There is a great deal of discourse – both academically and in the hallowed halls of hashtags – around the need to empower women but there is not as much clear discussion on why that is a necessity outside of broad ideas around fairness. The reason we need to empower women, young women in particular, is because women are very often the difference between thriving or dwindling whether that is speaking economically, in the context of family structures, or socially.
In a study by Stellenbosch Business School where the gender pay gap in South Africa is investigated, it is found that South Africa’s median gender pay gap is between 23% and 35%, which exceeds the global average of 20%. Even more troubling than the idea that South African women earn even less than our global counterparts is that unequal earnings persist in the home as well. In South Africa, 30% of homes are managed by women and these households are 40% poorer than those managed by men. In addition, 48% of women-led households support extended family members compared to 23% of their male counterparts. On the whole, what this paints is the age-old picture of women having to do more with less than their male colleagues.
So much of how we move the needle in women’s issues are related to policy, culture, economies, etc but my experience is that in the end, it will be women who change things for women. As the world grapples with the present and what we need to build a sustainable future we hear terms like “the future is female” and while that is incredibly affirming, it is an earnest but vapid platitude. How do we turn it into an attainable goal?
Breaking the linkages
It is important to understand the holistic context of what it takes to make future leaders, particularly females. The first step, particularly in countries like South Africa where poverty and GBV are pervasive, is to ensure that we help to ensure the mental, emotional, and physical safety of young females. In my tenure as a board member for the B.E.A.R. foundation, what has become clear is that one of the reasons many young females find themselves in situations regarding gender-based violence is that there has been a failure in nurturing. That is to say if young females do not have good role models, if they are not exposed to what a meaningful life can look like, and other women’s success stories, they have no real way to set the goals that allow them to see leadership as a possibility. Instilling that drive and self-worth while breaking linkages to destructive places, people and patterns is the first key to unlocking leadership potential in young females.
Due to the many injustices females in leadership face there is often a reluctance to really help other women – we think there isn’t enough space at the table so we guard our place fearlessly to the extent that you often find women being the catalyst or proponent of keeping other females down. This is not because of inherent cruelty but is rather a response to the way the system itself is set up; because positions for women are both few and precarious women often feel there cannot be an environment of generosity. While those fears may be valid there is a greater cost to holding young females back.
There is a responsibility we bear as female leaders to not only make room where we are but to open new doors for younger women to walk through. There is no excuse for gatekeeping, particularly when we have experienced the effects on both a micro and macro level. There is no single story to being a pioneer of industry or a leader in any field, there is no exact playbook, but it is critical that all female leaders now create an environment where young females can simply come as they are and succeed off the work of their minds and their hands without the need to pander or pretend.
Mentorship v sponsorship
I recently attended Advertising Week Africa, and there were many ideas proposed by some of the female-led panel discussions around mentorship and sponsorship. Most interesting was the idea that while women need mentorship, what they need even more is someone to say their names in the rooms they are not, to make the decision to pay them more or connect them with someone who can. Working together, mentorship and sponsorship are the biggest catalysts to change for the young female.
And so we end with a story as old as time – of one woman raising the next; in this case of one woman raising up the next.
“Show a people as one thing, over and over again and that is what they become.” Add to that power, lack of power to be precise, and what hope do young, brilliant women have? They have us, rewriting the story of leadership and success at every table we sit at. They have us, holding open the door.