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4 Business leaders share their thoughts on being a woman in leadership

As a tribute to women and in the spirit of Women’s Month, we at Transcend have decided to pick the brains of four very successful black women in leadership. The interviewees include:

Natasha Wagiet

The pro-bono co-ordinator at ENS Africa. Wagiet has previously worked at Legal Aid SA, the Legal Resources Center and the Department of Justice.

 

Nikita Ramkissoon

A Journalist who has worked at The Mail & Guardian, The Daily Vox, Getaway Magazine and many more. Ramkissoon is currently working at The SoulProviders Collective.

 

Zaheerah Bham-Ismail

A TV personality and philanthropist. Bham-Ismail is the director at the NGO, The Caring Women’s Forum and is currently a presenter on iTV. She is also a speech therapist and audiologist.

 

 Nobantu Masebelanga

The Divisional Director of Sales Support at Liberty. She has previously worked at Medscheme as General Manager of Human Capital. She is also qualified as a Clinical Psychologist.

Question 1:

What has been your experience getting into this position?

Ramkissoon: I have been through a few industries – all in media – before eventually realising that advertising and marketing was the one for me. The difficulty lies in the fact that all media jobs are dominated by white men. Old white men at that. It’s difficult to prove yourself when you’re starting out on the back foot supervised by people who don’t have empathy for your struggles.

Question 2:

Do you ever feel as though you are looked down upon as a female in a high position? Give examples.

Ramkissoon: Oh yes. All the time. Men will come into the office and ask to speak to the person in charge and they give you this look of disbelief when you say you’re the one in charge. They often used to tell me things like “I’ll have a coffee with two sugars” and when I say I’ll ask the catering staff, they are flabbergasted. And the mansplaining! It’s terrible when you hear someone explain something that is your field of expertise to you when you are the one who specialises in it. They usually get it so wrong and speak to you like a child. I feel embarrassed for them. Once, a man with an undergrad in the newsroom tried to explain my research back to me and said I should read up more on it. I have a Masters and am going for a PhD. I don’t think I have ever rolled my eyes harder than that day.

Bham-Ismail: I have seen some surprised faces when people realise that they are dealing with women. I have had people talk to colleagues “around” me and not address me, until they realise who the meeting has been scheduled with.

Question 3:

What advice would you give to young black women who are making their way up the ranks?

Wagiet: I would advise young black women to seek a mentor and learn as much as possible. Also, I would advise young black women to speak up should they not feel valued and to believe that they (and their experiences) add immense worth to any work space. Also, I would strongly encourage that young black women seize all opportunities and as much as possible work in a space where they can grow and also work in a space where their passion is ignited.

Masebelanga: Understand that it’s going to be really tough. You are going to tackle racial and gender discrimination, and classism in some instances, depending on which school and university you attended.  However, do not compromise who you are; your diversity is your biggest asset.  Speak out against any injustice and to thine own self be true.  Have a vision for your life and be deliberate about where you want to go and how you are going to get there.  Know your strengths and areas of development and seek out people who will assist and support you in realising your goals.  Learn from other people who have travelled the journey; no need to repeat the same mistakes.

Despite these challenges, you still need to deliver on what’s expected of you.  You therefore need to strive for excellence and be committed to continuous learning – never ever feel like “you’ve arrived”, you’ll render yourself irrelevant.  Focus on your overall well-being (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, financial, etc.) as any imbalance in your life will have a negative impact on you, thus affecting how you show up.

Lastly, don’t ever assume that other women will support you. Sometimes the greatest challenges you will face will come from other women.

Question 4:

Do you think there are biases in the sector you work in with regards to your race or gender? Why and give examples.

Wagiet: I think that in the legal sector there are still inherent biases and there is a tendency for the sector to still be very male dominated. It therefore is imperative that the current and next generation of lawyers strive towards ensuring that the legal sector is truly transformed and inclusive.

Ramkissoon: Yes, because it is always assumed that a man is the boss, and that the woman is the assistant, or the PA, or even the junior. I have seen men talk down to women editors for ages until the woman corrected them.

Bham-Ismail: I do think there are biases to hijab. I find that people may at times tend to speak over me as they think I can’t contribute to the meeting. Not sure if people think it covers your brain and not just your hair. Very often meetings will be veered to ask me my thoughts on religion, hijab, terrorism etc. People struggle to deal with you as an individual if they can’t “box” you.

Question 5:

Did you have to sacrifice in order to get to this point in your career? (time, family etc.)

Wagiet: I have had to sacrifice time and to some extent family time to get to this point. I am constantly striving to attain (as much as is possible) work life balance, but it is a work in progress. I have taken some time off from studying after attaining my LLM, as studying part time did reduce my family time, but I feel ready to tackle my next academic challenge in 2019!

Ramkissoon: I have had to sacrifice being liked. That is it. As a woman who is seen as someone who doesn’t belong in the working world, people are not going to like you if you stay and fight for your place and recognition. A woman never has to sacrifice family for work if her partner takes on the responsibility of raising a family too. She never has to if her workplace is understanding of the fact that life happens. It’s about creating an environment of understanding and empathy and unfortunately it is seen as sacrificing one for the other because the workplace is catered to patriarchy.

Question 6:

What will be the biggest challenge for the South African generation of women behind you?

Wagiet: Carrying the mission of the current generation of women to ensure an equitable representation of women at all levels, and also to strive (and hopefully attain) equitable representation of women at top management level.

Masebelanga: The world of work is changing at a very fast pace, thus requiring agility.  Although advancements in technology and the advent of artificial intelligence present an opportunity, they equally pose a challenge in terms of jobs of the future.

Unfortunately, the scourge of gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the workplace remain a huge challenge, robbing women the opportunity to realise their full potential.  I cannot help but think of the recent death of Khensani Maseko (MHSRIP), a young, intelligent 3rd year BA Law student at Rhodes who committed suicide after she was allegedly raped.  Yet another bright light has been dimmed….

Question 7:

Did you know that female representation at top management level is only 22% compared to 77.1% of male representation? Why do you think percentages of women in leadership roles is still so low?

Bham-Ismail: We need to push ahead to embrace these positions. I have seen men being offered positions they know not much about and they grab it with two hands, saying “I’ll figure it out while I’m there” and I’ve seen women offered the same who say, “let me wait until I know exactly what I’m doing and then I’ll take it on”. Understand your skills and abilities, but also know that you can embrace positions and learn while growing. Be confident enough to be heard. Value what you bring to table. Don’t let anyone undermine how much you can offer.

Question 8:

Do you see yourself as a woman who can “have it all?” Why?

Wagiet: I think the notion of having it all is a myth, but I try as much as possible to strive towards attaining balance in my life.

Ramkissoon: Of course! If a man can have a family and a job and holidays, why not me? As I said, I am not well-liked, but I get what I need and what I want because I work just as hard as any man if not harder and deserve it. I am nobody’s slave and I do not feel grateful to have a job. I am working for what I have – my boss isn’t doing me a favour by paying me. This question is one of many that entrenches misogyny and is one that needs to be answered straight. Yes. I can have it all. Yes, women can have it all. Men need to stop being bullies about it.

Bham-Ismail: Why not! The question is more what is “all”. When you have contentment, you have it all. We need to set our own standards that are markers of success for ourselves

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