It’s Women’s Month, again. To be honest, I have mixed feelings about Women’s Month and Women’s Day.
On the one hand, I enjoy the fact that an extra effort is made to recognise and celebrate women across our country. On the other hand, I question the fact that we need a month (or a day) for women to be recognised and acknowledged. This should be happening every day.
I don’t want to take anything away from an occasion like Women’s Day. It not only gives organisations and communities the time and space to reflect on women, but also gives us as South Africans the chance to acknowledge the incredibly brave souls who took part in the Women’s March of 1956. They took on the thuggery of apartheid and continue to lead us in our march towards the emancipation of women in our country. However, the fact that this milestone march to the Union Buildings took place 62 years ago – and women are still fighting enormous battles when it comes to gender equality at work (never mind fighting for their own survival in their homes) – means we are crying out for meaningful change.
Women’s issues need to be so much more than the hype around Women’s Month in August. The cause is not an exercise in PR but something that needs to be dealt with every single day in business, in society and in government.
Seeing women march against gender-based violence around the country as part of the #TotalShutDown campaign on 1 August 2018 was evidence that South African women have had enough. They made so much noise in the streets and on social media that Cyril Ramaphosa rushed to the Union Buildings to receive their memorandum, despite an earlier Twitter response from his spokesperson saying he was “not in town”.
Their message clearly mirrored what the rest of us feel: we’ve reached saturation point on all levels. It’s time to make our needs heard and to do it wherever we are right now. For me, that place is in corporate South Africa.
The fact that after so many years, there is so little legislation in place to support women equality in the workplace is an absolute travesty. This needs to be addressed on policy level. WDB has been lobbying policy-makers for the past 26 years for government to introduce policies that are friendly to the development of micro-finance institutions, without success. When it comes to female fund managers (private equity and asset managers), there is also little attention from government and business. We don’t need another government-sponsored tea party in a stadium with free T-shirts as part of the deal, we need policy change and we need it now.
We also need to be vocal about parastatals and government institutions treating our entrepreneurs with no regard; the rumours about the SABC not paying any of its suppliers this month is an absolute disgrace. We need to say so.
Personal livelihoods, the scourge that is poverty and our very economy are at stake. It’s time to collaborate, put our heads and minds together and find a way to make headway. To my colleagues in boardrooms across the country, I urge you to join me in finding solutions to move government’s hand to make these policy changes a major priority.
I also think now is the time for all of us who work in the private sector to examine our own behaviour and look, perhaps internally, for some of the answers.
I constantly hear how companies are starting to embrace inclusive growth and transformation by supporting young black entrepreneurs, women-led start-ups, etc. Yet I also hear about small companies folding under the constant pressures of cash-flow problems and slow payments. I want to ask fellow corporates if we are really being honest with ourselves in terms of supporting these fledgling businesses. Are we paying these entrepreneurs in good time? Are we expecting them to outlay services and being sloppy in our payments – because the shoddy treatment of suppliers is simply a given across the board? Are we creating impossible procurement processes – that mean growth phase businesses will fail under massive paperwork and the big old dinosaur suppliers we have always used will continue to thrive as they are the only ones who can handle payments that take three months to land?
I urge finance departments to take a look at contracts and payment procedures and see if there are ways these can be streamlined to support entrepreneurs and small businesses.
Financial support is not enough for these small businesses though. Corporates need to pro-actively support the growth and sustainability of these businesses by adopting conscious strategies to mentor and provide other non-financial support. Imagine if corporates were to adopt these fledgling businesses even just for three months – what a difference we would all make in improving their success rates!
In these times, the issue of gender needs to be so much more than lip service. There is talk, talk and more talk at a high executive level and in the media, but now it’s time to demand the evidence – companies have given us PR spin and its time to ensure that the PR spin translates into action. For example, why do we accept the gender pay gap? Why is it okay for women to earn 27% less than men for the same job? Why is it okay that in South Africa women hold only 7% of Executive Directorship roles and 20% of non-executive directorship, whilst their representation in the population is 51%. We must all be alarmed by these statistics and most important policy makers and business leaders must take action!
Gender equity is not a marketing exercise, and I urge that we all join together to tackle this issue, not only in August, but for the other 11 months of the year as well.
In this time of focus on women, I think it’s also very important that we take part in a new brand of feminism that speaks to humanity as opposed to exclusivity.
Our founder, Zanele Mbeki, takes a wide worldview and often talks about “inclusivity” and a feminism, where everyone has a seat at the table. We won’t be successful in moving the gender issues along without men also being part of the struggle. I might be shot down for this, but I have seen it in business and I see it with our male staff at WDB – inclusivity really needs to be the order of the day if we are to move forward effectively, and not repeat the mistakes of the past. I am also the mom of boys, so having them be part of the future of a prosperous South Africa and playing a role as contributing citizens is personal for me.
During this month at WDB, we are focusing on the theme of #EveryWoman. We believe in acknowledging the talents and achievements of the amazing women in our country – whether it’s one of our entrepreneurs out in the field, or one of our executive colleagues who is making waves in high places.
Yes, it is easy to lose hope, so let’s support each other when the task at hand feels too big. “No woman left behind” is the key principle of the UN’s 2030 Agenda, I urge all my friends and colleagues: let’s continue the march forward, raise our voices, do what it takes to be heard, and make sure that no-one is left standing in the wings.
I wish you happy Women’s Day, every single day.
CEO, WDB Investment Holdings.