Women’s Dinner panellists say the road to success is not easy

A panel discussion of some of South Africa’s top women executives looked at what it takes for women to succeed

In an honest discussion at the annual CFO and CHRO South Africa Women’s Dinner, held on 3 August 2022, four successful women discussed why the road to success is not always easy.

Kicking off the panel debate, Portia Mkhabela, head of the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants (ACCA), spoke about why the financial sector is often male-dominated. “Speaking from personal experience, women from a home environment are expected to carry babies, to nurture those children, to look after their families.”

During Covid-19, she said, most of the women at ACCA resigned, as 76 percent chose to rather stay home than play their part in a difficult financial space. Women found that, having to be primary caregivers, they missed out on meetings.

Chief people officer at Floatpays, Andisa Liba, added that there are many artificial barriers for women that need to be removed. These include societal stereotypes, as female leaders pick up male behaviour, which goes against the grain of who we are as nurturers. “Our essence is being soft, but the barriers silence us and shift the goal posts,” she said.

“By being true to ourselves in the work environment, we bring diversity and a different view to the table, which helps when it comes to solving problems or developing strategy. While women need to be vulnerable and show emotion, they also need to read the environment so that approach doesn’t backfire,” said Elanie Kruger, Chief Human Resources officer at Tsebo Group.

Trying to emulate the boys

In addition, says Andisa, the work environment was not created with women in mind. Think of many job titles that have the word “chief” in them – that stems from military days and is a male thing. “As we have transformed, we have seen the evolution of what the workplace is, and an environment created for women to thrive. Sadly, this has also led to some ‘icy’ women, who feel compelled to fit in with a male-centric architecture to succeed.”

What women need to do, she says, is be authentic, to show future leaders how we should be responding to this environment. “What are we willing to do for our next set of leaders? Artificial barriers can, and should, be removed.”

At the same time, there must be spaces where women feel safe, which helps build confidence, said Andisa. Deepa Sita, Tiger Brands’ CFO, added that creating safe spaces also means paying it forward. “I am sitting here today because other people have helped me get to this point. It’s about helping clear the pathways as others have done for me. The people we mentor should not be afraid to ask for help.”

Women also feel the need to work harder to gain the same respect and acknowledgment as men, added Deepa, whose door is always open to help other women grow. She has spent a few weeks in serious reflection after one of her team members pointed out that women work even harder than men through examples of Deepa’s work life.

“I’ve been doing this for so long to dispel the myth that I was put into a leadership position as a token and end up working twice as hard. We have a responsibility to stop doing this, because our work ethic, which is ingrained in how we show up as women, will be passed onto the next generation and we can’t have that. We don’t have to prove ourselves, we have earned our positions,” she said.

At the same time, Deepa said women need to have each other’s backs in the workplace; to recognise each other as leaders.

Mentorship

What Elanie learnt through her industrial psychology studies was that finding a mentor is a clear need, but can also be an obstacle. She explained that there aren’t that many role models, although those who have been guided by another woman will progress faster, have a higher salary, and a higher education. “But we need trust and identification with a mentor, and there simply aren’t enough to go around,” she said.

This relationship needs to be psychosocial and include an element of counselling and friendship. It will also deal with work challenges. Therefore, women need to look for patrons, and promote networks; different women can mean different things to you in and out of work.

Portia said women need to be honest with each other about where they come from, because this will resonate with mentees. “Believe you are capable, and smart,” she said.

“There is power in storytelling and sharing,” added Andisa. “It’s not enough to have a job, we need to be clear and intentional when sharing stories. There is more than working 9-5.”

Women also need to make decisions considering who they will impact, Yet, said Portia, it is lonely at the top, so women need to shape their journeys and share experiences. “It’s important for us to share the truth,” she noted.

Elanie said women need to take ownership of their career paths, which starts with self-awareness, and knowing yourself and your ambitions. “Whatever you want to be, that’s enough,” she said. “You need to own your career.”

However, for women to grow and thrive, there needs to be political will to implement policies that are meant to benefit them, concluded Portia. “It’s August. we all need to reflect on what we have done to uplift another woman.”