What it means to be a woman in South Africa today

Insights

Celebrating Women’s Month is a mixed blessing – while legally the rights for women in South Africa are the best they have ever been, there is a lot of action waiting to be enforced to realise that into effective and sustainable outcomes. We spoke to some of our incredible staff and authors about their experiences, what can be done to cover more ground, and what it means to be a woman in South Africa.

 CHRISTA LAWRENCE – Head of EducationalChrista Lawrence
Publishing at Juta

“Be comfortable in the trenches. but not so comfortable that you make it home.”

 Can you please briefly tell us about your professional journey?
I currently head up academic publishing at Juta, but I started in the educational publishing trenches as a junior editor.  I’m proud of that journey, and it’s given me a great view of the world. While I was given great opportunities throughout my career, it was hard-earned and at times came with sacrifice. I always worked hard and was driven personally to further myself with the support of mentors, which is why I feel so strongly about the value of mentoring.  I was also fortunate to have the support of my father and sisters, who are both teachers, and kept education close to my heart.

What challenges face women in publishing?
In general, the industry has a female bias. In all my time, I’ve had more male managers and more female colleagues. The view at the top is very different to that of the trenches where men leapfrog women somehow. Perhaps this points to a lack of leadership opportunities for women and related to that, I think that more mentorship is needed in the industry.

What qualities are essential for women climbing in corporate?
Be comfortable in the trenches. but not so comfortable that you make it home!  I think sometimes hard work is undervalued, but it’s important to be intentional about using your hard work to springboard your career. I think it’s important to develop the ability to bounce back through unkindness and discomfort, which is generally a hard one.  People will always clash, but that’s where you grow and ideas flourish.  Reframing it as an opportunity will make you lean into it instead of shy away from it.

What is your top tip for women progressing professionally in business?
I personally don’t feel heard sometimes, so I overcompensate, and then I over-explain, and people switch off.  I think the golden phrase is ‘measure your words’.  When they leave your mouth, they must land somewhere specific, to be heard better. Nowadays we are encouraged to speak freely, but we need to learn to speak up appropriately, make an impact, and then stop; silence also gives words space and can teach us not to be louder but to speak with more clarity.

How does the publishing landscape look for women?
The female presence at lower levels is there, and the climate is ripe for women to progress. Qualifications and enrichment programmes are available (both formal and informal), but somehow, I don’t think the industry is seeing much growth in terms of advancement. Partially this is due to an uncertain future at the moment: I’m not sure there are many skills for longevity in an industry revolutionising so rapidly towards a digital horizon.  Hard skills will always have a place but currently, we must be ready to evolve and adapt as the industry reshapes.  The next decade will see content being consumed on platforms we haven’t even dreamt of!   I would like to see rocket fuel behind programmes that educate and develop women from grassroots levels to be able to enter this field, and eventually to spearhead it too.

What you would like to see change for women in workplace environments like your own, as well as society?
Mentorship! It was so imperative to my professional development, and I still see a deep need for it in myself and colleagues, never mind younger women entering the workspace.  South Africa has a great altruistic spirit of ubuntu. We now need to see it more readily in the workplace through meaningful programmes.  I personally feel that many graduates, through no fault of their own (you don’t know what you don’t know), aren’t workplace ready. This means that there is a gap for content creators to step into this space to help people progress seamlessly into the “real world”.

On a societal level, gender-based violence needs urgent attention and programmes to approach social challenges. While I strongly believe we as women must tap into our power and make changes which we want to see ourselves, there needs to be real awareness around it for it to have traction.  I also believe young girls must feel powerful stepping into their place in the world. There is never a good time to teach them radical confidence and self-love.  So, while we need to teach them to go for it, whatever “it” may be for them, we also need to make sure they feel SAFE on every level to do so.

Finally…

When did you first feel oppressed as a woman?
As much as I was raised by a strong father who made me feel like I could do anything, I remember him telling me one night that I shouldn’t be driving out so late because it wasn’t safe. I realised that the world was different for women at a young age.

