The glass ceiling is cracking but what about the ‘broken wrung’.

A lot has been said about the glass ceiling that keep women from reaching positions of executive leadership in the workplace. In South Africa, this seems to be changing. Examples like Yolanda Cuba (MTN) and Phuti Mahanyele (Naspers) in the private sector, in higher education; Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng (UCT), Prof Puleng Lenkabula (Unisa) and Dr Judy Dhlamini (Wits) and in the public sector, which has been exemplary in the promotion of diversity in leadership; the new auditor general, minister of small business,etc. The glass ceiling is finally cracking.

However, the greatest barrier that black women face in advancing to leadership is getting the first management position . The SA Economic Equity report shows that in entry level positions the split between man and women is almost equal, however things look different when it comes to management, women especially black women start lagging behind. The Lean in Women in the workplace report calls this the ‘broken wrung’ of the ‘corporate ladder’.

One of the factors that underly this occurrence is gender bias. The bias of seeing men as competent because of their gender and white women as more competent than black men and women because of their race. Research shows that affirmative action often benefits white women more than any other disadvantaged category.

The other issue that contributes to this unbalanced state is the lack of sponsors for black women. Sponsors are people who are in leadership position and places where decisions are made who can advocate for their mentees when promotion opportunities or exciting projects arise. Black women often lack sponsors who would advocate for their promotions due to the barriers to networking for black women, e.g. most senior positions are held by white man, white women and black men which present a racial, cultural and gender barrier to creating relationships with these people for black women.

Finally the internalisation of these stereotypes by black women themselves. The conditioning that teaches black women that they are inferior, unworthy and do not have personal power. Some of these are brought about the trauma that is as a result of socio-economic conditions that black women are raised in.

The mission of the Black women in the workplace organization is to help companies create an enabling environment for the advancement of black women into leadership positions and to create a pipeline of black women who are ready for leadership; by helping them overcome their internalised unworthiness brought about by conditioning and stereotyping.

Author: Busisiwe Hlatswayo

Survivor’s guilt and the fear of success

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Most of the successful black women are the first in their home. The first to graduate university, the first to work in corporate, the first to own a car, the first and sometimes the only. Even though this can lead to a sense of accomplishment. The fulfilment of a vow that every black child who grew up in poverty makes; to be their family’s hero. To be successful so they can build their parents a home and change the family narrative of poverty and failure.

Dr Harville Hendriks in his book ‘Getting the love you want’ teaches about the parts system. That as human beings, we are living with contradictory part of ourselves. He explains it well in the context of a relationship, where part of you is loving towards your partner and the other only sees the worst in them.  Another example is when the brave, daring part of you is seeking a relationship and the fearful part of you or the protector as he calls it sabotages any relationship you have to protect the alienated/hidden part of you. This hidden part is usually our inner child that is trying to protect us from a similar wounding/traumatic event that may have happened to us as a child.

Survivor’s guilt is a type of self-guilt that takes place after a traumatic event. People may feel guilty for surviving or avoiding some type of harm when others did not. Many successful black women, like any survivors of trauma; whether it is the direct trauma of poverty or the shared trauma of racial oppression in its many facets, struggle with survivor’s guilt. We harbor a subconscious belief that our success is a betrayal to our parents and family. That our success highlights the unfairness of the fact that we have opportunities that they couldn’t have. That we were able to do more with our lives than they did. The more successful we are the more unfair it is that they couldn’t be.

We may hold the subconscious belief that the more successful we become the stronger the contrast between us and them. That we may be demonstrating that we are more gifted than they are, wiser than they are, more responsible than they were. It removes them from the seat of being our hero to being somewhat inferior to us. So we don’t talk about our ambitions around them, we pretend it is because we don’t think they will understand. But the real reason is because we feel guilty that we want even more success, when what is we have is already so much more than they have.

