It’s a conversation that is on rinse-and-repeat annually: each year we celebrate Women’s Month.
Each year many people – far, far too many people – point out that the event rings hollow in the face of SA’s shameful record of gender-based violence, of its poverty, inequality and unemployment that disproportionately affect women.
Each year there are many who say any celebration is inappropriate, even cynical and callous. Many of those voicing those concerns and objections have, sadly, first-hand experience of why they feel that to be so.
While it’s certainly true that marking this month should go beyond platitudes and bouquets, goodie-bags and social media campaigns, there’s a deeper, more powerful reason for continuing to do so.
But should I, as a man, and one who holds a senior position in business, not check my privilege and hold my tongue about the advancement of women?
As a man, I speak from a position of some privilege and I try to use that privilege to highlight the barriers that women still face, as well as their achievements in overcoming those barriers.
I would humbly contend my privilege brings great obligation, a moral imperative to ensure obstacles to the progress of women are dismantled, that injustices are redressed.
I need look no further for examples than my colleagues throughout the business, like Simoné Joseph (launch engineer), Glenda Strydom (safety engineer), Siphokazi Nomatye (quality manager), Ayanda Mathabatha (HR business advisor) and Mariona Padayachee (environmental engineer).
Each excels in what has traditionally been a male-dominated business. Each exemplifies tenacity and personal excellence.
Consider too, the example of Yota Baron, who this month was appointed Ford’s first female chief financial officer in SA.
She’s a potent advocate for education and mentorship, especially of girls and women.
She points out that she’s the first female in her family to complete university, and that her maternal grandmother was illiterate. We see there the power of education to change one’s destiny in a single generation.
We see the need for all girls to have opportunities to excel.
Just one example of mentorship that she cites: imagine a young woman taking several minibus taxis from her parents’ township home to the world of glass-and-steel corporate head offices, plush boardrooms and hushed cubicles. A rite of passage, yes, and an opportunity, but also very intimidating.
Diversity, she contends, extends beyond race, gender, orientation and physical ability, but to experience and age.
Privilege comes in many forms. Experience is one. Again, the obligation is clear: pass on your experience and insights, and be willing to learn to see through the younger and perhaps fresher eyes of newcomers.
Perhaps one crucial differentiator is motivation: however much workplace diversity is legislated, it’s only truly effective when it’s pursued as a matter of social conscience rather than a tick-box.
Yes, it means we relate better to those we sell our products and services, and they to us. But it’s ultimately successful when pursued for the simple goal of being the right thing to do.
All businesses claim to put people at the centre of their operations. The impact of Covid has for, example, led to a – perhaps long-overdue – focus on humanity and empathy in the workplace.
The results? A mixed outcome despite the best of intentions.
Time magazine recently reported on the 2021 State of Empathy Workplace Study in the US, in which only one in four respondents felt their companies were sufficiently empathetic.
The report’s author writes:
“Companies know they must start thinking seriously about addressing their empathy deficit or risk losing workers to companies that are. Still, I’ve also heard from workers who think it’s all nonsense: the latest in a long string of corporate attempts to distract from toxic or exploitative company culture, yet another scenario in which employers implore workers to be honest and vulnerable about their needs, then implicitly or explicitly punish them for it.”
So, equity in the workplace remains a work in progress. In the same way, initiatives like Women’s Month will only be effective when they’re measured in destinies that are changed, and when they become archaic because they’re superfluous.
Some day Women’s Month will become an afterthought for us, where all calls to action have been met and fulfilled.
By “us” I mean all of us, because we will achieve equality together or not at all.
– Shawn Govender is the plant manager at the Ford Struandale Engine Plant in Gqeberha
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