The rights, freedom and empowerment of African women are commemorated every August during Women’s Month in South Africa. This celebration of the courage and achievements of women marks the watershed moment when over 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on 9 August 1956 to deliver a petition to the Prime Minister protesting against the proposed carrying of a pass for Black women. The pass was an identity document that severely curtailed freedom of movement and served to entrench the brutal fetters of apartheid. The song Wathinta Abafazi Wathinta iMbhokodo and its modern day interpretation, ‘You strike a woman, You strike a rock’ was composed and sung outside the Union Buildings after handing in the petition. The heroism of these pioneers’ fight for equality is notable in that they had actually been struck with the double edged razors of both race and gender discrimination. The march served as a precursor to women winning many hard fought roles in the political, economic and social arenas, which were previously the undisputed domain of men in this largely patriarchal society.
For its final week, the government has identified the sub theme of Economic Empowerment: The Inclusion of Women.
While these strides have been made, there are still some board rooms and corporates where there is resounding silence in the dearth of women’s voices at executive levels. And where their voices are heard, women assert that it is often muffled.
What are the constraints that still preclude women from ascending to C-suite roles?
I spoke to Priya Lala, a woman who made this ascent in telecommunications and works for a multinational corporate that spans Africa and the Middle East with its headquarters in Johannesburg.
What are some of the challenges that you face as a woman in the economic sector and how did you overcome them?
Being a woman does have its challenges – people don’t quite take you seriously at first. Some cultures refuse to work with a woman and will only deal with a man. To overcome this you have to stay focused and never make it about them. Rather build credibility and trust. This takes centeredness and grounding.
Could you describe what has helped you attain this role?
Education, focus, loads of initiative and willingness.
What impact does your role have in the economic sector in South Africa and in Africa?
The job that I do spans across the multinational footprint. Since it is a South African listed company its earnings contribute to the GDP of the country. The company has changed the lives of people on the African continent especially telecommunications in the medical field. This in turn contributes to the overall economy of individual countries.
How has the demographic of women in leadership roles in the business sector changed over recent years?
The change on the South African landscape is very slow. It remains very male dominated.
What do you see as some of the barriers that still preclude women from being offered, and taking up C-suite roles?
There is definitely the ‘boys’ club’ in whatever disguise it presents itself.
Also the fact that women have different needs and the flexibility that goes with it – in most instances women put families first so they opt out of the career ladder.
Could you explain what has helped you to advance in your field?
Resilience and understanding yourself, which is a journey in itself – this journey is never ending.
Who have your female role models been?
My maternal Gran who was a business woman, a mother and a key part of the community. Nothing was impossible for her. She encouraged us (her granddaughters) to study so we could have choices. As a woman in an apartheid South Africa she was a phenomenal lady.
Any advice for the young women of South Africa?
They can influence the country and the continent – it is possible to work together to make Africa an economic power to be reckoned with.
Gender equality remains a burning global issue and is something that we all have to grapple with.
What do you think we still have to do to address this as employers, as individuals, and as coaches, to further the cause of women in the work place and their subsequent economic empowerment?