To appease our guilt we find ways to sabotage ourselves. We put on the brakes to our career advancement. We avoid taking actions that will accelerate our success.  We put a subconscious ceiling to the amount that we are willing to earn. If we accidentally exceed that amount we find ways to dissipate it. We register and drop out of advanced degrees. We delay our career advancement so long that when we finally advance it is no longer a big deal.  We hide ourselves at work and complain that we are not acknowledged when we hate having positive attention drawn to us. We project our lack of forward movement to those in authority so that we don’t have to deal with the real truth. When the real truth is that we feel like impostors, the ones that got away, when others didn’t.

Author: Busisiwe Hlatswayo.

I help black women overcome the subconscious beliefs that keep (delay) them from advancing in their careers. I help them navigate workplace issues that are at the intersection of race and gender.

Shared black trauma and the fear of success.

Black people share a history of trauma. The trauma transcends our upbringing. Even if you have grown up in a wealthy family, with parents who loved and nurtured you in all the ways that a child needs. You still share the ancestral trauma of slavery, colonialism and apartheid. I don’t know about you but when I watched the video of the murder of George Floyd, I felt the trauma of being black in America. He was me, he looked like me. His life didn’t matter, mine didn’t.

Due to racial oppression, most of us come from a life of poverty. Yes it was hard but it was not all misery. We found joy in our sense of community. We shared the little that we could and found moments of joy. Our trauma bonded us to each other. We were the underdog, fighting against a system that sought to keep us under. Every black child who had ambitions to succeed wanted to do it to save her family from poverty and to help her community.

Just like every beautiful thing, this bond has a shadow. It has its toxic side. If we bond over suffering, what happens when I am not suffering anymore? What happens when I make money, hold seats of power, what have I in common with my people? Trevor Noah in his book talks about this in his book ‘Born a crime’. He talks about how the township seeks to keep you in it, even if it means sabotaging your own success. He makes an example of a friend of his who had left his job after a short time just to fit back in with his friends.

As unbelievably as it may seem we do sabotage our success because of loyalty to the shared bond of suffering with our people. I have coached people who can’t spend money on themselves because they feel it’s stealing from others. Who can’t speak about their success because they don’t want to seem like they are bragging. Who keep themselves from earning more money because they are afraid to say no to those who ask them for money, they’d rather not have it so they don’t have to lie. People who avoid upgrading their lifestyle because it would look like they have a lot. Women who hold themselves back because they are afraid of being too successful to attract a man or to outshine their man.

Is it possible that one of the reasons we don’t have enough black women in positions of leadership is because they sabotage their success in order to belong?

Author: Busisiwe Hlatswayo

Different yet worthy

One of the beliefs that hold black women back from successful careers in the workplace is the belief that they are not good enough. If they are qualified enough then they don’t have enough experience, or don’t know enough, or any other reason that they give themselves for why they can’t have the kind of careers they want. Besides the obvious historical reason of conditioned black inferiority in order to advance slavery and colonialism. Black women often find the corporate world a foreign place. A place where they don’t fit, where they don’t understand the rules, where their hard work does not necessarily pay off. Besides being good at the job itself, black women have to maneuver a foreign culture, often without any mentors because they are the first in their families. I will use my experience to explain.

I grew up in the township, what Americans would call the ghetto. Everyone around me was black. I was book smart and was validated by my teachers and peers. I know how to maneuver this place, I was in many ways comfortable. I had also noticed that in my community black people had an interesting relationship to white people. They both hated and revered them as superior. The expression that was ascribed to a person who is accused of thinking they were superior was that they thought they were white. To aspire to be better or superior was associated with aspiring to whiteness, whether conscious or unconscious.

I went to a predominantly white university and for the first time in my life I didn’t fit. I didn’t know how to navigate this world. The black people who seemed comfortable either came from middle class families and or had studied in multiracial high schools. My confidence took a knock and I started failing dismally, from a student who never knew failure it was a hard knock. I still worked hard but I was still struggling. We hurdled together with a few friends who were also struggling and limped to the finish line.