What highlight made you feel empowered as a woman?
Working in education which I have a real passion for. It is always empowering to see those who have worked under me rise and flourish.  It means we are progressing and that things will be better for future generations.

Three words to highlight what it is to be a woman in South Africa in 2021
Cautious, brave, possible.

NAJMA MOOSA – lawyer, lecturer, and author of
the books “Unveiling the Mind: A Herstory” and “Muslim Personal Law in South Africa: Evolution and future status”.

“Feminism is the right to choose, but also the right to have our choices respected.”

Your book engages around the rights of Muslim women specifically; do you think religions, in general, are a veil for rolling back the rights of women versus protecting women, and what should people on the outside of religions and cultures do to both understand and effectively support these women?

An insightful debate, but alas the answer is not so straightforward! It depends on the way it is perceived and the situation it applies to. For example, the current situation in a Muslim country like Afghanistan and the abuse and oppression of Afghan women under Taliban rule.  In that situation, religion (Islam) is literally used as a veil to roll back the rights of women, whereas in another Muslim country, but in a different context, the current king of Saudi Arabia is trying to lift the veil to accord women certain rights like driving and voting.  In a non-Muslim country like South Africa, which is a constitutional democracy, Muslim women are not singled out but seen as part of a diverse society where all suffer the same discriminations of gender inequality or gender-based violence, for example. To be effectively equitable and supportive, those not constrained by or outside of the banner of religions and cultures must not judge these women but have empathy.  Steps towards achieving this with genuine understanding are to educate themselves and welcome exposure to these kinds of issues from a woman’s perspective.

As the first black HOD at UWC, how difficult was your career progression, and how has that changed for the women that have followed you? What are the most important strides we have made in your lifetime? Unfortunately, there has been little change on the gender equality front.  If anything, there is more awareness of what constitutes gender equality for the “genderation” that followed me.  For example, my generation may have thought that gender equality would have been achieved by both men and women being able to have equal career opportunities.  But in the eyes of the subsequent generation, women may have a career now but are still expected to assume larger responsibilities related to family, household and childcare.  What is equal about that?  On the other hand, as far as activism is concerned, women themselves are no longer remaining silent and are standing up for themselves and their rights.

As the first black female Dean of both the UWC law faculty and within a law faculty in South Africa, I hope that if other women of colour thought that such a feat was impossible then my appointment proved them wrong and encouraged others to aspire to the same positions.  As an academic, I also teach students, and using this platform hopefully creates critical awareness of how Muslim personal or family law (my field of speciality) has an application in their own lives.

Looking forward, what 3 issues do we still need to tackle for real change and transformation? How does that realistically look for women?
Firstly, accountability, which starts at the top (with the government) and filters down to people in powerful positions, including abusive spouses.

Secondly, we need to create an environment and structures whereby women that have been discriminated against, or experienced gender-based violence, can freely speak about it, without being further victimised or judged by families and communities.

Unfortunately, we still live in a male-dominated world.  As such, there needs to be an acceptance by males that, going forward, women are not going to settle for the status quo; they need to come to the table and be part of the dialogue to break this impasse.  We can start with small steps, like couples communicating, preferably before getting married, about role expectations and career aspirations.  These conversations should be ongoing and equal-handed.

Finally…

When did you first feel oppressed as a woman
In my case I have never let myself be oppressed by anybody: I never took things at face value and questioned the expectations people had of me.  In my family, I both fought and worked for my freedoms.  I may have been an exception to my generation, but I would like all women to harness this personal empowerment.

What highlight made you feel empowered as a woman
I was an instrumental part of the publication of a SALRC Muslim marriages bill in 2003. It aimed to formally recognise Muslim marriages in South Africa for the first time.  Despite it being both visionary and compliant with Islamic law, the bill was not enacted into law.  At that time, I was despondent about it and felt that I wasted precious time that could have been invested elsewhere.  Now I realise that it was of little value to the women of my generation (and the generations before them) who showed little interest in it.  They did not, for example, think of divorce as a concern!  However, for the subsequent generation with its higher divorce rate, the recognition of Muslim marriages has become imperative, especially since Muslim women have little bargaining power in a divorce.  The fact that we (the SALRC project committee) managed for the first time to reach a bill stage, made me feel empowered.  We had not read the situation wrong – there was a need for this type of recognition. It was just ahead of its time.

