Women in business, especially those working in traditionally male-dominated sectors, should not hesitate to be their authentic selves. “We don’t actually do a service to gender advancement when we try to assimilate to the male norm. Don’t be afraid to be a woman,” Kate Hofmeyr SC, evidence leader Advocate in the Zondo Commission told the GIBS Women in Business Breakfast for 2021.
A panel of extraordinary and successful women made up this year’s Women in Business Breakfast, held virtually and hosted by GIBS Interim Dean Dr Morris Mthombeni. They told of their experiences in corporate South Africa and shared thoughts and opinions on Women’s Day and what needs to be done to continue the empowerment of women in South Africa.
Advocate Shamila Batohi, Prosecutor and the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) at the National Prosecuting Authority said: “The fact that we even need to have a Women’s Day and month is sad, it shows how far we still have to go.”
She said a “horrific” number of women were killed and raped in South Africa, despite a great conviction rate. “It is a poor reflection on society that so much needs to be done so that women are not violated in the most basic way every day.”
Peggy-Sue Khumalo, former CEO of Standard Bank Wealth, experienced financial professional and former Miss South Africa added: “The struggles that women face today are so deep-rooted. There is so much more the country needs to do to support women and truly empower them.”
“We have a long way to go to ensure that women have the same platform as men,” business news anchor and producer at eNCA Rofhiwa Madzena told the forum. “We need to fight for our freedom and defend it every day - defend our livelihoods and our actual lives. The government of today is not accommodating enough and it feels like a one-sided fight. There definitely needs to be some change.”
Women in the Workplace
The fact that many workplaces remain dominated by men means that aggressive behaviour continues to often be overlooked, whereas women were expected to “be a rock and not show emotion or cry,” founder of Shop.Hellenrose, an e-commerce platform that showcases women-owned brands, Lerato Kgamanyane said. “Let women be delicate, let us be soft. Let us be who we want to be, it doesn’t take anything away from our strength.”
Advocate Hofmeyr went on to describe how early on in her career she would dress exclusively in dark suits and wear her hair pulled back to ensure she was regarded purely as a lawyer, and never as a female lawyer. “Showing emotion in the workplace is seen as a weakness because it is essentially less male,” she explained.
An interactive audience poll conducted during the online forum found that 83% of the 401 participants thought more women are pursuing careers in traditionally male-dominated industries.
Women must “examine the structures and systems they find themselves in,” Advocate Hofmeyr continued. Many systems are based on male norms, as men were the only participants, and never took into account the needs such as maternity leave or breastfeeding. “When women enter these places, they must talk about how the structures are actually gendered.”
When asked whether climbing the corporate ladder was becoming easier for women, 70% of polled participants thought there was still a way to go, while 18% disagreed that it was becoming any easier.
82% of participants thought that women have to work harder than their male counterparts to prove their competence in the workplace; while 16% thought this was less the case than it had been a few years ago.
Financial services remains a male-dominated industry, and needs more gender diversity in decision-making positions, Khumalo argued. “Organisations need and inclusion at every level, we have to look at all the layers of the organisation for the changes we need to see.”
Madzena said women in the broadcast media industry are increasingly finding their voices: “We have to push very hard as it is difficult to break down perceptions and audience preferences. There are changes in the media industry, but it is not yet transformed.”
Advocate Batohi said she made a concerted effort to seek out extraordinary women in her organisation and promote them to leadership positions. “They are often the hidden gems as women don’t put themselves forward. Increasingly, I believe women are going to take the NPA to new heights,” she added.
Women need to have support to give them confidence in their abilities. While many may have a sense of imposter syndrome early on in their career, Batohi said “Now, I believe I have a right to be at the table. Women have to be extremely strong, both mentally and physically.”
Advocate Batohi said she found an inner strength “by remembering what I do is for the greater good. It’s a shark tank here. I keep my focus, stay the course and am surrounded by great women.”
Sources of inspiration
When asked who had shaped their journeys, the panellists almost unanimously agreed that their mothers had been their greatest source of inspiration. Khumalo, who was raised by a single mother working as a farm labourer said her mother “carried herself with dignity and commitment. I learnt from her the unwavering power of self-belief.”
Mothers are often looked to as role models as they are grounded and comforting, Advocate Batohi said. “My mother had so much potential that she wasn’t able to realise, but still maintained a very positive attitude.”
“It is unfair that so much of ourselves often have to be sacrificed so that things can continue as they always have for others,” Kgamanyane pointed out. “Raising children and being a housewife to give others opportunities are also worthy positions,” she added.
Support and mentorship
In her closing remarks, Advocate Batohi advised young girls that “wisdom doesn’t only come with age. Make decisions grounded in rationality and objectivity. Develop values and make sure your behaviour demonstrates that you live those values. Power and fame are irrelevant. An attitude of service and sacrifice is what is needed in this country.”
Khumalo implored women to continue to champion each other: “While women have come a long way in business, those in leadership need to support and mentor the women around them.”
“We must continue to honestly share our own experiences. It takes courage to share our stories but it opens the way for grace, healing and connections. Women must be authentic and have humility. Even in a position of power, you are still a custodian of humanity.”
“It is still so difficult to be a woman, you have to constantly prove that you deserve a seat at the table,” Rofhiwa Madzena said. “Women need support and kindness. That doesn’t take away from our strength at all.”