My first real job was in one of the Big 4 Audit firm and again I didn’t fit. I was black, didn’t have a car and didn’t speak well. I was starting from the back foot and I was just not fitting in. There was no one to talk to about this at home since I was the first to graduate and have a corporate job. No one understood and I felt lost and not good enough. Just like in University I was failing again. I was getting into a depression when I stumbled into a book whose title I can’t remember. In it there was a chapter on how to double your income in 90 days. At last! I had a manual. I applied the principles, 90 days later I was in a different company and job, earning double my income. A year later I was promoted, then every two years after that applying the same principles and the others I was learning from reading more books. I had found the manual, the road map, the compass.

I realized that the problem was not that I was not good enough, it was that I was in a foreign space, with no guidance on how to maneuver that space. If I had found myself in India, or China, I would initially struggle if I didn’t have guidance about how to navigate the culture. I would not assume that I was not good enough I would know that I just needed to understand the culture

I had a privilege of coaching a young African American women and I got a glimpse into how difficult it was to live in a country where you are a minority and a despised minority. Where most of the spaces that you have to inhabit, you are not right, you don’t fit. I also realized that it is the same thing in Corporate South Africa. Even though black people are the majority in South Africa, the corporate space is quite western.

When we as black women find ourselves in such spaces we often assume that we don’t know enough, that we are inferior. Because we had been conditioned to believe so and don’t often don’t have the inner knowing of our worth to fall back on. I now understand then African American obsession with representing stories of black excellence. It is to build that inner sense of worth that we all need to have.

This is one of the reason that inspired me to start Black women in the workplace. I want to help black women identify the conditioning that keeps them from having successful and thriving careers. That is also the reason I created the Re-imagined workplace program for black women in the workplace. I wanted to give them the tools to build successful careers even in those ‘foreign’ spaces and be able to separate their sense of worth with being different.

Author: Busisiwe Hlatswayo  

Mistakes I have made

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I have just finished reading a book called ‘Mistakes I’ve made at work’ by Jessica Bacal. It is a collection of stories by very successful women like Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, Carol Dwek author of Mindset: the new psychology of success and many others of mistakes they have made in their careers.

There are two stories in particular that stood out for me in that book. One was by Carla Harries, she narrated a mistake that she had made when she was in investment banking that cost her company money. One of her colleagues kept talking about it with other people until she decided to confront him .

She said the following to him:

“You’ve always been very supportive of me,
and I know you want to see me do well. I just want to let you know that I understand the significance of this mistake; I learned from it, and I understand it was expensive. You don’t need to keep talking about it and I’m sure I won’t hear from you about it again, right?”

I thought that was such a courageous thing to do, and an exemplary way of managing such a situation

I believe that this is a very important book to have been written. As women, maybe more than men, we struggle with perfectionism and her twin sister, the good girl. This is because we have been socialised to seek to be liked. That our power is linked to how attractive and likeable we are.

I also think the reason why we do not talk about mistakes is because we have a need to create heroes, role models, idols which we can worship. The heroes have to be perfect, experts who have all the answers. We love stories of geniuses who have all the answers and are exceptional. This allows us excuses for why we cannot make it because after all we are mere mortals.

Dr Brenne Brown who researches shame and vulnerability talks about how people appreciate stories of vulnerability from others but do not like sharing their stories of vulnerability. In our weakest moments we don’t just want to hear about those who made it without making any mistakes. We want to hear that they have had moments of questioning themselves, that they don’t always feel confident and are not in top form all the time. We want to know that it is okay to be flawed. That we are still worthy of success, and to be seen and heard.

The next personally significant story in that book is by Dr Carol Dweck. She talked about how she avoided people who are impressed by her. The reason was that she was afraid that if she spent too much time with them, they might find out that she’s not as good as she appears and therefore lose their approval. As a result she lost out on mentors. I could so relate to this story because I too can remember a number of possible mentors that I turned my back on because I was so afraid that I will make a mistake and loose their approval.