Three words to highlight what it is to be a woman in South Africa in 2021
Optimism; reflection; vicissitude

MELISSA DAVIDS – CA, and Financial Manager at
Juta

“As women, we need to claim our space at the corporate table.”

You have quite an incredible backstory! Would you mind telling us a little bit about your roots, and how you got to where you are now?
I grew up in Mitchell’s Plain, the youngest of five kids to a strong and resilient single parent. I knew the poverty cycle was borderline impossible to escape – I could see it in action – and I remember resolving myself to not become just another statistic.

One day in high school, a Deloitte partner held a career talk on becoming a Chartered Accountant. I had no clue what this entailed, but at that moment, it was as if the penny dropped. I dared dream this crazy dream that maybe one day, that could be me. Honestly, at that moment, it felt as if the dream was so big and unattainable, that it scared even me, but I saw it as a way out of the poverty cycle that up until that point, seemed predestined for me.

I was compelled to make something of myself. The seed was planted, and I had my mindset. From that moment, every decision I made, took me one step closer to realising this crazy dream.

What challenges have you faced as a previously disadvantaged woman in business?
Well, so far in business, I have been fortunate enough to not have had to deal with any prejudices. I do however remember while at varsity, I was declined entry into the BCom Accounting programme and instead, rather strongly encouraged to sign up for the BCom General degree. I had worked way too hard to take no for an answer. It angered me and pushed me beyond my comfort zone. I decided to approach the Head of the Department directly to understand why I was being declined entry. He told me verbatim, that the simple reason for their decision, was because of my background and more specifically, the school that I was from. In his words, it was clear that I would never cut it!  I insisted and he ended up pushing me through! In fact, in my second year, due to academic excellence, I was awarded a bursary from the EMS Faculty. To drive my point home, I made sure that I not only passed every subject but my board exams as well…on my first attempt.

I was one of only three students who started in that first-year class that made it through to our final honours’ year at university.

What qualities are essential for women climbing in corporate?
Use your voice! Know that is okay to be vulnerable and have empathy. So much dialogue is designed to shame women into being silenced, like the” bossy” stereotype; or how loud women are “less attractive”.  No – don’t back down when being challenged and be resilient. Be assertive. Realise your value. Step into your power. Be your authentic self every step of the way.

What advice can you then give women for building that kind of resilience in business?
Own who you are and what you are capable of. Find what anchors you and drives you. Basically, YOUR why. Don’t be afraid to have crazy goals.

A friend once shared the following motivation with me, which I use as a mantra every day. It’s a poem by Marianna Williamson entitled ‘Our Deepest Fear’.

To quote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us…We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are we not to be?”

Value yourself!  Again, a personal lesson!

Gender pay gaps – how much of a thing is this still, why does it still exist in 2021, and what can society and individuals do to shut it down?
Gender pay gaps are still relevant and a challenge faced in various industries and at different levels.

Firstly, roles should ALWAYS be renumerated in line with the job outputs and the value it adds, as opposed to anything else.

Secondly, know your worth and what you bring to the table.  If you doubt it, others will too.  No one else can advocate for you, better than you.

Thirdly, we should encourage greater transparency. It would just help make it so much easier to have these “sensitive” conversations.  I think this is a good rule in general.

The difference you would like to make to others, and how we can all do something that matters?
I would love to be in a position to be able to inspire and encourage women and young girls to be more than just what society may lead them to believe they are, to help push them out of their comfort zones and not be afraid to just go for it, even if the answer is no!

The dream is to one day run leadership workshops that serve to inspire and grow women from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Lastly, something I think we can all do is to just be a little more approachable.  We have so much to learn and share with each other, so why wouldn’t we?

