Cell C CEO's sexism is nothing new: women must reject the 'crooked room' phenomenon

Crossed signals: Cell C chief executive José dos Santos landed himself in hot water this week with his remarks about women in the workplace. (Mary-Ann Palmer/Rapport)

Crossed signals: Cell C chief executive José dos Santos landed himself in hot water this week with his remarks about women in the workplace. (Mary-Ann Palmer/Rapport)

In just five minutes, Cell C chief executive José dos Santos managed to capture precisely what is wrong with some men’s view of women, particularly those in leadership positions, – and draw attention to what it will take to achieve a truly nonsexist work environment.

The comments made by Dos Santos were not surprising. They were nothing new – his utterances are reflective of a society in which people marinate in patriarchy, which in turn results in the dichotomisation of women into either pretty or bitchy.

His views are shared by many other people, both men and women, who see women in the most superficial ways, instead of as multifaceted, whole beings.

The most troublesome part is not his comments on how women dress or how they have a “bitch switch”, but rather the overtly colonial gaze on women, particularly black women, that his statements reveal.

Reflecting on his time working in Mozambique, Dos Santos spoke about being inspired to empower women after he saw how hard “African women” work.

It was his time there, he said, that gave him the epiphany that women must be supported in leadership positions.

The radio studio on which these statements emerged, CliffCentral, was occupied by an all-white male panel. Ironically, they were discussing women empowerment.
Obviously, in this environment, Dos Santos thought it was all right to talk about women’s looks and how he has helped elevate them at the cellular company he runs.

The interview showed how pervasive these myopic stereotypes about women still are and how, even with the best intentions on the part of those fighting them, patriarchy and sexism still pop up everywhere.

Dos Santos also casually used the words “women” and “girls” interchangeably, which shows that he does not see the women he claims to empower as equals.

He infantilises women and likens them to children, demonstrating that he does not see a significant difference between the two.

Calling grown women “girls” is not only patronising, it is also sexist.

As playwright Bonnie Greer writes: “A girl is someone who is not an adult, not a grown-up, is not someone who takes responsibility for herself; she’s a wimp, a loser, a cutie.”

It is deeply undermining to call a woman a girl, particularly in a professional setting.

What was even more appalling than Dos Santos’s sexist views was the defence of them by senior female managers at Cell C.

They released a statement saying that, although “we know we might face some criticism for our decision to stand beside our [chief executive], we as women in leadership positions at Cell C cannot allow someone to be solely judged for one unfortunate comment‚ while what he has done to empower women‚ both within and outside the company‚ goes unnoticed”.

These women, who are no doubt brilliant, are a by-product of the patriarchy and sexism that manifests in our society.

In her book Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry talks about a phenomenon she calls “the crooked room”.

A crooked room scenario comes about when one is held to or compared with an ideal that is itself the product of smoke and mirrors.

It’s about how women have to fit themselves into distorted images and stereotypes about who and what we are – we end up believing not that the room we’ve stepped into is uneven or crooked, but that it is we who are out of balance with reality.

But we’re not the problem, the problem is the warped environment we’ve had imposed upon us.

This is why women leaders came to Dos Santos’s defence, even stating that they were aware that their decision to defend him would be criticised.

It is the insidious nature of patriarchy that allows for this to happen; it is the way the “crooked room” becomes a reality – no matter how dangerous it may be.

Dos Santos has issued an apology, but his remarks are a wake-up call: We need to consciously change the language we use to talk about diversity and changing the status quo. 

Pontsho Pilane

Pontsho Pilane

Pontsho Pilane is a health journalist at Bhekisisa, the Mail & Guardian's health journalism centre. She debuted as a journalist at The Daily Vox, where she wrote primarily about gender, race and how they intersect. She was previously a general news reporter at the M&G. Pilane holds two degrees in media studies from Wits University. Read more from Pontsho Pilane

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