One of the most important resolutions I made in my reflection during the COVID19 lock down is that I am going to run my business differently. That I will throw out the lie that I need to prove that I am good enough, that I am an expert, a perfect example in order to attract clients to my business. I decided I was going to bring all of me to the table. That I was going to give myself permission to be more vulnerable and more authentic with my clients.

I really think it is important to have a commitment to excellence, however I do think there is space for vulnerability. We can give ourselves permission to bring our whole selves to the table, including what we consider as flaws. Especially as black women, who are carrying a burden of being told for centuries that who they are is wrong, does not fit, is not acceptable. This requires courage but never perfection.

Dis-engaged from your job and feeling stuck?

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It is towards the end of another year and as much as COVID19 has shaken the foundation of job security for most of us. Leading to a short term spell of gratitude for having a job. Often the end or the beginning of a year brings about a period of reflection about where we are in our lives and whether our jobs are aligned to where we want to be. This can lead to feeling stuck because even though we may no longer want to be in the jobs that we are in, there might not be a lot of opportunities in the job market to move due to the depressing impact of the pandemic on the economy.

There is an expression attributed to Maya Angelou that says that if you don’t like the situation that you are in you have 3 options: 1. Change your attitude towards the situation, 2. Change the situation or 3. Leave the situation. Let’s apply this model to this situation.

  1. Change your attitude

Someone said that before you give therapy to a patient check who they are surrounded with. Others say that you are the result of 5 people you are most surrounded with. I would suggest that you start by analyzing whether you are not surrounded by complainers and if you are not letting yourself get sucked in to their pessimism. Sometimes those water cooler conversations are not the healthiest and it would be best to avoid them as much as possible.

Remind yourself what got you excited about the job. Sometimes we can miss the forest for the trees. It can be the case that you do enjoy the job that you do and that you maybe allowing an aspect of the job or the company that you don’t like cloud the whole picture. Remind yourself, what about the job that you really like and if it is not worth tolerating or reframing the stuff you do not like. Review the importance of what you do not like about the place, in the grand scheme of things

Get a side hustle: sometimes you might just be placing too much expectation on your job to fulfil all of your needs and that might not be possible. What if you start something on the side that will form a creative outlet for you? What if you volunteer your skills for NGO’s /NPOs or mentorships to get the fulfilment that you might not be receiving from your job, or what if you focus on growing your side hustle and see your job as an investment vehicle to grow it to the point where it can pay you a salary and you can leave?

Take advantage of a developmental opportunity your job allows for. If they pay for training, you could start a course that would make your more marketable. You could also focus on the development of an attribute that would make you more marketable e.g. more staff management experience, or industry experience, etc.

2.Change the situation/place

What influence do you have on changing the situation in your work? Could you maybe ask to be moved into another department or come up with a project that would make your job exciting again? Consider what avenues are available to you to be able to influence change in your current situation. Could you negotiate flexi hours or negotiate a higher salary? Could you start a support system in the workplace that will make it more manageable?


You could take steps towards leaving the organization. I know that the economy might be depressed but I always say to myself, Busi you are looking for one job, not many, just one, surely the depressed economy can spare one job. Have your CV reviewed, post it and brush up on your interview skills. Join and be active in your professional or industry groups. I was once offered a position based on my outspokenness and contribution to discussions in a professional group. Finally, let your network know you are in the market, someone might just remember you when an opportunity for someone with your skills come up. While you are waiting, consider option 1 or 2 above.

Author: Busisiwe Hlatswayo

Is the fear of making mistakes slowing down your career?

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Black women do not enjoy the luxury of assumed competence. They are in-fact considered incompetent until they can prove that they are. I know many senior women who had at least one instance where they we assumed to be a junior employee.

In my experience in working with white people I was often fascinated by how I was introduced together with my qualifications. It would always be this is Busi, she holds this position and she holds an MBA. It was almost as if they are answering a question that they think that person must be asking, that what is a black women in this position, it’s because she has an MBA. Of course it might be an unconscious bias but it is there all the same.

