Article By: Lilitha Mahlati
As a young black female corporate financier who works in a (white) male dominated environment, it’s sad to note just how under-represented women are in my industry. A whole week can go by without a single woman present (other than myself) in any meeting I attend. It can be lonely and tough – Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ has pretty much become my daily survival manual. Yes, I can do the ‘one of the boys’ thing; watch the rugby or soccer on the weekend; laugh at the below-the-belt comment or joke and join in the Top Gear conversation, but I shouldn’t have to crack the approval nod in these kinds of circles. Granted, this is probably a selfish argument for increased female representation, but
these everyday absences in anyone’s work life are indicators of crucial gaps that exist in the system. There are, of course, industries that have more representation, but quite importantly women generally don’t participate in core decision-making or wealth building roles.
87% of the directorships of listed companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange are held by males (75% white) according to the SAICA survey results released in October 2014. Also, women in South Africa hold a mere 26% of senior management positions. Our dear Mama Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka stated that a girl born today will be 81 years old before she has the same chance as a man to be a CEO of a company and she will have to wait until she’s 50 to have an equal chance to lead a country. There are many ways you can dissect the stats but they all say the same thing – It’s not changing fast enough!
The need for women in business is not straightforward. It’s multi-tiered, multi-dimensional and has to be infiltrated at all levels of society. It’s not just about having the numbers at the top levels of decision-making structures of the world, It’s about organically planting and nurturing the female seed in all areas possible, tracking their growth and enjoying the fruits of change and influence. When you invest in women you invest in people who invest in everybody else. It goes without saying that there’s added value of involving women in the economy. Looking abroad, the Scandinavian countries are considered among the most equal in the world and their economies are just as high up in the ranks. In Japan, President Shinzo Abe has made ‘womenomics’ a core policy focus as he tries to encourage women to enter a male dominated workforce to raise growth potential.
So what’s in place to make the much-needed changes here at home? There’s of course Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), which has legislated transformation. Additionally, there are a number of women-focused organisations that target sectors, age and levels of historic disadvantage. Small and large companies sponsor and drive CSI initiatives and coach internal diversity groups, and there are a number of government run programmes that are aligned to various departments. The impacts of these attempts to transform South Africa’s business landscape vary – but the fact remains that there aren’t enough targeted initiatives, causes, legislations and organisations to holistically cover the ‘need matrix’. However, with increased robustness, quantity and quality of action, heightened effectiveness of the ecosystem will ensue and more systemic changes will be achieved. My career choices have shaped my keen focus on transformation and empowerment within the finance realm in order to encourage greater women/youth/black participation in financial markets, as well as inclusion of black industrialists, entrepreneurs and professionals. This is where we need women the most in order to grow our economy and further invest in our people, and this is the direction economic empowerment is taking.
It starts with the girl child being aware. She needs to understand that no matter where she goes in life she can rise to anything or anyone she wants to be. In University I used to tutor young kids in Khayelitsha for an organisation called SHAWCO. This is when it came to my attention that 9 – 12 year old girls couldn’t even fathom that I could have a car and an apartment as a young woman at the age of 19, or even study at an institution like the University of Cape Town. They didn’t even know they could dream this! How do we get her, our dear little girl, to plug in from an early age? Whose responsibility is it?
Ultimately the onus resides in every one of us; those in business and those who want to enter into it. The youth in particular needs to use the opportunities it has to accelerate changes. We need to recognise that it’s our problem; we have to create the solutions. Two years ago, I co-founded Mbewu Movement an organisation which does exactly that – seeks to change, empower. We tutor and mentor up to 900 Grade 10 – 12 students through a partnership with Thandulwazi Maths and Science Academy. On the other hand we receive mentorship, along with our young professional peer group, from accomplished women in various fields such as Phuti Mahanyele and Sisonke Msimang. Our aim is to bridge the mentorship gap, match opportunities, inspire and grow. Hopefully sooner than later I’ll be recommending hair and nail stylists and recruiting jogging partners before and after corporate finance presentations more often than not. Time and effort will tell.
Lilitha Mahlati, 26 (turning 27 eek!)
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