The representation of black women in leadership in South Africa is not changing, here’s why.

Due to the impact of apartheid and colonialism, black people or people of color did not have access to positions of leadership in the workplace. In order to address this imbalance after the dawn of democracy in South Africa, policies like the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, Employment equity act and affirmative action were implemented to transform the face of leadership in the workplace to be more representative of the demographics of the country. The Employment Equity Commission is tasked with the responsibility to monitor and report annually on the progress of this transformation. The report shows a bleak picture and a very slow pace of transformation. The table below demonstrate how little change has been achieved in the Top leadership representation in the country between 2017 and 2019.

GroupAfrican FemaleAfrican MaleWhite MaleWhite Female
EAP36.2% 42,7%4,9%3.8%
20174,7%9,6%54,5%13,2%
20185,1%10,0%53,3%13,1%
20195,4%9,9%52,4%13,2%

*EAP – Economic Active Population

The figures above shows that black women who represent 36.2% of the active workforce (EAP) only make 5.4% of top management in South Africa, compared to white men who are 4.9% of the active workforce and make up 52.4% of top leadership, white women who are 3.8% of the active workforce and make up 13.2% of top leadership and finally to black men who represent (42.7%) of the working population and 9% of top leadership. Although there is a slow pace of representation for black people, black men are doing better than black women at 23% top leadership representation against 15% representation for black women.  The situation is not very different in the US according to the Leanin Women in the workplace report. The big difference is that black people are a minority in the US whilst in South Africa black people are the majority.  The pace is also very slow, the table above shows only a change of less than 1 % in the last 3 years.

The reason for this picture are both external and internal to black women in the workplace. External reasons are factors that black women do not have direct control over. They are based on how they are seen and treated in the workplace. They are Unconscious bias, Racism and Sexism. Racial discrimination happens when the people who are making leadership decisions believe that black people are inferior, lazy, corrupt and therefore incompetent to take on leadership. Sexism happens when people who make leadership decisions believe that women are inferior, weak, and emotional and therefore are not competent to take on leadership position. Black women face the double whammy of being both black and female. Unconscious bias leads to either racial discrimination or sexism/gender based discrimination. The difference is that unconscious bias is unconscious and not deliberate. People who are unconsciously biased against black women in the workplace may believe themselves to be fair and may even use policies, procedure and seemingly legitimate reasons to keep black women from advancing in the workplace.

Internal reasons are reasons that black women have control over. It is the things that black women can work on and be able to change. They are the following; conditioning in terms of how girls are raised, conditioning in terms of how black people have been conditioned to see themselves as inferior and individual trauma based on each black women’s life experience.

Conditioning – How girls are raised.

As we all know girls and boys are typically not raised the same. Because boys are raised to be providers. They are typically raised to have the skills that will help them go out into the world and compete for power, take risks, be ambitious, take leadership and control. These are the typical characteristics that are perceived as important in the workplace. Women on the other had are typically raised to become wives and mothers. They are therefore taught to be likable, nurturing, self-sacrificing, to serve, be humble, be good girls. These are the characteristics that are perceived as weak in the workplace.

Conditioning – how black people are conditioned to see themselves

In order to advance the oppression of black people. Black people have been conditioned to see themselves as inferior. Science has been used to prove that black people are less capable than white people. History has been used to portray black people’s history as that of barbarism, failure, singing and dancing.  Africa is known as the Dark Continent and has not been able to shake of that identiy. Black people carry the trauma of being discriminated against, of not being wanted and of having their ambition limited by external forces. This impacts on how they show up. Black women find themselves in the intersection of race and sexism

Our own personal trauma.

Finally personal trauma as a result of childhood wounds and personal life experience. The black experience is not the same, some black people come from middle class homes, with educated parents who might have supported and affirmed them. Some come from abject poverty, physical, verbal and sexual child abuse. Violence, abandonment and rejection. These are emotional scars that impact on how we show up in the workplace.

All of these are the factors that are stacked against black women’s progress towards leadership positions in the workplace.

Published by Busisiwe Hlatswayo

MBA (Henley), Career Coach and Founder Black Women in the workplace www.blackwomenintheworkplace.com

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