Black women still hold the least senior positions in many organisations and are often ‘the only black women there’. This often results in the attitude in those black women that they cannot make mistakes because they will be proving the stereotypes to be true. It also means that they have to be careful with the expression of their anger because they might be fulfilling the stereotype of being emotional or of being the angry black woman. This results in the need to prove their worth and we their right to be in those positions.

This is emotionally unhealthy and may feel like waiting to exhale. It might also lead to a need to focus on minor details to avoid making mistakes. Working too long hours and not taking or having time to create networks. It can also open us up to being overworked because we are afraid to say no and have a need to prove that we can handle any type of workload. That we are not lazy and incompetent. This is not sustainable and can lead to burnout.

I remember watching Viola Davis’s character on the series ‘How to get away with murder’ and struggling with whether to like or dislike her character. One minute I was rooting for her and another I disapproved of her. I realised that my struggle was the need for people to be good or bad, to fall neatly into the two opposites. I could not accept her as she is, with both her flaws, great qualities and intrinsic worth as a human being.

I was having the same internal battles, the struggle to accept my flawed self. I had to be perfect, never make mistakes. As a result I avoided staying in companies or positions for too long, I needed to leave while they were still impressed with me. I knew I could not sustain perfection for too long and I couldn’t bear making a mistake and suffering their dis-approval. It was a trap and I believe that it delayed the trajectory of my career because I had a better chance to grow in to senior positions quicker once I built that trust. The fear of making a mistake can also lead us to not take risks and put ourselves up for positions where we cannot guarantee that we will not make mistakes. We might wait until we are overqualified before we apply for more senior roles, thereby slowing down our financial and career growth.

Author: Busisiwe Hlatswayo

Negotiate for a Yes not a NO

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You might be looking at this title and think of course I am negotiating for a yes, why would I negotiate for a no? Well you might be surprised. Even though the world has changed and it is now commonplace that women will have careers. Women are still raised to be wives and mothers, which means they have to have qualities that are attractive to the male gender and qualities that are nurturing and put others first to prepare them for motherhood. Mothers are not expected to put their needs first, they are expected to sacrifice themselves for the needs of others. These are often qualities that are contrary to what it takes to be successful in the workplace. Qualities like assertiveness, ambition and competitiveness.

Because of our need to be liked we tend to shy away from displaying assertive behavior. Which to be fair, research shows that it can be perceived as bossyness if displayed by a women. To compensate for this we tend to overthink our ‘ask’, overcompensate when asking, or be passive hoping that other will know and do what is fair for us. We then feel disillusioned when our needs are not being met. One of the ways this plays out is by negotiating against ourselves. Negotiating against yourself is when you give the person you are negotiating with, all the reasons to say no to you. We often do it to show that we have considered their position but we often do it to our detriment. It may work when we negotiate with women because they might see where we are coming from but if done with assertive men or women who negotiate to win we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

I once did the same where I asked for a favor from a guy at work and promised him something I knew he wanted in return. Because I felt that the favor was too much to ask I said to him that I would give him that something in return anyway even if he did not do what I was asking for.  Guess what? He said no but still wanted what I had promised to give him anyway. I couldn’t believe how selfish he could be. Until I realized that yep I just negotiated against myself!

Some tips to consider when negotiating are the following

  1. Use data to back up your ‘ask’ it is very difficult to dispute the facts.
  2. Ask for what you want and stop talking, don’t feel the need to fill the silence
  3. Don’t speak against yourself to soften the situation.
  4. Don’t be passive and hope the other party will do what is fair, state clearly what you want and why.

Author: Busisiwe Hlatswayo

Are the results of hard work real for black women at work?

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s black women we are often told that no one expects us to be competent, therefore we have to work harder than everyone else to be noticed. Although research does show that man and white people are easily assumed to be competent than black people and women. Black women find themselves at the intersection between race and gender bias against assumed competence. Having said that though, there is danger in internalizing that bias for black women in the workplace.

Let us start by analyzing the statement of working harder than other everyone else in order to be noticed. How does one measure working harder than everyone else? How do you know when you have worked harder than everyone else and are now worthy of being noticed?

