A challenge to female graduates: define how you will lead and empower

05 Aug 2020
Paper boats

Black women in leadership positions continue to face structural inequality in the workplace, writes Brenda Martin, UCT Careers Service Director

05 Aug 2020

Op-Ed: Brenda Martin, UCT Careers Service Director
Photo: Canva

As a black female leader who has occupied senior positions in diverse spaces within civil society, the academy and the private sector, often tasked with achieving transformation, I have some sense of the common experiences of women in the world of work. Like me, many such women are the first within their families to have been appointed to executive positions.  

We aim to bring our “A-game” every day, we work harder than we need to, making the extra effort to ensure our work is excellent and beyond reproach. We do this always knowing that at any point our English might be corrected, that our quite ordinary levels of assertive, confident, considered actions might be judged as “arrogant”, our credentials and capacity for independent thought frequently disbelieved, or worse: not even considered. 

There are few things I generalize about, but this I feel (sadly) able to say: the majority of black women working in positions of leadership in South Africa today (whether first or second-generation), continue to be routinely confronted by quite different measures of success, intellect and effectiveness.  Equality remains elusive. 

Working with constant discomfort and the awareness that we remain a statistical minority in the world of work and that it will not take much to lose our place, is constantly somewhere in the back of our minds. We often wonder what we could achieve professionally, if we could eradicate these concerns, if Equality were more present or at least more often within reach. 

Some of us are fortunate to find ourselves in micro-environments where we work with one or two more enlightened and conscious men and women who make an effort to check their patriarchal blind spots, who make work an unusual breath of fresh air, but this experience remains rare.  

There are two perspectives on navigating the world of work as a black female leader, perhaps particularly relevant to South Africa, that I would like to draw attention to this Woman’s Day. 

First, there are the deeply embedded practices of patriarchy. A symptom of this embedding will often show up in how when we find ourselves in terrains previously far less accessible to us, we routinely adjust our own actions and visibility as black female professionals: making ourselves smaller, avoiding sticking our necks out, or taking care to ensure that we are seen as ‘useful’ and ‘worth keeping around’. 

A tragic consequence of this is that even today, black female leaders who make a conscious commitment to engage with the world on their own terms, who speak up, challenge traditionally dominant voices or who even simply make those who have always enjoyed the privilege of unquestioned command and respect uncomfortable, continue to be at risk of finding their tenures to be challenged and often, cut short.  

Too often, we are reminded in one way or another to know our place or live with the consequences.  

The second perspective I’d like to draw attention to is how we ourselves can be blind to the patriarchal norms we as black female leaders have absorbed and unconsciously subscribe to. An outcome of this embedding will show up in how we judge and punish other women, or in how we hesitate to support a colleague who is in distress because she has dared to disrupt the status quo. It might even show up in the traditional styles of patriarchal leadership we ourselves unconsciously affirm, model and emulate.  

In my current position, I routinely encounter strong, intelligent and excellent black female graduates who engage with the world consciously and with a determination to be a part of social change - on their own terms.  

On this Woman’s Day, it is my sincere hope that these graduates entering the rapidly evolving world of work will take the time to determine for themselves, on their own terms, what kind of leaders they will be and how they will contribute to achieving Equality. I also hope that they will take the time to consider what behaviors and norms of leadership they themselves will foster, by their own judgements and actions.  

In the meantime, I draw comfort from the well of hope around me every day, which goes a long way to restoring confidence that my own prior experience will one day be rare and Equality, commonplace. 

Footnote: I am aware of the many struggles also faced by my white female colleagues in the still patriarchal world of work. I am also aware that black female leaders are not a homogenous group. I have written this article from my personal perspective and in my private capacity.