The joke goes that the easiest person for a personnel agency to place in South Africa these days is a disabled, lesbian black woman with tertiary qualifications. Not a very good joke, I’ll grant you, but indicative of the struggle to rectify the imbalances of the past in my home country. The point being that there is inherent, systematic discrimination built into our systems, and we can only change this by being intentional and conscious about our actions and attitudes. There is no easy way to fix discrimination, or to develop true diversity.
The difficulty is that the starting point is within us. Most of us are not even aware of our discriminatory bias. Ask yourself: “when a taxi drives like a maniac and pulls in front of you, nearly cutting you off the road, who do you mentally picture is driving that vehicle?” Depending on your city, you might answer: Johannesburg: young, black male (unlicensed, arrogant, rude, and probably armed); Sydney: middle-aged, Asian (can’t speak English); London: middle-aged, Pakistani; New York: unknown origin, but “not from here” and can’t speak English (maybe even an alien?). In each case, we might be right, but we could also be hopelessly wrong. Yes, we can have a bit of fun with the issue of discrimination… But, lets be aware of our own latent prejudices. That’s the starting point, and its more difficult than we can ever know to overcome them.
That’s why external pressures have to sometimes be imposed. In South Africa, right now, that means that being a talented black woman is a great thing to be. Yet, the prejudice might stop your career reaching the heights it should.
In an article entitled, “Subtle Forms of Discrimination Driving Women of Color from Top Law Firms” on BlackAmericaWeb.com, Monica Lewis reported on 7 Aug 2006 that the American Bar Association and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago released a report last week during the bar association’s annual convention in Honolulu. The report found that women of color frequently experience subtle forms of discrimination in US law firms, prompting them to leave lucrative and coveted jobs with some of the nation’s best law firms. (Read more below).
Our view is that it is absolutely essential to build real diversity muscle into an organisation. This doesn’t just mean getting people with different skin colours or anatomical bits into your boardroom – because its all too easy to subtly (and not so subtly) promote only those blacks and women who act and think like white men. And its easy for them to start doing so once they learn the rules. To put it another way – its often the best ones that leave, because they see the game and refuse to play it. NO. We need REAL diversity – of worldviews – hard coded into our companies. That is a key ingredient to resilience, multi-national and multi-market success, and to a sustainable competitive advantage in the future.
Entitled “Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms,” the study was based on questionnaires received from nearly 1,000 attorneys, both men and women. It found that law firms regularly excluded women of color from employment-based networking events, including golf outings and after-work happy hours.
The report claims that bigotry played a role in such exclusions, but so did the fact that partners and senior associates had little in common with women of color, a feeling that made it somewhat difficult to connect with them.
Such a divide may be a reason why firms regularly issued women of color inferior assignments, such as reviewing documents or writing briefs, the study showed, offering little chance for minority female attorneys to interact with clients. This interaction is crucial in cultivating business relationships and accruing “billable hours,” the basis of career advancement with many firms.
“We’re not even talking about trying to get up through a glass ceiling; we’re trying to stay above ground,” the Associated Press quoted Paulette Brown, co-chairwoman of the group that produced the study, as saying to convention attendees.
Brown added that many instances of discrimination go without reprimand, leaving some women of color to leave to pursue other options. According to 2005 data from the National Association of Law Placement, 81 percent of minority female associates left their jobs within five years of being hired, up from 75 percent in the late 1990s.
In South Africa, it is a public today – woman’s day, in fact. It celebrates the day exactly 50 years ago this year, when 20,000 women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against pass laws (that were, amongst other things, destroying their families, by forcing husbands and wives, and parents and children to be separated at night if they couldn’t get home from their work in time). The Mail & Guardian carried this piece today:
“…. Young South African women can look forward to an extremely rewarding career — as can many of the more mature women in this country.
The current dispensation allows women of all ethnic origins to finally come into their own in business. More opportunities are opening for women in all spheres of industry. Indeed, the achievements of today’s businesswomen are remarkable — especially when one looks at how far we’ve come since the 1956 protests.
Yet the true success stories remain isolated instances. The South African Women in Corporate Leadership Census 2006 shows that while women make up 52% of the adult population in South Africa and 41% of the working total population, they constitute only 16,8% of all executive managers and only 11,5% of all directors in the country.
This may be indicative of three things. Firstly, business continues to balk at creating genuine gender equality. Secondly, there are indications that the talent pool has not yet been developed adequately. Thirdly, women already in the workplace are not yet truly empowered……
Black economic empowerment is a good example of this. Not only has it put women firmly on the business agenda, but it has also helped accelerate real empowerment of women. So much so that, for those with the talent, requisite skill and the appetite, there is truly no limit to the possibilities. In fact, young black women should be fully aware both of the vast opportunities that await them and the converse — namely that, should they not succeed, then they have chosen to fail.
Moreover, many businesses have instituted progressive policies and workplace concepts that empower all employees, irrespective of gender….
South Africa is well ahead of many countries in terms of diversity. But we’ve still got a long way to go.