Women’s Day is a national holiday in South Africa, celebrated annually on August 9. The day commemorates 20,000 brave women who marched to the government buildings in 1956, to protest on Apartheid laws restricting their freedom of movement. Much has changed since these times, but it is still a tradition to focus on female issues during Women’s Month. In that spirit, the Business Women’s Network Africa held their annual flagship event on August 23 with an impressive speaker line-up, to discuss “Equity vs. Equality – How to create fair Opportunities in the Workplace”. The session was attended by ~120 colleagues, both on-site in Johannesburg and virtually from other locations in Africa and beyond.
Traci Hughes, SAP’s Global Head of People Success Services and a female leader with an African-American background, opened with an authentic and moving keynote. She explained the difference between equality – each individual is given the same resources or opportunities – and equity, which recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome. Traci thanked the diverse audience for taking an interest in the topic, helping to build the bridges for those who are yet to come – like we are benefiting from those who succeeded before us. She also stated that if perfect equity had been reached, everyone would have a sense of belonging. “If we see people that look like us in leadership positions, it will encourage others to follow. We must never underestimate how much power our presence has.” She underlined the importance of listening and learning from each other, to overcome diversity-related perceptions through dialogue.
Genevieve Koolen, HR Director SAP Africa and executive sponsor of BWN Africa, then moderated the inspiring panel discussion with a strong all female speaker line-up: Ruwayda Redfearn, CEO Deloitte Africa, as well as Monique Naidoo, Executive Procurement South Africa at BCX (an SAP customer), and Kholiwe Makhohliso, the newly appointed MD for SAP Southern Africa. In fact, Kholiwe was a speaker at last year’s Women’s Month panel, when she was still with her previous employer!
It was refreshing to listen to a new generation of strong, female leaders who know how to drive the business but also bring in qualities like empathy and kindness. “The CEO does not have to be the loudest in the room,” said Ruwayda and encouraged the audience to challenge traditional requirements for leaders. Diversity leads to better decisions and higher performance. “Things are moving in the right direction, but slowly. We need a greater sense of urgency”. She also remembered the role models of her youth – mothers, aunts, grandmothers who had powerful conversations whilst cooking and understood the importance of getting their kids into higher education.
Monique sees positive changes as well, like the existence of equity committees, policies, advocacy and mentorship. “We need more women having a seat at the table though, and it should be more than two women per table so that they uplift each other and don’t compete”. “Women are nurturers and drivers” but also “I have worked with great men”. Her recipe for success is to strive for more, but in a sustainable way balancing different priorities like job and family, even if it means not to have the biggest house during certain life phases.
Sacrifice, tenacity, and resilience are required to pursue a career, according to Kholiwe, who also remembers strong women in her family showing her that “nothing is impossible”. She encourages women to be curious and learn from others’ successes and failures. “Leadership requirements have changed … and women can drive change, not just look to the men to do it”. Kholiwe called on us to “raise your voice” and stated that passion put into work needs to be recognized. Also, “we need to put leaders up the stream that don’t look like the stereotype”.
Moderator Genevieve’s last question was if there is a price to pay when women are investing in their careers. There was consensus amongst the panelists that time with kids and family suffers, and this causes “mommy guilt”, even if their kids never complained about it and became quite independent. A benefit is also that children experience that women can be in top positions, which might have a positive impact on their own lives. However, there is a need for a strong support system, ideally within the family. What often falls short is me-time or time for hobbies – like hiking and biking in Kholiwe’s case. One needs to be very intentional to make time for these things, on top of a demanding job. She says it is important to understand that there are no superwomen or superhumans, we can only keep asking ourselves: “what is the best I can do today?”.
The session ended with a question from the audience, on how to approach a career once a goal has been defined. Ruwayda gave some clear and practical tips, based on her own experience: Become aware of which role you want, ask for support to get there, find mentors and allies to learn from, get involved and take on the complex clients and difficult tasks, take responsibility for your own career and challenge the norm.
The key take-away of the session is, that it will be more attractive for women to pursue a career in tech, if we continue to break traditional patterns of leadership traits. Promoting qualities like empathy and kindness will also lead to higher performance and better employee satisfaction.
The event also featured video messages from Manos Raptopoulos, SAP Regional President EMEA South, and Tjaart Malan, Cloud Success Services Director Africa and BWN Executive Sponsor, who sent greetings from his birthday vacation. Both promoted male allyship and underlined the importance of driving equity in the workplace which benefits all – women and men.
After this successful event, the Women’s Month program of BWN Africa will continue with three #IamRemarkable workshops where employees can learn about personal branding based on facts.