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Challenges women face in the workplace




It is common knowledge that there are more women than men in the world. So, if women are the majority, and have been for a while,how has the minority of men managed to dominate just about everything for centuries?


International consulting firm Bain & Co. tracked gender dynamics for seven years in South African work- places and in May 2017 reported its findings.


“In 2017, 31 percent of South African companies had no female representation in senior leadership roles. The latest Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa (BWA- SA) census on women in leadership indicates that 22 percent of board directors are women, but only seven percent are executive directors… The percentage of CEOs who are women in South Africa (10 percent) is lower than the global average of 12 percent."


This picture is worrying to say the least. The fact that in South Africa we have more female graduates than male ones should be encouraging. With time, this should tilt the scales towards a more balanced scenario than this skewed situation we find ourselves in.


It is not always about the numbers but rather who controls the narrative and can back it up with force, manipulation, religion and enculturation over time, to make it the accepted norm that society reproduces as standard practice.


According to the SA 2011 Census, men account for 48.2 percent of our population, while women make up 51.7 percent.


So, why then do we have more men running the show in just about every sector, and in most leader- ship roles? This has nothing to do with the fact that women take maternity leave to raise children and build families, and lose traction in their careers. It also has very little, if anything, to do with women’s talents, qualifications or general capabilities to deliver on those roles and responsibilities.


It surely must come down to other factors such as the values and beliefs, culture, constructed traditions and established practices of those in charge of placement, promotion and talent management within organisations in both the public and private sectors.

In recent wide-ranging interviews and discussions with women in executive manage- ment posi- tions, middle management and senior professional roles, the following issues emerged as critical gender-linked highlights impacting women’s careers in the modern workplace.

Challenge 1: Is it my softer voice?“Picture this: I am a woman and I am sitting in a formal meeting with my colleagues. There is a call for fresh ideas on a project we are working on. I suggest something that I am passionate about. I know it is a great idea and a winner.

There is a muted reaction to it. “The reaction has the effect of almost shutting me down. I keep on pressing the issue. One of my male colleagues latches onto the very same idea or suggestion I am making and just about repeats exactly what I said. The reaction is instant applause and celebration of ‘his’ brilliant idea. I wonder what makes men (and sometimes wom- en) do this. Is it our softer voices? Or do male managers and leaders in organisations respond more positively to ideas and suggestions from their male counterparts than from women?”


This is a common phenomenon in boardrooms and modern workplaces. A key attribute in management and especially organisational leadership is empathy and compassion.

Can you put yourself in the shoes of the woman in the quotation above? How would that feel? It is a significant workplace challenge to notice that far too many women in this century not only can relate to this, but experience it frequently.


Suggested solution:

One of the quicker ways to address this challenge is to deepen awareness and develop sharper listening skills starting with those in positions of authority in the organisation or department. Meetings are like stages where different people showcase their skills and talents. Not everyone can speak up in meetings. Some- times the brightest idea and solu- tion sits within the silent member of the audience.


An emotionally intelligent manager/leader running a meeting knows how to navigate every situation well enough to bring every voice in. A quick course on managing meetings or active listening skills will help improve this.

Challenge 2: Women are better people managers

“I believe that scientifically and genetically women are better people managers than men. They are naturally nurturing. I am not saying that female managers or leaders must be anyone’s office mothers. I am saying that they are far more attuned to bring everyone in and create more conducive and safer spaces for employee engagement than their male counterparts. … And yes, some transformed male managers and leaders are improving in this area. What I am saying is that this almost comes naturally to women because they are emotion- ally attuned to others. They have an inborn, inherent capacity to master people management than men,” said Nobuntu, a 41-year-old chartered accountant.


“Great management is about managing the whole person and not seeing them only as a tool or asset to be exploited. Women are more in tune with the fact that the employees are more than just resources and are multi-faceted beings. Because women are in tune with their emotions, they get the fact that emotions are energy in the workplace and must be channelled appropriately. Women manage emotions or emotional situations better than men do. The challenge is that some women try to be masculine in some roles. It is important to remain feminine and tap into your authentic feminine energy and power. Some men are terrified of this. Men need to be more aware of themselves becoming obstacles to women’s advancement,” argued Karen, a 44-year-old investment officer.


The challenge is for each of us in the modern workplace to become aware that we impact on each other with our presence and how we are, and in how we show up in our shared spaces. Studies have shown that organisational leaders infect their teams with their moods. It is therefore critical that a leader becomes more aware of, and carefully manages, their mood at all times. Women have an advantage in this because they are already more attuned to themselves and their emotions. Most men and some women have the massive blockage of regarding the expression of emotions as weakness.


Suggested solution:

To become aware of how you impact on your team and how attuned you are in working with others, it is critical that all managers and leaders, men and women, do assessments that show them where they orient from and towards. Often the Ennea- gram, a personality type assessment tool, comes in very handy in this regard.




Challenge 3: Do you see the professional colleague or the woman first?

“As a relatively young single wom- an, I struggle with the fact that my male colleagues do not see me. They see the woman that I am first before they see me as a colleague and fellow professional. There are comments on my clothes, make-up and other things that are unre- lated to my work. I know there are social norms and practices about complementing each other and so forth. There are boundaries and lines that should not be crossed.


Most men are not even aware that there is a line not to cross and they easily create very uncomfort- able situations for us. Some make uncomfortable jokes and passes at you and we are expected to still work with them productively. The modern workplace is still hostile towards women. Many women do not speak up because it can be career limiting. We need every- one in workplaces to wake up to the many ways through which workplace behaviour negatively constrains women’s advancement and development,” said Palesa, a communications and marketing specialist.


“The workplace is a battle. You have to come prepared to fight every single day. If you come to work thinking that my brother and my sister will fight for you, then you can forget it. You have already lost. Find your area of expertise or niche, and learn everything in it. Become the best in it. Create that space for you to thrive. Without that, you are at the mercy of other people’s decisions and whims,” said a manager at a commercial yourself and take advantage of your strengths while managing your areas of development (weak- nesses). The same supportive partner can also help you build a solid network to rely on.


There are commendable efforts being made to understand the challenges and find real, genuine Gender discrimination at work is mainly about social and cultural factors that come into the work- place and manifest through behaviours of fellow employees. Lasting solutions are found in working together to raise awareness and build transformed organisational cultures that see everyone as equal and equally capable.

Suggested solution: Female professionals who are passionate, dedicated and focused on their careers will give themselves a massive advantage by finding a professional coach and/or an experienced mentor to work with for part of their professional jour-

ney. It always helps to have a solid sounding board in the form of someone who will help you knowing in our modern workplaces but more needs to be done.

Men must learn to call each other out when they see behaviour that turns a women into an object or make jokes that diminish the professional integrity of their female counterparts. They must manage their small talk and ‘delete’ their gender insensitive jokes.

Author :

Dr Dumisani Magadlela is a certified international Executive Coach, Coach Trainer and Leadership Development Facilitator.


He works as a Skills Development and Capacity Building Practitioner for the Pan African Capacity Building Programme at the Development Bank of Southern Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.



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