International Women's Day: What does #InspireInclusion really mean?

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Believe in yourself, believe in your abilities and make space for others – this is what leading women CHROs say the theme means to them.

International Women’s Day, 8 March, is a day used to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women across the globe. CHRO South Africa asked some women CHROs across industries what the theme #InspireInclusion means to them and what strides they have made in accomplishing inclusion in their organisations.

Diana Johnson, British American Tobacco’s (BAT’s) area HR director for sub-Saharan Africa, says for her the theme speaks more to amplifying the message that barriers must be broken for women’s voices to be heard and for women to be able to equally thrive.

“ In my role as SSA HR leader, I am not only responsible for our 360 D&I strategy, I am also a strong advocate and a passionate supporter of the theme with a genuine commitment to make our work environment more inclusive. Today, I currently mentor about 10 mid-career/senior female talents and I make sure I share my advice and experience also outside the corporate world to create awareness and champion diversity.”

For Norah Sehunoe, executive head of human capital at Santam, it is more about allowing others to come as they are without fear of being judged or rejected.

“It is about embracing our differences as human beings and appreciating what those differences bring to the room. In my organisation I am conscious to not only say the right things but to embody what diversity and inclusion means to us. It is not an event or a metric on our scorecard, but rather a way of being that I encourage and drive with passion. Our culture promise is “Come as you are,” and we live this through our company values. We have launched employee resource groups as part of this promise and these groups are made up of passionate people that are culture ambassadors driving our Come as you are promise – one of these groups is a Women’s Network driving issues of inclusivity for women of Santam.”

Sandi Richardson, HR executive at RCS says the day should be used to highlight the need for businesses to commit and invest sufficiently in gender transformation.

“There is an importance of leveraging women’s immense talent to enhance business operations. At RCS, diversity in leadership serves as a model, providing tangible opportunities for all employees. Over the past 25 years, ongoing support for women includes initiatives like the annual bursary programme, benefiting 277 children in 2023, easing educational costs for employees, particularly single mothers. Further to this, RCS offers a rich employee wellness programme, including the provision of onsite clinics that can fully meet the primary healthcare of all of its employees. This allows for working mothers to be able to ensure their health is being prioritised while juggling the demands of their personal and professional lives.”

Palesa Matoli, executive head of human capital and transformation at Bidvest Bank, says the theme is more around the importance of recognising that representation matters, to show others that it's possible.

“That leadership tables are not for the selected few, but others just like them, can also work towards it. For me, it means I have to play my part in lifting others up as well. Especially in South Africa, where despite the laws that should drive the changes, progress is still far too slow. Improving female representation is a passion of mine and a course I champion in every role I take. I use the opportunities I have been blessed with to make this circle bigger. In my current role, one of the things we have agreed on as the senior leadership team, is that we will increase female representation across all levels of management. As a rule of thumb, we always search for a female first in every role we recruit for. We don’t just pay lip service, you see this in the composition of our exco team, which is 50 percent female.”

Breaking barriers

Even though progress has been made, particularly in the HR space, career advancement for women is still not without struggle. Norah adds that one barrier to be mindful of is the inability of some women once they reach the executive roles to coach, mentor and support other women in order to advance their careers.

“I have seen this improving over the years but this is one thing that has slowed our progress at the beginning because some women were getting the roles and once they are at the top of the ladder, they failed to look back and pull other women up, but rather became part of the “boys club”. Addressing these challenges requires a conscious, robust, inclusive and sustained effort from organisations, leadership and individuals to work together in creating an environment that is inclusive and equitable for all.”

Diana expands further ,adding that there are a number of visible and invisible barriers and they vary depending on the country, the culture, the maturity of the society and even your own corporate and industry environment.

“The most common ones I see are: (a) biological clock x career clock; (b) family and mobility and (c) gender-biased leadership traits. To address those, the first and most important step – in my opinion – is to truly acknowledge their existence and to be able to openly talk about them. With that, there are other things that must be put in place or reviewed to support women, such as the right flexi policies and procedures ; metrics and clear diversity targets (linked to business results) and the right focus on upskilling leaders to be inclusive and supportive.”

Palesa agrees, adding that there is also a lack of role mentorship and also the lack of women around the table leading to feelings of isolation and discouragement among aspiring female leaders.

“Despite the majority of HR professionals being women, they are often under-represented in senior leadership positions. This lack of representation can limit women's visibility, influence, and opportunities for advancement.”

Male-dominated networks and organisational cultures are another factor, she says: “In many industries and organisations, male-dominated networks prevail, making it difficult for women to access the informal networks and relationships that often play a crucial role in career advancement.”

As a parting shot, the ladies were asked what advice they would give to other aspiring women professionals who aim to break into leadership roles:

Diana: “My advice is that you need to be you, your authentic self. A leadership role must be filled with a leader (not a man as per default) and that is what you need to aspire to be. You don’t need to act or look like a man to get there, you need to be your best self. And, please, once you get there, our role, as females, is to bring others with us. Women supporting women. Always.”

Palesa: “Believe in yourself. Believe in your abilities and the value you bring to your organisation. Trust in your skills, and never underestimate the impact you can have as a female leader in HR. Gone are the days where women need to “act more like men” to be taken seriously. Don’t be afraid to take risks: leadership often requires taking calculated risks and stepping outside of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to take on challenging projects or pursue new opportunities that push you to grow professionally.”

Norah: “It starts with the belief that you have about yourself. We are our own worst critics and often discourage ourselves to show up boldly in order to be seen. If you are not seen through the work that you do and how you do it and the impact you have on those you work with, it will be difficult for you to break into the leadership roles. Therefore, be authentically yourself and trust in the gifts that you bring to the table, however constantly seek feedback on areas that you need to strengthen, embrace the feedback and work on being an even better version of yourself. Learn from how others have done it, to not repeat the mistakes that they made but more importantly, once you make it, don’t forget to share your own lessons with others and support them on their own journey.”

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