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[OPINION] Rethinking the Gender Pep Talk

I was fortunate to have recently attended a discussion at work discussing gender parity in the workplace. It was a panel discussion with a number of inspiring and well-accomplished women. The conversation was highly charged and the inspired audience gave a round of applause for almost every comment the panel made. Looking at the panel and listening to their journeys, one would safely conclude that many women left the session feeling inspired and empowered to write their own stories of success. The conversation made reference to a number of important matters that any gender activist would find interest in. But as I listened, I found that it also suffered from a common challenge I see in many of the gender seminars and conversations.

This challenge is what I what I deem to be the “hat-in-hand begging approach”. This approach is one that figuratively wears kit gloves in dealing with patriarchy. It wants to plead with it and beg it to change for the better. The approach pre-supposes that men will, from the goodness of their hearts, surrender the privilege that society affords them. The conversations in these seminars also turn into some kind of self-help motivational pep talk where women are encouraged to believe in themselves and learn to speak up. Many of them also handover some nice goodie-bag of essentials sponsored by a provider of beauty products. The altruistic provider happens to be a beneficiary of objectification of women through the creation of hyper obsession about physical appearance.

The problem here is that these conversations miss a number of things. We will focus only three for ease of reading. The first is that the leadership authority and managerial stripes of many of these men in power were earned through repressive macho-masculinity and their hold to power is dependent on a ‘boys only’ coalition that sits in the board or in executive management. Many private companies are run in a paramilitary approach where command and control are at the heart of making decision and hierarchy and rank define relationships. This approach to work is also inherently sexist and the inclusion of women in the world of work is seen to be an inconvenience than a necessity. For key decision makers, the idea of gender inclusivity in senior leadership is a direct challenge to how they have mobilised and maintained power of the years and it takes much more than a pep talk on inclusion to shift their position.

The other factor is that many of these men genuinely believe that gender inclusivity will compromise the quality of output and decision-making. These men believe that women are not competent and are inherently weak. This is in spite of all the research that presents evidence to the contrary. These men do not believe in the value of diversity and find all sorts of ways to escape the legislative requirements that pressure organisations to change. They hold an erroneous view that the empowerment of women into leadership will lead to loss in profits and they all (are prepared with or seem to) have a distinct example of a case where women leadership failed. This is while conveniently forgetting about the endless list of failed male leadership.

The last factor is that many of these conversations omit to consider the fact that patriarchy is a system. Like all systems, if interrupted it reacts in highly complex ways to defend itself and preserve its existence. As such, one cannot deal with patriarchy in the workplace and not deal with the male social privilege, cultural and religious domination, ownership and control of resources. This means that we cannot simply enroll women to “leadership development” courses as if there is something inherently wrong with how women lead and hope that in some way they will rise to become leaders in organisations. It also means that the idea that women must just “believe in themselves” and “speak up” without any strategic approach against corporate patriarchy is very shallow. It does not consider the fact that women get mocked, ostracised and replaced for raising their views because patriarchy will defend itself. Fighting without a coordinated strategy can be equated to going to a war and leaving the soldiers to fight in any random way, using whichever weapon at whatever time. This only leads to the mass destruction of many careers of great women without mention or notice. While it is important for women to raise their voices, sending individuals without a coordinated movement to tackle patriarchy by themselves is an ingredient for self-destruction.

What it also means is that gender-parity cannot only be treated as a nice gala-dinner topic for corporates without any conviction on the matter. The emancipation of women is about women obtaining their full human rights to exist and constitutional rights to participate in any sphere without discrimination. It is not a fancy prestigious matter. On the contrary, it is a rather messy, dangerous and revolutionary issue that fundamentally challenges the privilege of men. With the prevalence of gender-based violence and male entitlement to female bodies, the issue can only get even more complicated.

But simply lamenting the approach will not help. It is important to also consider ways that might be effective for well-meaning companies, organisations to add their efforts to this critical ideal of gender parity and women’s emancipation.

I think the first action is to regard this matter as a critical human rights issue, not a nice-to-have social discussion to make women believe they are valued. Not only is this about social justice, it is also about social progress. The speed at which humanity will progress depends on how the best amongst us are enabled and empowered to be their best. This means that some of the solutions to political problems we are facing in the world may be lying suppressed in a woman that was not given a chance to lead. Some of the cures to chronic illness may be hidden in the talent of a young girl that was denied a spot in medical school. The list goes on.

The second critical action is that the quest for gender parity must be organised and treated as a social movement, not charity. Charity is good but it does not change the causal factors. It just softens the impact. Movements challenge systems and they act with a clear understanding of what the consequences of their actions are. Movements are also able to organise, picket, lobby, mobilise and boycott in a systematic way that is targeted at achieving a political end. Women stand a much better chance of changing the status quo if they organize themselves to defend their own rights.

The third is particularly for corporates. Do not just talk, do. If corporates are aware of systematic gender exclusion as reported every year by the Commission for Employment Equity, then they must devise strategies to resolve these. Instead of pledging commitment to pay equality, pay women equally or better. In cases where there is a gender imbalance in leadership, place moratoriums in the hiring of men in higher leadership positions and hire women. Where women are mistreated by fellow colleagues, then organisations must strengthen their policies that deal with gender-based violence and other related misdemeanors.

Lastly, educate men not women. It is only in the struggle against gender-based oppression that the victims are being trained and educated on gender relations. Women are not the proponents of their own subjugation. It is men that must be educated on the value of diversity and the research-evidence on the equal and sometime better abilities of women. It is men that need to unlearn toxic masculinity and bigotry and it is men that need to understand the equality of women.

Bafana Nhlapo writes in his personal capacity

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