Women and Leadership – Part 1

Women and Leadership

Khanyi Makwala had been amazing to work with. No task was too small and no challenge was too big. She obviously loved her role and exuded confidence in all she did. From the moment I arrived at the GIBS Business School in Johannesburg on a chilly July morning, Khanyi had everything planned out and prepared with a deft and careful touch.

We had asked to move from the large and modern lecture theatre, to a less formal room with round tables, enabling our attendees from Bidvest to better work together on the exercises and workshops that we had crafted. This was managed seamlessly and without any fuss at all. All was in order well ahead of schedule as we awaited their arrival.

[bctt tweet=”Go for a Job that you will Love” username=”renecarayol”]

Khanyi had a story to tell that I wanted to hear. She had worked at GIBS for some 7 years, but not always as the programme coordinator. In fact, her initial two years at GIBS was spent working as a cleaner for the outsourcing company that employed her. She loved the buzz that this great centre of learning and the students generated. She wanted the chance to do more, so much more, but without qualifications and any relevant experience, this seemed to be just another dream.

A vacancy arose for a desk receptionist, and Khanyi plucked up the courage to apply for the job. She was not at first successful, but she had been considered and despite not getting the job, her confidence had grown. She applied again when the next vacancy arose. She was accepted and she would never look back. Her strong work ethic and positive demeanour was soon being noticed and remarked upon.

A role with more responsibility was her target. A promotion brought her much closer to the custom executive education programmes that she was so curious about. One of the professors encouraged her to apply for the role of project coordinator, and she had all that was required. She now had the job of her dreams.

Her enthusiasm and passion filled the room as she spoke, her pride and the sparkle in her eyes made her special story linger in the air. I somehow felt that so many could benefit from not just hearing how she had bravely navigated the many obstacles and barriers, but also feel her energy and determination. A truly golden moment.

If at First, you don’t Succeed

For many women trying to build a career, it is tough to stay positive when things are not going to plan or not moving fast enough. It’s always worth just remembering the journey you have been on to get to this still difficult place. You may just realise that it’s been a hell of a journey, with bumps along the way of course, but you may have come a very long way from the relative dark days when you commenced this challenging initiative. This knowledge might just raise your spirits for another push, because things ARE moving in the right direction.

No matter how much companies claim they try to eliminate unconscious bias, promote fair wages and encourage diversity, women are still underpaid and under-valued at virtually every step in their careers. Even more alarming, most studies suggest that the problem is actually getting worse, but is that really the case?

The Data is Depressing

Despite the fact that 57 percent of college graduates in the USA are now female, fewer women than men are hired at the entry level according to McKinsey. That narrows the female talent pipeline from the off.

Just as worrying, if they do get hired, their chances of promotion are limited. A 2018 Accenture report found women are 22 percent less likely to reach manager level than their male peers regardless of their qualifications; and only about 1 in 5 senior leaders are women. This is of course deplorable and further fuels the fight against such inequality.

Looking Back to Look Forward

Whilst doing my research for this article, I came across a really interesting and instructive article by the challenging and intelligent writer on all facets of contemporary leadership, Shellie Karabell, in Forbes magazine (19th May 2016).

It was so thought provoking, hard-hitting and from today’s perspective, controversial, and perhaps already somewhat dated just two years later, it deserved a response.

The catalyst for her article was the seminal 1977 book, The Managerial Woman: The Survival Manual for Women in Business, which went on to become a best-seller, by Margaret Hennig and her Harvard classmate, Anne Jardim – who went on to speak and give training courses to women in management.

“In an effort to clarify some of the thinking of professional women of my generation, and to hand down the benefits of our experiences, I – with input from other professional women – compiled the following list of Ten Commandments for Women leaders”.

On reading her Ten Commandments they already seemed really dated and of another era, or is it more that things have perhaps moved on quite a bit?

It’s not helpful to be critical of the past, as without the commitment, hard work and strength of those who came before there may not be any platform at all to build upon. But it does help paint a vivid picture of the context of the times, and it’s not that long ago at all.

Nothing Stands Still Anymore

Whilst reading her Ten Commandments, I couldn’t help thinking of the old adage, ‘boys are brought up to be brave and girls are brought up to be perfect’.

1 Hard work and excellence are important but they’re not enough. This is an important first step, but you and your competence need to be on someone’s radar screen. You don’t have to brag, just don’t pass up the opportunity to remind people what you’ve contributed when the opportunity arises. Too much modesty can easily get you overlooked.

Beyoncé was at her peak a couple of years ago and would appear to have sympathy with this “We need to reshape our own perception of how we view ourselves. We have to step up as women and take the lead.”

Maybe today the onus is balanced between both women and the prevailing working environments and cultures. Where women have the choice, they must become far more discerning about the environment they choose to offer their skills to and decide to work in. Ensure the values of the organisation match yours – it will be too late to notice a mis-match after you have joined.

2 Network. This is also how you share your competences with those who might give you a leg up. It allows you to share knowledge with others who need it, learn from those who can teach you, and create an important base. Lonesome cowgirls don’t do well in the business world.

An activist and powerful voice from the same time, Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States captures it beautifully, “No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens.”

Networking with ‘like-minded’ women is still vital, where experiences, best practice and lessons learnt are openly shared. This will provide a feeling of solidarity and foster growth.

Progress Cannot be Denied

3 Prioritize. You may be able to “have it all,” but not have all of it going well simultaneously always. When you juggle work, family, social demands, etc., you actually spread the risk: when one thing goes badly wrong there’s another corner in which to hide. But to make yourself crazy trying to do everything perfectly all the time is, well … crazy. And impossible.

Flexible working environments have become essential for all employees. They cater and absorb many different approaches to work and are far more focused on outcomes than ‘how’ work is performed e.g. working from home, variable working hours and job share schemes.

4 Choose your battles. This is another form of prioritizing. Choose those which will create the best for the company, for the family, for you. Err on the side of NOT sailing into battle. You run the risk of becoming a banshee.

Gender equality is EVERYONE’S battle. The more men that actively sign up to be part of the necessary change is critical to the success in the challenge for gender equality.

Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner stands out for a new courage in speaking up, “I had two options. One was to remain silent and never to speak and then to be killed by the terrorists. The second option was to speak up for my rights and then die. And I chose the second one.”

The More We All Push

5 Speak up. Recent research by INSEAD business school professor Horacio Falcao shows that one of the reasons women are lagging in the salary sweepstakes is their failure to negotiate. This may be a component of women’s belief that working hard will get them somewhere – that efforts will be recognized by those who are in charge. This is simply not the case. Those in charge have other things on their minds. If there’s something you want, ask for it. It’s not impolite; this isn’t a tea party. Don’t be afraid that the boss won’t like you.

There has been much rightful anger and indignation about the gender pay gap. The UK Government has forced more than 10,000 large firms to reveal details of their gender pay gaps. Some of the pay disparities are more than alarming. All women in the workforce must know what their real worth is and openly talk about it.

Melinda Gates, Co-Founder, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, states that “I tell my daughters to have their voice in this world, and it became clear I needed to role-model that.”

From Best Practice to Next Practice

  • Salary Openness
  • Flexibility – Make work/life balance a priority for your employees
  • Make Things Equal but Not the SameSometimes managers think that they have to treat everyone in an identical manner. When Jane asks for a more flexible schedule, don’t deny it because John doesn’t have one.
  • Make mentors available to everyone
  • Harassment needs to be identified and stopped immediately


Interested in Diversity and Inclusion?

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