Participants spoke openly about the challenges they've overcome as women leaders.
This week’s community conversation explored the subject of language in so far as it pertains to women claiming their share of respect and attention in the workplace and in the boardroom.
Reserved for woman executives in finance and HR, the conversation touched on both the self-imposed and external limitations that keep women from thriving in the workplace.
CFO SA and CHRO SA MD Joël Roerig kicked off the event by thanking Workday, Momentum Actuaries and Consultants, and SAP Concur as the companies who have put their support behind the event and others like it. But that was where Joel input started and ended because, given the occasion, he felt he was rather “underqualified to contribute meaningfully to the discussion”.
The ensuing conversation began with Raisibe Morathi, Nedbank Group CFO, and Juliet Mhango, Chief Human Capital Development and Transformation Officer at Cell C, who each shared their experiences of climbing the corporate ladder as a woman.
Juliet said Juliet found her language of success after searching within herself for the confidence to raise her voice. She found that, when she was sitting on the executive teams, she used to be the would be the only female and often the only person of colour. She found it difficult to make herself heard. especially early on in her career.
Said Juliet: “I would come up with an idea and express it, only for it to fall on deaf ears. A male colleague would say exactly the same thing and the idea would be taken on board. Over time, that started making me withdraw from conversations because I felt that my views were not valued.
“It was then that I had to look inward, within myself, to find my authentic voice, once I embraced the value that I was bringing, the rest fell into place.”
Juliet said that women generally have an apologetic language and play into the patriarchal stereotypes. “You have the same skills as your male colleagues, but when you walk into a boardroom, you undermine those skills,” she explained. “Don’t apologise, own that space, like everyone else in the room.”
Raisibe agreed, warning against women letting their perception of themselves come in the way of success, saying that "just because you are a woman, doesn’t mean you can’t be doing the same things as a man.”
She also said that, because women tend to be affected negatively by bias, we should be the first ones to police against it in our organisations, making sure that we don’t allow ourselves and our colleagues to judge a book by its cover when it comes to perceptions about people in the workplace.
Networking is our blindspot
On the subject of networking, Raisibe said this was an area where women needed to do the most work. She said the language of success was about being able to build individual relationships with her stakeholders through her career.
As an example, she referred to a time early in her career when she was running a very large technology programme that affected everyone in the organisation when she was still fairly new with her employer. She needed to get buy-in from the various stakeholders of the company but hadn’t gained their respect or recognition at the time yet.
Getting the business case approved took a long time because she had to build much stronger relationships with the various individual stakeholders before she could get their buy-in.
Said Raisibe: "Networks are a huge limiting factor as women. In a boardroom, for instance, there are always two or three people who know each other socially which makes for more effective communication. You will see one participant making more eye contact with a select few than with yourself, not necessarily because you are a woman but because they don't have that kind of a relationship with you And that as that subtle interaction between them happens, you notice that it leads to their ideas and suggestions being endorsed or, at the very least, allows a person to be indulged much more than if the relationship ties did not exist. This is why we need to network more."
The power of language
Leadership practitioner and co-creator of the IgniteHer women’s development programme Inge Walters then took the attendees through a series of exercises to determine the limiting beliefs that influence their success.
Inge explained that there are two languages of success: conversations with ourselves and conversations with others. “Language is a rich field, it is something we use to describe our beliefs and also to generate new beliefs. But for many of us, it’s something we don’t feel comfortable with.”
She asked attendees what they felt when they heard the phrase “It’s a man’s world”. The room echoed with women wanting to disprove the statement. Some attendees felt indifferent to it, saying that the world is changing and, whether you are a woman or a man, your work should be the determining factor to your respect and power.
“This statement elicits very different things for different people. And here you see the power that language has,” Inge said.