hours late – by instead attacking the questioner on the grounds of gender.
I can imagine some readers thinking that these examples are anecdotal or at least historical. They’re wrong. I have heard of all of this happening this year already from women I know in the C-suite– and we aren’t even a quarter of the year in yet. I’ve been a black woman managing director for 12 years and I’ve personally experienced many examples of this kind of behaviour.
In the beginning, I’d come away wondering “is it because I’m black? Is it because I’m female? Is it because I’m young?” Sometimes it was the entire trifecta, at other times permutations of the three, but ultimately it all came down to one thing: respect. If people don’t respect you, they will treat you accordingly.
The knife cuts both ways though, sometimes there are instances of women bringing it upon themselves by not asserting themselves and by not behaving professionally in these environments. Behaving professionally means just that; arriving on time, being prepared having read all the documents beforehand, keeping to the agenda and adding value by being present – fully attentive to what’s going on.
Equally, I must say, many men don’t do any of that either that I’ve seen, but that’s male privilege; they get away with it, we don’t. We have to fight harder for our place at the table and harder again to let our voices be heard and have what we say understood and acted upon.
So where do we go from here, on International Women’s Day 2022? For me I expect to be respected for no other reason than because I’ve earned it. I might not be an engineer or a chartered accountant but I don’t need either to find the right engineer or CA for the job – and quickly. I have a skill that no one else in the room has – and that should be respected.
I don’t want special treatment either, but I do expect my needs to be accommodated – just like every one else’s needs should be too. Meetings have to run to schedule and be on point, not because I’m a woman, a mother or both, but because I’m a professional and I’ve got other things to do as well, just like everyone else has.
And, on the issue of professionalism, leave the boys’ club at the door. Excluding people by race, gender, orientation, language, religion or class, by playing little games isn’t just illegal, it’s counter-productive. So, whether you’re cloaked in the comfort of your own prejudice or just have the emotional quotient (EQ) of a kerbstone and aren’t able to empathise with the lives of others – do better.
Let’s use International Women’s Day this year to put an end to window dressing and make a start on achieving real equality. It all comes down to respecting each other. And when we do that, we stand a very real chance of turning the corner on gender-based violence because it’s very difficult to assault – or even beat to death – someone you actually respect.
Lucia Mabasa is managing director of pinpoint one human resources, a Johannesburg based executive search firm. Visit www.pinpointone.co.za for more information.