The winter of 1993 looms large in the memory of Wits University and, in particular, its then-acting vice-chancellor June Sinclair. The tensions of impending political transition across the country caused strife and unrest across the country — the Boipatong massacre in particular — and within the corridors of the university.
As an institution that had during the apartheid years tried its best to resist the whims of politicians and protect its institutional autonomy, Wits found itself grappling with what the new political dimension would mean. The campus erupted in violence at a time when Sinclair had been called upon to temporarily step in for then vice-chancellor Robert Charlton.
Sinclair — who had distinguished herself as a dean of law and then deputy vice-chancellor, decided to call in the mighty force of the police’s internal stability unit to deal with the campus protests. This step, rather than pursuing a meeting of the minds with the aggrieved students, would come to haunt her for the remainder of her years at Wits.
Central to the Sinclair problem was the fact that her decisive actions in dealing with the protest — and many other issues that fell within her ambit — did not find favour with those on the other side of the deliberations. In response to the student unrest, the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco) called her “anti-transformation, racist, undemocratic and harsh upon students”.
Such sentiments persisted and would be central to the students’ response to Sinclair’s candidacy for the vice-chancellor position later, in 1997. The perception of Sinclair as a draconian, aggressive, abrasive Iron Lady was summarised by a comment at a Sasco meeting where one student referred to her as a symbol of the force of darkness at the university.
For Sinclair, however, having her leadership analysed from the prism of her gender had been part of her entire life story. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, she indicated her choice to pursue a professional path invited resistance from her own father, who refused to pay for her university fees because she had “betrayed her gender by being a working woman”. When she arrived at the Wits Law School — which she would later run with some distinction — the head of school, Professor Robert Hahlo, assumed she was a secretary.
The tapestry of stereotypes of this nature, where women are assumed to transition into derivatives and subordinates of men rather than equals, takes its origin from the very design of workplaces. The advent of industrialisation created social practices that mutated into workplace practices that persist to this day.
Men, with the brawn necessary for the workplace in an industrial age, found their contribution to society was regarded as a valuable, economically measurable output. Women, given duties where the delineation was less explicit, found much of their contributions relegated to the prism of “expected duties” rather than valuable contributions.
As World War II took many men out of productive work and forced them into the battlefields, women suddenly discovered that their contributions could indeed be appreciated in the world of work. The result was an increase in the labour participation rates of women across the globe.
As the war ended and social relations were once again expected to be normalised, one unresolved variable remained: the overlaps between the social hierarchy and the workplace hierarchy. For societies where women had been for generations regarded as reliant on and often subservient to men within the domestic environment, this tended to replicate itself in the workplace, resulting in trends across the system where women’s progression up the corporate ladder lags behind men’s.
Women’s presence in governance structures is also unequal. This is universal but perhaps more glaring in developed economies. In the FTSE 100, where the biggest companies in London are listed, the lack of female representation is a long-standing problem. The 30% Club, which seeks to ensure that corporate boards have a representation of at least 30% of women, is as commendable as it is problematic. It forces corporate leaders to acknowledge the problem and have measurable, tangible benchmarks. However, the fact that 30% is seen as a utopia is problematic. It amounts to an implicit acknowledgment that the quest for parity is likely to linger for generations to come.
The world still sees women as less than capable in spite of their achievements. The prevalence of big men in charge, across political, social and business spaces, is not an organic error of human progress. Rather, it is reflective of the prevailing dynamics that shape our interactions.
Women of stature — whether they are named June Sinclair, Margaret Thatcher or Winnie Mandela — remain more open to insinuations of arrogance, intolerance, abrasiveness and bitchiness than men in similar positions and taking equally contentious decisions. Having to appear genteel and accommodating within a position of leadership, is a burden uniquely imposed on women.
Men in similar positions are called stern, firm, courageous and decisive. The system cultivates such a culture. Patriarchy manifests through social and corporate hierarchies. As a result, a statement that “Cynthia Carroll has been appointed the head of a mining company” invites curiosity because a sense of disbelief accompanies the achievements of women.
For a world that has found a sense of comfort in men acceding to corporate thrones, the rise of the apparently less capable still shocks the system.
The ingrained sense of incumbency in positions of authority that men enjoy is evident in many spaces behind closed doors. When it plays out in the public arena, it may evoke a sense of discomfort for a moment but never shock. The elevation of male characters whose personalities dominate boardrooms and political spaces invites deference from the rest of society.
So when Dali Mpofu speaks over a female colleague in a space where collegiality is the way of engagement, the shock is not from the slight on a female colleague, but from the audacity that he does it on a platform like a judicial commission.
When Mark Lamberti — then the chief executive of motoring group Imperial — suggested to Adila Chowan that she was unworthy of promotion because she was “female employment equity that needed another four years to develop leadership skills”, she took offence. The comment was made in the company of other male managers, who saw nothing wrong with the statement. This is a reflection of the sense of reverence that many in corporate corridors hold for big personalities. When Chowan decided to lodge a grievance against Lamberti, the first response she received was that such a move would be career-limiting against a “powerful man” like Lamberti.
The gender and race dimensions of the story only escalated when Chowan did lodge the grievance with the chair of the board, Thulani Gcabashe. Rather than engaging with the substance of her allegations and dealing with them from the prism of the unfairness of discrimination — particularly in a country like South Africa — the company somehow saw it fit to suspend Chowan, the complainant. This was motivated more by the personality of Lamberti rather than the voice of a woman who was being treated unfairly.
The tendency, is unfortunately not unique to an organisation such as Imperial. The problem faced by corporate South Africa, or rather, the problem faced by women in corporate South Africa is that so many organisations owe their culture to the identity of men, and in particular, white men. The sense of authority that comes with that leads to deference to the big-man syndrome.
This transcends even board structures. The lack of leadership exhibited in the Imperial case provides a parallel for the ineffectiveness of the Steinhoff board when dealing with the buccaneering antics of Markus Jooste. It persists wherever you look.
Thuli Madonsela’s findings when going against the big men of politics are criticised from the prism of sexism rather than legal substance. When Justice Khampepe reads a majority judgment on behalf of a bench of Constitutional Court justices, her position is relegated to that of an angry woman who fails to exercise judicial restraint. In a world full of ironies, the same advocate who may in one case represent Chowan in a case of discrimination, Dali Mpofu, becomes the transgressor in the case of Michelle le Roux.
The bigger problem is not the few big men who perpetuate such practices in places of prominence, but the fact they resonate with so many members of society across racial, socioeconomic and cultural lines.