Stop silencing women in the workplace

It’s time to give African women leaders back their voice!

The season of UN activism against Gender-Based Violence is perfect for exploring a rarely discussed and often hidden phenomenon women experience in the workplace: “socio-corporate silencing.” 

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual campaign supported by the United Nations that begins on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs through International Human Rights Day on 10 December. The campaign puts the spotlight firmly on the injustices experienced by women in our society.

Dr Nomvuselelo Songelwa, Skofnom

For Dr Nomvuselelo Songelwa, Executive and Life Coach and founder of SkofNom, an important injustice women experience in the workplace is social silencing. Songelwa experienced this injustice herself as CEO of a company she started from scratch, a public-private initiative by the government and private sector of the Travel & Tourism Industry in South Africa. But, unfortunately, what was to be the legacy and the epitome of her career was short-lived after a deliberate silencing and unceremonious ‘push’ by those at the organization’s helm.

She explains that whilst she is grateful to those men who genuinely afforded her a seat at the table throughout her career, she often dealt with concepts of ‘Mandozing’, ‘mansplaining’ and ‘hepeating’ in the boardroom. These concepts are clearly explained and experienced by many  South African women in a recently published book by Prof Mazwe Majola on Women in Leadership: Breaking the barriers. Men  boldly and publicly claim they embrace transformation agenda by ‘appointing’ women to positions of power. 

Songelwa’s case is not an isolated case. Many women globally report being prevented from speaking through the oppressive acts or omissions of others. When this happens at times when women’s voices should or could be heard, the woman is being ‘socially silenced’. The result is that statistically, women speak less in the workplace than their male counterparts.

In a New York Times column, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton business professor Adam Grant recently highlighted why women tend to stay quiet at work. The article quoted Sandberg and Grant as saying: “Women walk a “tightrope” when they do speak at work because they are “[e]ither . . . barely heard or . . . judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea.” This kind of reality raises the subliminal but vital situation that excludes women from the table of growth and development. Women’s voices are heard through certain filters of archaic misconception and stereotyped mentality of women instead of listening to what women got shared expertly. 

These views are supported by research from Yale that indicates that women often decide to stay quiet for fear of backlash, labelling and stigmatization. The Yale study focused on two professional groups: senators and chief executives. It showed that top male executives who spoke more than their peers received 10 percent higher competency ratings from colleagues. However, female executives who spoke more than their peers were rated (by both genders) as 14 percent less competent. This is not common only in the corporate space and socio-religio-cultural settings, too, a matter of duplication of misconception and cognitive dissonance.

Pic: romanen, pixabay

Researchers at Barnard College and Emory University found another potential key reason why women may hesitate to speak up at work. The researchers reviewed transcripts from more than 24,000 hearings in Congress that spanned 25 years. Their findings showed that, in Senate committees, women were 10% more likely to be interrupted than men.

Global statistics are an eye-opener. While the state of women in leadership has improved, women are still widely underrepresented in leadership and managerial positions. For example, a 2020 McKinsey & Company survey of 65,000 employees from 423 companies found that women held only 38% of entry-level management positions; men had 62% of these positions. Why the metric of competency, efficiency and track record gets eliminated when appraising the impact of women on the transformation agenda fizzles out points to an unconscious war that women are subjected to in the corporate space. 

“What is intriguing is that every responsible father wishes and inspires their daughters to aim and dream for greatness. Still, they forget the culture setting they have designed is a snare that undermines and disempowers the daughters, told they can dream to be anything they aspire to be,” says Songelwa.

Songelwa explains that African countries are often praised for their progress in women’s leadership in the public sector. However, even though women’s leadership in the public sector has increased rapidly, the power of these women in leadership remains limited. She says: “Women therefore either leave the public arena or stay as compromised individuals playing the same power games as men, but not impacting improvement in lives of the populations they serve.”

Furthermore, according to Songelwa, women leaders across Africa’s public and private sectors often face victimization and isolation. Therefore, they leave their leadership role and are silenced to avoid psychological or mental harassment and abuse. 

“Every responsible father wishes and inspires their daughters to aim and dream for greatness… they forget the culture setting they have designed is a snare that undermines and disempowers the daughters.”

– Dr Nomvuselelo Songelwa, SkofNom

“We often see that victims are either silenced to shield the perpetrators (organization/institutions) or decide to shield themselves from being labelled as cry-babies, or emotional, or attention seekers,” says Songelwa. 

It is so ironic that this era of leadership is centred around transformation, yet we silence or eliminate the side of the human input that through the multifactor leadership questionnaire (MLQ), Judy Rosener and other expert findings put women as favourable candidates for “Transformational Leadership” compared to “transactional leadership”, in which men scored higher. 

In a world where diversity and inclusion take a prominent role, it is time to take deliberate action, says Songelwa. Although diversity and inclusion are often high on the agenda in the workplace, companies mustn’t just pay lip service to the cause. “A company can have a perfect representation of diversity on paper, but the question remains how women are treated in the company,” she says. 

Pic: Geralt, Pixabay

Mangolothi and Mnguni’s qualitative research on workplace bullying and its implications for gender transformation in the South African Higher Education sector deep-dived on the injustices women face in this sector, with African women, referred to as ‘Pharoa’s daughters’,  being dished  ‘the best slice of cake’ with a ‘revolving door’ to exit the system.  These include amongst others; denied access and authorization, withholding resources and recognition, neither seen nor heard.

Songelwa points out that unless women as individuals start to invest in themselves to know who they are, what they stand for and which legacies they want to leave, they cannot lead others. She says: “This stance advocates that empowerment and inspiration are within you. Everyone (men and women) must take the first step, recognize that to change the world requires everyone’s meaningful contribution.” If you cannot mine, clean, polish, cut, brand, value and price your diamond within, it is against universal law to want to take charge of others’ diamond processing and valuation.

Gender equality is one of the 17 global goals (also known as the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs) world leaders agreed to in 2015. Seven years on, we have made progress, but work is still to be done. A significant step in the right direction,” according to Songelwa, is to give African female leaders their voice. After all, gender bias is undermining and devaluing everyone in society. 

Main pic: trevoykellyphotography/Pixabay