Thank God, we ain’t what we was

2015-08-24 14:45

My journey as an African woman 21 years on is as unique as women are, but I am sure there are some commonalities that other women may identify with.

I became a young adult in the mid-1990s. I have now spent about an equal number of years under the new dispensation as I did in apartheid South Africa.

I would like to share a bit of my world from the perspective of three experiences: as a woman, professional and entrepreneur.

Woman

I could not be living in a better country as a woman to have the opportunities I am aware women in other countries – not just on our continent, but in many other parts of the globe – do not have. We may spend a lot of time decrying the dearth of women in leadership positions, but in many other countries there is low representation of women across all levels in the workplace and government.

I have been fortunate to have been offered opportunities to express my views on media platforms. It is increasingly normal to find women who are opinion makers in diverse fields, not just when it comes to gender-related matters.

That has prompted our company, Busara Leadership Partners, to deliberately host a masterclass, where all the speakers are women, in September – outside of the expected Women’s Month – themed “Unapologetically, Woman”.

We need to root diversity in our culture. We need to give platforms, discuss issues that affect the marginalised groups and embrace female experts as a norm throughout the year, not amplify their voices only in August. This approach would bode well for our country.

The one aspect of being a woman that has not evolved much, however, is how one’s womanhood is still closely aligned to having a child or being married. You get to your mid-30s and the whisperings begin about the health of your eggs and the ticking of your biological clock. What to do!

Professional

Diversity is a critical component of transformation in South Africa. It is not possible to speak as a woman without including race, because conditions for African versus white women in our country still remain different.

Black economic empowerment legislation has really made a huge difference in my life as an African woman. I support employment equity and affirmative action because it is unequivocally the main driving factor behind the increasing need for companies to seek out African females within the black category, which includes Indians and coloureds, especially in leadership positions.

Despite the qualifications you may have, until a board or position needs to meet employment equity targets for Africans, you are not top of mind.

It certainly opened up opportunities for me to get into advertising as my first career and later to get opportunities on boards that would otherwise not have sought me out despite my corporate governance and MBA qualifications.

Entrepreneur

A male friend introduced me to a senior male partner in one of the leading law firms a few years ago. The strategy was to build my client base through partnering with an established firm that targeted the same clientele, but with different expertise. The partner was very enthusiastic about my expertise and said he was working with a listed company whose board members could greatly benefit from being coached by me.

He then said: “The problem is that you are a woman. I cannot promote your services, as I do not think the men would welcome being coached by a woman.”

In another incident, after a few meetings with a potential African male client, when we were at the point of finalising the scope so that I could quote for the project, I was asked to close the notebook in which I was taking down notes.

“Let’s talk first things first,” he said, and asked: “When am I coming to your home?”

That was the beginning of the end of the business opportunity I thought I was so close to clinching. Thank goodness for the progressive men who balance out these unpleasant experiences, who have been generous ambassadors for my business, and respectful clients who restore my faith in a nonsexist society and do not abuse their positions of power.

To borrow from an African-American preacher, who said: “Lord, we ain’t what we should be and we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God, we ain’t what we was!”

I hope more women feel that way about the progress we have made over 21 years, instead of thinking that there have been no gains.

Msomi is the CEO of Busara

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