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Woman Taking Up Spaces

The first National Women’s Day after South Africa became a democracy was celebrated on the 9th August 1995. However, given the lack of meaningful progress relating to women’s issues in the workplace, I cannot claim to be a fan of these events.

Although National Women’s Day draws attention to the significant issues women still face, such as domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, unequal opportunities and pay in the workplace, and schooling for all girls, these issues remain unresolved 25 years later. The #Metoo movement has highlighted the fact that working women globally continue to face sexual harassment in the workplace. South Africa is fighting a scourge of gender-based violence, where increasingly women and children continue to face violence.

The issues facing women today, especially in the workplace, requires serious commitment to Women Taking Up Spaces. Women currently occupy 45.3% of the workforce, however they occupy only 23,5% of Top Management and 34,5% of Senior Management (Commission of Employment Equity Report 2018-2019).  Black Women are worse affected, occupying only 4.3% of Top management and 6.5% of Senior Management positions. This slow progress is a sad indictment for Women Taking Up Spaces.

Women Taking Up Spaces must be about both men and women making an imperative approach to talking issues of gender equality. The next 25 years cannot be about women in various workplaces and structures celebrating National Women’s Day alone, whilst 76,5 % of Top Management are male? No wonder progress is slow. What I found most interesting is that when parents have two children,  a boy and girl, their primary education until high school is approached on an equal footing, where parents will want the best education for ‘their’ children until they reach tertiary education. The most puzzling question is what happens when women enter the workplace where that equal approach to development takes a back seat. Therefore, the issue of underrepresentation of women in senior echelons of the workplace is both a matter of inclusion and diversity.

Forbes Magazine (17 July 2020) published an article, “Workplace Diversity: What Companies Need To Get Right, Right Now” written by H.V. MacArthur. What I found useful about the article and most valuable is that our leaders, myself included are critical in making a workplace a diversified area. Diversity and Inclusion has now put itself in the centre of business imperative – for example, during the past month in America, we have seen the Black Lives Matter movement hit a breaking point that has demanded action beyond lip service. Locally Superbalist, a Naspers Ltd company, was also caught in the storm when it refused to comment about the Black Lives Matter. The author suggests leaders in the workplace need to do the following to acknowledge issues of inclusion and diversity in the workplace:

  • Embrace that this is a critical business imperative: we must move past the lip service, reactive corporate messaging and performative allyship.
  • Be authentic, transparent, and accountable: if a company is struggling in this area, own it. It’s not like people can’t google who’s in the leadership position.
  • Create a safe space for all staff to share feedback and input: providing an anonymous feedback tool that ensures you are getting a real-world view into how the workforce feels.
  • Take tangible, visible and trackable action: when employees give input, they don’t do it just to hear themselves think. The action for leadership is to acknowledge the input, communicate the themes coming the survey and present an action plan.
  • Tackle the low hanging fruit immediately: this could be looking at processes such as interviewing and benefits forms. Issues like paid maternity leave encourages women to consider those companies for them and about them.
  • Educate for personal capability and accountability: if we are willing to memorize a glossary of acronyms for every new job we have, we should be able to consider the language that creates inclusion for our co-workers and staff.

Women Taking Up Spaces cannot happen without leadership making it a business imperative. My career of being a black woman in Corporate South Africa, has been characterised by being “the only” in the group i.e.  the only Black and the only Female. In some areas, I have been fortunate – I was thrown in the deep end with the necessary support, and some areas that support was not forthcoming. In all the situations, I have been in, I have always been supported by male leaders, current situation included, which makes my point that Women Taking Up Spaces cannot happen without the 76% of male leadership owning it. I am looking forward to my male colleagues celebrating 9th of August with women in their workplace. Maliphakanyiswe igama la Makhosikazi!!!

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