What would you like to see change for women in workplace environments and society?
I would love for there to be more mentorship programmes available to women in business, and generally more tangible support for mothers in demanding corporate environments. Also, generally, promoting mental wellbeing and talking openly about mental health. Above all, I think this is now more important than ever. And in our broader society, greater government and societal support for those who endure gender-based violence, free access to sanitary towels and other basic women hygiene products.

What can we do to empower other women?
Support, nurture and empower our children, especially the girl child. Bring back the “Bring a Girl Child to Work” initiative across the spectrum. Lift each other and be the kind of woman who supports other women.

Finally…

When did you first feel oppressed as a woman
Honestly, I feel that way every time I leave the house alone and I’m sure many others feel as I do.

What highlight made you feel empowered as a woman
There are many, some as recent as a few days ago. But if I had to highlight one, it would probably be the day I received confirmation of my SAICA membership. Also, I ended up doing my articles at Deloitte and working directly with the partner that delivered the talk at our school all those years ago.

Three words to highlight what it is to be a woman in South Africa in 2021
Vulnerable. Beautiful. Strong.

Taaliah Webber – HR consultant, nutritionist,
personal trainer

“Healthy habits are love from us to us.”

Tell us about the importance of health and wellness specifically for women, your journey to it, and integrating it into a balanced work life.
My day job is actually in HR, but I embarked on a health and wellness journey when I was diagnosed with a Hiatus Hernia that was making me – and my life – miserable.  I had had a tumultuous personal year, and I believe I was physically manifesting my trauma.  I was initially misdiagnosed, which shook my faith a little in the medical help I was receiving, and I also felt like my pain was not considered significant enough to doctors.  This is a common problem, and part of the problem is that as women we accept this!  I think we often suffer in silence because we would rather be in pain than be inconvenient.  It led me to self-study, and ultimately a qualification, focused on how lifestyle is the best medicine for our whole body, physically and mentally.  There is a place for medicine, but I think it is easier to prescribe a pill than to infiltrate the real cause and cure for many illnesses.  If I hadn’t done it, I would have deteriorated in myself, my relationships, and my work.  It is a holistic attitude, and we can’t pretend to separate these any longer.

Women and weight-lifting – tell us about how you break the stereotypes and focus on building a positive “self-image” that is more health-focused than vanity-centric?
I think it’s more about understanding what works for us from a health perspective and prioritising that.  Women have existed – and been moulded – for the male gaze for so long that we often disobey what our body tells us it needs.  Weight training is proving to be the key to not a “thin” body, but a strong one, not a “sexy” physique, but a healthy one.  If we can adjust our gaze to look with love at ourselves and give us the nutrition, exercise, and care that we need to physically look AND feel better, we can start to do what is genuinely best for us and not care about stereotypes at all!  And as they say, happiness is the best makeup you can wear.

How do health and wellness contribute to and support mental wellbeing?
I think they are one and the same.  The reality is that if we can reframe physical wellness and being just that, and not vanity, we will start to value healthy habits as an investment in ourselves, which also speaks to recognising and fostering our value.  This in turn makes us believe we are worthy of such self-love, and it has a ripple effect into other aspects of our lives.  Additionally, our body needs to have the ingredients to make us happy.  No diet pills or fast foods will do better than a balanced diet and physical delight.  It is a sign of respect to us, as much as treating ourselves with kindness.  We need to relearn what that looks like.

What kind of transformation would you like to see for women in corporate SA compared to your personal experience?
I believe that women need to see their value to make space for themselves in corporate climates.  I can attest to the fact that we tend to strive for what we believe we are worthy of, so we cannot hope to achieve greatness if we do not believe we are either capable of it or deserving of it.  We have to build our confidence to rise.

