Finding their niche

South Africa is emerging as a country that takes its women seriously. From that memorable day in August 1956, when 20 000 black women made their voices heard in a peaceful yet forceful demonstration that underlined their intention to fight for their rights to this year’s celebration of National Women’s Day. Women have chalked up significant achievements.

In government circles South Africa has achieved a top ranking for its male to female ratio (11th in the world) among countries such as Norway and Sweden. Today 20 of the 53 ministerial posts are held by women. The list of women is both long and impressive, from Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka to the current and previous speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete and Frene Ginwala.

In the corporate world most medium-sized companies, in tune with the large corporates and multi­nationals, have opened up opportunities for women to reach the top, but true gender equality remains an elusive animal — much like a Jack Russell putting space between himself and the garage door — easy to see but hard to catch.

The old-school paradigm still exists even in public companies and, even if the recent furore about Bill Venter’s paternalistic style does not readily come to mind, the fact remains that prejudicial treatment of women is alive and well. And not just of black women; white women are also still fighting the fight.

And, as some point out, not all women are gearing for the top ­positions in companies. Some are content to reach a middle-management position and remain there and this should also be respected. Yet, as research done by Professor Lize Booysen of Unisa’s School for Business Leadership points out, middle management is the feeding ground for top positions and although many women are appointed to top positions, their current representation in middle-management ranks does not augur well for the future.

Booysen herself is a woman who can give pointers in terms of reaching the top in her field. Dedication, the ability to focus and a support system on the home front are but a few of the things she mentions. “On the one hand women want fulfilment in their jobs, while also having their families. We cannot afford to run the one off against the other, for both will suffer, with the mother in the middle.” She says a trap women can easily fall into is to run their home like they run their business — forgetting that it is family, not colleagues. Especially children can suffer from having chief executive mothers.

New Premier of the Western Cape Lynne Brown is clear about her appointment. Some say she was chosen because she’s a woman, others because of her race. Not so, she says, it is because she is capable. Having to field these comments is one of the consequences of EE (employment equity) in the workplace, which is required by law. But as others, such as DA leader Helen Zille and her colleague, the DA leader in Parliament, Sandra Botha, can attest, tokenism does not do the job, the person does. Zille says: “For me, the lack of sleep has been the greatest stumbling block, especially when my children were small. It was difficult to keep going. Over time I grew accustomed to less sleep.” She admits that finding balance in her life is almost impossible, with leisure time taking the last place in the list of priorities.

One woman who has been empowering other women in her business, Nicolena di Santolo, was recently appointed the first female president of the Italian Chamber of Commerce and Industries. “One does not have to act like a man to reach the top. But we all have to reach not just down, but around us, to spread skills and knowledge to other women, to really empower everyone to reach our ­collective goal. We all have an interest in South Africa coming into its own in the world.”

On the business front black women such as Gloria Serobe and Louisa Mojela of Wiphold have set an impressive example. Many others work around the country not just to raise the bar in business, but also to spread empowerment principles into the rural areas. This has brought awareness to many women that the status quo does not have to be accepted, but that even at the level at which a woman sells tomatoes on the street, she can have an economic voice.

Says Serobe: “Never before in our history has the opportunity been so favourable for women. President Thabo Mbeki’s efforts, also in creating the presidential working group on women, have given us more than just a voice; we are able to make representations — and we have already — to ensure women are given every opportunity to contribute, take their places and have a real economic voice.”

But on the social level, despite hard work and seeming progress, many women can attest that gender equality still does not exist in many social strata. Particularly in a cultural context, women still have many obstacles to overcome to take their rightful place in society.

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