Research show that women tend to minimize their achievements based on their conditioned need to be liked. Girls are taught that they are liked for their attractiveness and ability to take care of others, not for their intelligence, ambition and competitiveness. LeanIn’s study on women in the workplace talks about the likability bias which is if a women is considered competent then she is not considered nice enough and if she is nice then she is not considered competent.

This can lead to women either minimizing their achievements or not talking about them at all. Women are more likely than men in performance assessments to rate themselves lower than their male colleagues who may work less than them. Due to their conditioning women may have a difficult time recognizing how hard they work and therefore how much recognition they are due. Therefore may never ask for what their work is worth or have the confidence to present themselves for roles that they do not think they are qualified for.

I realized that I had long held a subconscious belief that no matter how hard I worked, I could never expect to be compensated fairly, let alone generously for the work that I do. This finally hit me when I was approached for a position that I was well qualified. I was asked how much I expected to be paid per month for the position. I quoted a bit higher than I thought I could earn and even justified the amount I asked for in case they thought it was too high, using the fact that it was a temporary position.  A day after I submitted this information I saw the actual advert for the post and noticed that the amount I asked for was R6000 less than the minimum and over R40000 less than the maximum advertised for the position.

If we as black women continue to hold and internalize such beliefs about what our work is worth, we may never close the gender pay gap and catch-up to our male counterparts. We may never have control over the gender stereotypes that still prevail in our workplaces but we do have control on the beliefs and attitudes that we internalize which influence how we show up and assert ourselves.

Author: Busisiwe Hlatswayo

Getting over a bad interview without internalizing the rejection

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Have you ever been rejected for a position that you know you qualify for, prepared and presented yourself very well in the interview? It is even worse where you never hear from the company and you either see the job re-advertised or hear that someone has been hired? Are you one of those people that think ‘aargh I’m fabulous and if they don’t recognize it then it’s their loss’? Or are you like the rest of us mere mortals who feel all those buried feelings of rejection, not good enough, not fitting in get triggered and throw us hopefully into a just ‘mini’ short term depression?

I’ve had one of those interviews where I had the required experience and qualifications for the job. I actually had more qualifications than the job required and had worked both in the level that the job was pitched on and on a level higher. I knew I could do that job with my eyes closed. The job required the technical skills, the ability to build and create relationship and create structure. Qualities that I know I am good at. I also believe that I am a decent communicator and am not worried about being unable to communicate those well and strongly in the interview.

I did not get the job, to make matters worse I heard on the grapevine that another black woman was appointed for the job. That should have made me feel better but it actually made me feel worse because clearly race was not an issue. If race was not an issue then it meant that I was either not good enough for the role or had failed to convince them that I was, which would still be a failure on my part. I started thinking that maybe I had forgotten how to interview and will struggle getting another job.

But wait a minute……. Is this true? Can I know it for a fact that I am the reason that I did not get the interview?

When I was done feeling sorry for myself and started doing the inner work on this situation. I realized that I had internalized the whole thing as a rejection and had not considered other possibilities. What if they already had someone in mind for the job? What if they thought I was over qualified for the position? What if they thought I wouldn’t fit their company culture? What if the hiring manager just took a disliking to me for whatever reason? All of these possibilities have nothing to do with my competence and skills yet I had focused on internalizing it. I had decided that this was a measure of my worth, competence and ability to move forward.

If you ever find yourself in a similar situation of course analyze whether you were the best fit for the post. You could also ask for feedback from the interviewer to understand where you could have gone wrong.  I would suggest though that before you decide that failing an interview is a measure of your competence and worth, consider other possibilities. I once coached a client who reflected that growing up anything that happened to her was somehow her fault. If someone beat her up then how she provoked them, she realized that that’s how she reacts to everything that happens to her by finding a reason why she could be at fault.  Re-affirm yourself and focus on improving and developing your skills and looking for other opportunities. Sometimes the failure has nothing to do with you.

Author: Busisiwe Hlatswayo