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Strike a woman, strike a rock

Singing, “Wathint’ abafazi wathint imbokodo” (When you strike a woman, you strike a rock) on the 9th of August 1956, Sophia Williams De Bruyn, Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi, and Rahima Moosa led 20 000 incredible, fearless women in all their glorious shades through the streets of Pretoria for equality. On this day, they marched with conviction, thousands of signatures in hand, to the Union Buildings to take a stand against the apartheid government and the unjust Pass laws (legislation that required persons of colour in South Africa to carry identification documents infringing on their freedom of movement).

These four remarkable women and the thousands that stood with them changed the course of South African history and the role that women would play in the fight for equality.

There is still work to be done

Although we have made great strides, the battle is far from over, as we work towards true equality in the workplace and in South Africa. Women are to this day still largely overlooked in the workplace. Despite organisational efforts to create environments where women are encouraged to proactively seek out leadership roles, there remains a mismatch between how women are seen and the qualities that we traditionally associate with leadership. “A significant challenge is the fact that men have dominated the organisational and political leadership domain for so long that so-called leadership characteristics are usually based on masculine attributes”, says Adcorp CFO Cheryl-Jane (CJ) Kujenga. “The advantage of this characterisation to men is that the starting assumption is that they can lead, giving them an additional edge in the competition for leadership roles. No such bolstering occurs for women.”

Not only this, but there is a fundamental shift required in not only how others view women in the workplace, but how women view themselves. Women today are still battling an internal narrative drummed into them since childhood, and a mindset that is deeply entrenched in society – a tough bond to break. “When a woman displays characteristics that are viewed as gender typical, she experiences the femininity/competency *double-bind judgement because she is seen as too weak, the reverse and she is seen as too tough. The existence of toughness and femininity in one personality are difficult qualities for society to reconcile and digest,” CJ explains.

The unlevel playing field between men and women in the workplace has a substantial economic cost. Not to mention that if women are continually overlooked for positions, we’re writing off half of the talent pool. Men and women bring different perspectives to the workplace, which is going to be imperative as we navigate the new world of work.

CJ notes that, “the issue of inequality in the workplace is exacerbated by the low number of women or lack of critical mass, as there are not enough women to change the dominant stereotype, and demonstrate the individual identity and leadership brought about by both men and women.” Diversity and inclusion at all levels of the business are essential for sustainable value creation, and transformation across the organisation has been established as a priority for Adcorp and a key focus area in the coming year. Currently, the Adcorp Board comprises 36% women and women make up 50% of the Group executive team.

The importance of closing the gender gap

Closing the gender gap is not a new concern, but organisations and policy makers are beginning to realise the true ramifications of inequality in the workplace. It can hinder the economic health of entire nations. Seeing the full picture is making the case for gender equality more and more compelling. “The reality is that having diverse views at the decision-making table is important, representation and role modelling matter, having critical mass matters. Women, in particular, tend to bring a world view that intersects one or more of gender, race and social class issues,” says CJ.

This discussion is even more important as South Africa struggles to find solutions to the high unemployment rate, with the rate jumping 1.4% from the first quarter to the end of Q2. Sitting at 29%, this is the worst it’s been since 2008. As South Africa’s largest workplace solutions provider, we know that we have an important role to play in tackling the high unemployment rate in our country. Currently, 66.4% of our temporary assignees are youth, with 33.5% of these youth being young women. For many unemployed South Africans, our Temporary Employment Solutions (TES) have and will continue to provide opportunities for first-time job seekers, skills development, training and career growth.

As we endeavour to build the workplaces of the future, workplaces that prioritise diversity and inclusion, equality and fair pay, this Women’s Month we’re taking a moment to celebrate the brave women that colour our history. We also celebrate the remarkable women whose lives we are able to enrich through the work we do, as well as the fearless women who are shaping our business as we embark on our transformation journey. 

*A double-bind is a behavioural norm that creates a situation where a person cannot win no matter what they do.

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