Gender issues ‘an afterthought’

Cultural diversity is close to the heart of Stella M Nkomo, a professor at Unisa’s Graduate School of Business Leadership, who has studied the role of race and gender in the corporate world. Her recently published book (co-written with fellow American academic Ella Bell), Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity, is based on eight years of research on women who have reached top management positions in the United States.

Because she has not lived in South Africa for long, Nkomo is cautious about drawing parallels with the local situation, but she has made some initial observations. “I’m conscious of being a lone black woman in some of the organisations I’ve visited — the walls are lined with photographs of previous leaders who are all white males. The corporate world can be an alien environment for women — they are often stereotyped as subordinates in both countries.

“White women who succeed sometimes adopt the style of white men themselves. Black female leaders tend to have a stronger sense of community becoming champions of employment equity. Because of South Africa’s history, racial dimensions seem to overshadow gender issues, which become an afterthought.”

Nkomo believes the conflicting demands of family and business are even higher on black women in South Africa than they are in the United States. “It’s a key dilemma,” she says. “The black female executive who comes home with pizza after a long day at the office is not fulfilling the expectations of her mother-in-law. She is frequently the first woman in the family to follow a non-traditional career path and the demands of corporate life can be very complicated for a woman who is frequently obligated to attend a family funeral rather than a company function.”

Nkomo is critical of organisations employing a solo or token female. “Extraordinary demands are often made of her as she becomes a cosmetic showpiece who is expected to represent the company at all occasions where employment equity is an issue.”

She is also scornful of those who complain that there aren’t black or female candidates of suitable quality available. “It’s a big cop-out! Companies must simply reach deeper and go overboard to change a situation foisted on them by the country’s history. Get aggressive. Look for potential talent in high schools. Foster growth among your own staff. Learn to trust people who are culturally diverse. Don’t blame everything on the shortcomings of the labour market!”

Nkomo believes too many businesses see employment equity and affirmative action as merely ticking off numbers. “Blacks and females should not be regarded as a burden or liability — a company must aim to go with the spirit and intent of the law if it has a genuine commitment to making the organisation more inclusive.”

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