With regards to workplace culture and the challenges women still face, are women supporting women, or fighting them?
I think historically we have been taught to compete with one another because there was a finite amount of space for women in business structures.  But we aren’t the ones who need to make space at the table and having more women at the table should make us happier, not threatened.  I think the vast majority of female-on-female nastiness comes from insecurity.  If we can tackle and elevate our self-worth, parallel to promoting other women in meetings, conversations, pushing them for positions and promotions, we will see a radical change in the “sisterhood” feeling within corporate structures.

Finally…

When did you first feel oppressed as a woman
I was sexually assaulted as a child and I remember the horror very clearly.  I don’t mind speaking about it now, because I think speaking about it shines a light on it, raises awareness, and makes it possible for other women to come forward and open up.

What highlight made you feel empowered as a woman
It was the day I walked into court to apply for a restraining order against my ex-partner. I was finally free from abuse and it was a conscious recognition that I deserved happiness.

Three words to highlight what it is to be a woman in South Africa in 2021
Motivated, cautious, resilient.

Cathi Albertyn – lawyer, author of “Gender, Law
and Justice”, and mentor

“We need to be meaningful allies to all women, to the poorest and most vulnerable, for all of us to truly rise.”

Please share a little of your backstory with us!
I grew up in Cape Town and matriculated in the ‘70s as massive political tension was building – I think we were all borne into a conscience at that time.  I was drawn powerfully by the notion that I had to DO something, even though at that time there wasn’t much of a space for women.  Initially, I thought I would enter journalism, and ultimately, I moved towards law after reading To Kill A Mockingbird.  It seems like a cliche now, but it was a massively pivotal book to me!  There were very few other female lawyers for me to take inspiration from, but I was lucky enough to have a motivational teacher in high school.  Her influence stayed with me, inspired me to persevere, and now to pay it forward.

Tell us what inspired you to write your book?
I think there was nothing else like it, and having a benchmark is important. We wanted to draw focus to the importance and scope of gender equality, as a value and a substantive right, in the South African Constitution. We wanted the book to serve as both a theoretical and practical tool for academics and lawyers to apply concepts of gender equality to the law with basic feminist concepts and arguments, and a wealth of local, comparative and international material on gender and the law. I believe it also illustrates how the law may be shaped to transform the social, cultural and economic conditions of women’s lives in South Africa as it acknowledges the limits of legal strategies for change. We had three main objectives with this: to identify the different positions of women in South Africa and examine the disparate impact of the legal system on their lives; to expose the gender bias in legal concepts and in the content and application of legal rules, and finally to suggest changes to the law – and evaluate those changes that have already occurred – intending to develop the law so that it is better able to ensure justice and meet the diverse needs of all women in South Africa.

Within your lifetime, what societal changes have you been happy to see for women?
While fully acknowledging that we still have a lot of work to do, I think we cannot overlook how incredible our constitution is, as well as the formation of things like the National Women’s Coalition.  These basic rights seem like a given to the younger generations, but they were hard-won.

What still needs to happen for equality in South Africa?
We need to foster the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us – our structures need to protect and develop them, offer them real support, education, and means to narrow the gap between both gender divides and economic ones, especially in a post-Covid climate.  This can look like programmes, but also skill sharing, mentoring, workshops, and empowering those within your circle to develop themselves.  We need to be better allies to one another, and to ensure that action reaches those who need it most because they have the least say.  Special attention must be paid to girls, and what they need to be educated.

What qualities do we as women need to develop to enable real change?
I would say my main one is assertiveness, but we also need to create the conditions to enable that to grow.

Finally…

When did you first feel oppressed as a woman
I am fortunate to have never experienced a gross violation, but I remember as a young woman in confrontation with a man being physically forced to my knees.  I remember feeling physically helpless, and that realisation was a frightening one.

What highlight made you feel empowered as a woman
To be honest, I think being privy to the development of the new South Africa from about 1990 through to the new constitution.  It was a feeling of great possibility and power, recognition and reward.

Three words to highlight what it is to be a woman in South Africa in 2021
I’m sorry they aren’t very cheerful, but it is 2021 and I have great concerns, so I think hope or maybe resilience.  If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said power – I hope one day I will believe that again.

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