5 biggest challenges facing SA women in the workplace


Study finds that 55% of women have little confidence in being able to address these challenges.

A recent study on South African Women in Business has found that women struggle to speak up to persons in higher positions, with 55 percent having little or no confidence in being able to address challenging issues. Conducted by corporate cultural experts, the study list the five greatest barriers to South African women succeeding in the workplace 

The Human Edge Helene Vermaak, business director and co-founder of The Human Edge, says that there is no doubt that women want to take the lead; however, there are five very real barriers that are hindering their success in the workplace, namely: Having to prove themselves more than their male counterparts; Family responsibilities outside of work; The ‘motherhood penalty’, which can lead to delayed careers; Gender discrimination; and the fact that women are less likely to ask for a promotion or a raise.

Lack of psychological safety

Helene Vermaak, business director and co-founder of The Human Edge, says there is no doubt that women want to take the lead but that many women choose not to address these issues due to a fear of how they will be perceived following the conversation; believing that this will put the relationship at risk. 

This highlights a lack of psychological safety within the organisation, as they believe that they will be victimised for speaking up, and due to this fear have not pursued advancement in the past. 

“When we are afraid, we need to look to Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook for inspiration who said, ‘So please ask yourself: what would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it’,” says Helene. 

The study also revealed that, of the women who did address these issues, a only 43 percent found that they did not experience any measurable benefits despite their discussions.  Furthermore, there has been a significant drop in South African businesswomen who are speaking up about tough issues in the workplace, with  only 77 percent raising these issues in 2019, compared to 85 percent when The Human Edge conducted the same study in 2012.

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Encouragingly, the research has revealed that South African women are taking the lead, with 82 percent of respondents saying that they see themselves as informal leaders within their organisations and 87 percent seeking out leadership opportunities. 

Having the tough conversations

“Successful women in the workplace have, and are showing us, that despite barriers, leadership is there for those of us that actively take it,” says Helene, adding that gaining insights into the most challenging conversation women in the workplace are facing enables them to upskill ourselves in being able to hold these crucial conversations more successfully. 

“It is natural for most of us, men and women, to avoid difficult conversations.  Individuals often turn to silence, coercion or even violence where they compel others towards their view.”

These top five most difficult conversations to have are: either salary related, have to do with negotiating limits when asked to do more than is reasonable or possible, involve giving performance feedback to someone without hurting their feelings or damaging the relationship; are around performance-related discussions; or involve advocating for equality in payment and/or promotions

“Despite having made significant inroads in the workplace globally we still have a long way to go,” says Helene, referring to a study undertaken by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey - Women in the Workplace 2018 - which found that women are still experiencing an uneven playing field in the workplace – with less day-to-day support and less access to senior leaders. 


The Human Edge’s SA also found that women are also more likely to deal with harassment and everyday discrimination, often feeling the added scrutiny that comes from being the only woman in the room. Examples of subtle discriminations in the office daily include the following:

  • Needing to provide more evidence of competence than others
  • Having judgement questioned in area of expertise
  • Being interrupted when trying to put view across
  • Being regarded as “bossy” or aggressive
  • Being mistaken for someone in a more junior position

Helene says that the challenges women face in the workplace are real and The Human Edge’s mission for the past twenty years has been to eradicate the undiscussables.  

“By having open, honest and direct conversations in the most respectful manner we are able to tackle these micro aggressions and challenging conversations," she says.


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