Society is not ready for women to lead - Madonsela

Johannesburg – Society is not ready for women to lead, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said at the Top Women Conference held at Emperor’s Palace on Wednesday.

Reflecting on her position as public protector, Madonsela said she is in the position she is in today because of other women who nominated her for the job. “I said, why me? Why not me?… I have a duty to pay it forward even if I am preaching to the choir.”

With less than seven weeks to go before handing over the reins as public protector, Madonsela explained the importance of achieving the 50:50 gender parity goal by the year 2030.

Why 50:50?

“In the next 14 years, women should be equally represented in all areas of society," she explained. "Their expertise, endeavours and leadership should be equally represented in decision making,” said Madonsela.

Gender equality is an extension of ubuntu. The core of ubuntu is group survival, she explained. “The essence of ubuntu is to look after the welfare of every member of the group, to optimise the well-being of the entire group.”

Historically, society was predominantly egalitarian. Women and men led in differentiated roles. Women were known to speak to ancestors and make decisions about agriculture. And men had the responsibility to hunt, said Madonsela. “There was differentiated leadership to account for differentiated needs of society,” she said.

However, in modern society people cannot be “pigeon-holed”. A woman’s place should be wherever she chooses to be. Embracing gender equality ensures that resources are harnessed successfully to the benefit of society. The 50:50 goal is the optimal opportunity for women and men to engage in decision making for the survival of society, she explained.

Executive director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (left), Advocate Thuli Madonsela (centre) and Advocate Joyce Maluleke (right) during a panel discussion at the Top Women Conference, moderated by Shirley Zinn, group head of human resources at Woolworths. (Photo: Lameez Omarjee)

Doing things differently

In terms of developments in gender equality over the past 60 years, Madonsela said: "Today is better than yesterday… but things could be even better if we did things differently.”

Contrasting the public and private sector, she said the public sector leads the private sector in terms of numbers of women represented in leadership. But numbers do not necessarily mean more power. “Some women have power, but others are proxies,” said Madonsela.

“As a proxy, someone else is pulling the strings and you can’t make the impact you want to,” said Madonsela. In the private sector there may be fewer women represented in leadership but they are making life-changing decisions for companies which are their own, she explained. “Being a proxy is more dangerous - decisions are made based on others, and these decisions are attributed to women.”

Business shows that achieving 50:50 parity is better for companies in that there are better profits, more ethical decision-making and improved welfare of staff. Investing in diversity brings a wider range of ideas for improvement in decision-making processes. Generally, society does better in terms of its development if there is gender equality, said Madonsela.

Business can also take lessons from government in improving the level of women in leadership. “Businesses should not be afraid,” said Madonsela.

In turn, government can learn from business that when they hand over power, they should let go to see what a difference can be made, she added.

Change also starts in families. Men should take more responsibilities at home, said Madonsela. “The women shouldn’t have to rush to pick up the children from preschool. And equally, women should not be shocked when they see men picking up their children from preschool.”

Earn leadership

“If women are to lead, they must do what is required to earn a place to do what they want to do," she said.

By leading yourself, others will follow, she said. "Not based on your title, but because they believe you do things to improve the welfare of organisations and society," said Madonsela.

As women lead themselves and make a difference, society must open spaces for them to lead, simultaneously, she said. 

AUDIO: Why Madonsela is not running for president

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