women - suraya

Opinion piece by Suraya Hamdulay, Executive Partner at Tsa Rona Insight & Analytics

As we look ahead to this year’s Women’s Day and the historic march of 9 August 1956, we should celebrate all efforts aimed at unity, advocacy and action to ensure gender parity in all spheres of life. 

Everyday women inspire, encourage and reinforce the belief that the full inclusion, participation and integration of women at the highest levels of decision making is an urgent imperative for local and international human rights agendas.

In fact, for hundreds of years women have been relegated to second class citizenship and the battle to recognize equality for women has indeed been hard fought. Despite the inclusion of women in the right to vote, very few other spaces have fully embraced the importance of women to participate equally socially and economically. Around the world as well as in Africa, women’s leadership and political participation is restricted. Women are under-represented as voters, as well as in leading positions, whether in elected office, the civil service, the private sector or academia. This occurs despite women’s proven abilities as leaders and agents of change, and their right to participate equally in democratic governance. 

In the South African political sphere for example, whilst we have progressive targets for equal participation of women in parliament and in political party manifestos, many of the key Cabinet positions remain elusive to women leaders. South Africa is yet to see its first female president despite there being no lack of worthy contenders. Around the world, there are strong examples of women heads of state. 

Most recently, we have seen how countries led by women seem to be particularly successful in fighting the coronavirus. Germany, led by Angela Merkel, has had a far lower death rate than Britain, France, Italy or Spain. Finland, where Prime Minister Sanna Marin, only 34, governs with a coalition of four female-led parties, has had fewer than 10 percent as many deaths as nearby Sweden. And Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, has presided over one of the most successful efforts in the world at containing the virus, using testing, contact tracing and isolation measures to control infections without a full national lockdown. Whilst these may be exceptional cases and we should be wary to draw too many conclusions, it most definitely points to woman led governments having more inclusive institutions and values. 

All South African political parties should have dedicated gender mainstreaming programmes to create strong talent pipelines in their respective parties. In addition, there should be focused mentoring and coaching of young female leaders of diverse cultures and backgrounds in order to ensure that succession strategies are deliberate and inclusive. Two outstanding female youth activists, Fasiha Hassan and Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, who led the Fees Must Fall movement transitioned from student politics to the mainstream and are today Members of Parliament – demonstrating that young black females can indeed claim their place as equals.

In civil society, where the struggle for equality, access and justice are fought on behalf of the marginalised every day, the voices of women, be it in Education, Housing or Health need to be heard. In addition, given that the majority of beneficiaries of civil society programmes are women, it stands to reason that women should be represented and their issues advanced. Head of UN Women South African Pumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka aptly stated that “There is no great force for change, for peace, for justice and democracy, for inclusive economic growth than a world of empowered women ”. Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka has devoted her career to issues of human rights, equality and social justice. Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka has worked in government and civil society, and with the private sector, and was actively involved in the struggle to end apartheid. It is admirable that her career has led her to one of the most powerful positions advocating for women’s rights globally.

In the private sector many young females are trailblazing, take for example – Kudzi Mathabire- first female brand director of Castle Lager in 100 years. In an industry where marketing is dominated by reflecting macho men consuming beer, the customer profile is changing requiring more inclusive approaches to marketing and advertising. Globally, as more women consume beer, it calls for a change in who heads up these massive brands. Breaking stereotypes has come off the back of patience and tolerance, landing Kudzi this coveted role.

Similarly, in the tech space locally, which has been predominantly male led, tech giants such as Microsoft and Facebook are demonstrating their commitment to inclusive leadership with its appointment of Lilian Barnard and Nunu Ntshingila. In corporate SA, from Oil and Gas to Financial Services, we are slowly starting to see black women emerge as leaders beyond the stereotypical Human Resource roles which satisfy tick boxes to signal that women can indeed lead. 

Many JSE listed companies have been including women on boards and recognize the importance of the inclusion of women on boards for strategic leadership and integrated long- term decision making capability. In South Africa however, the pool of female board members is shallow, with some women holding many board positions simultaneously. I believe that there is a moral imperative for boards to build wider pools of capable women to serve as well as to ensure succession planning, and capacity building of women from diverse backgrounds and with diverse experience and capability to enhance integrated decision making.  

Many SOEs are paralysed by corruption and mismanagement, but some recent appointments such as Portia Molefe as Head of Transnet show a slow move towards governments renewed commitment to transformation, eradicating corruption and business turnaround. More SOEs are in need of strong female leaders to take the helm, and drive business transformation empathically. 

At a more grassroot level, many women on the Cape Flats from Mitchells Plain, Hanover Park and Bonteheuwel have taken the initiative and shown amazing resilience in the face of the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on poor and marginalised communities. In the absence of government support, women have taken the lead and started soup kitchens, food gardens and food parcel distribution to ensure that poverty does not take a grip in communities that are already under strain of rampant unemployment on the Flats. 

Women are indeed resilient and have shown that they can lead and excel in all spheres of life. If women can succeed in the worst of times,  just imagine what success would look like in the best of times.

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