I know this because I’ve experienced both of these polar opposite responses, though thankfully never yet from the same person.
One of the speakers called on us as women in executive and c-suite roles to hold the ladder for those who come behind us. It is a wonderful analogy, showing that women in those positions should simultaneously signpost the opportunity and then do what they can to help others achieve it.
The question is, how many of us actually do that? But perhaps even more pertinently is the question of how many times have we as women come to the place where the ladder is supposed to be standing only to find it lying broken at our feet? Or even worse, how many times have we taken the opportunity to climb that ladder only to find that woman we trusted to hold it steady was actually actively shaking it to make sure we fall off – and fail?
This work is not for yourselves – kill that spirit of self,
and do not live above your people but live with them.
If you can rise, bring someone with you
There is a tendency for the oppressed to become the oppressors, for the bullied to become bullies. We live in a fractured country with a tortured history which is all the more reason why we should never allow this phenomenon to continue. For those of us in senor corporate positions we must never forget that somebody had to open the door for us to go through; somebody had to create that opportunity for us to shine – and in almost every case to develop the confidence that would allow us to perform every time the next opportunity came about.
But there are too many cases where women in those positions guard their hard-won appointments very jealously, preventing anyone else from challenging them or getting to where they are ‘too quickly’. It is almost as if they need the struggles that they had to undergo to be replicated by the next generation. And, just like initiation at schools, the cycle will continue, in all its toxic awfulness, until someone decides to break it, by actually holding the ladder steady.
Something that also warmed my heart and brought a smile to my face at this conference were the testimonies by women congratulating their progressive male colleagues and seniors, for opening the doors, for letting them lead and their voices be heard. It touched me, because I have also come across courageous men who gave me an opportunity. The person who made me managing director and a co-shareholder in the company I run is a man.
It’s wonderful that we have progressive men in our midst, who care and who are determined to make a difference, but how much easier would it be if the women in our lives could care enough too? The truth for all of us, in this international women’s month, is that we as women can do whatever we put our minds to.
There are always going to be obstacles in our way that make it twice or even three times harder for us than it is for men. Over and above national shutdowns, load shedding, Phala Phala, world wars, and any other crisis, we have to be mothers and spouses. We have to deal with that time of the month over and above month end – often at the same time. Most of all, we have to deal with the patriarchy, prejudice and downright sexism that is still very much part of being a woman in South Africa, whether it’s the bedroom, the classroom, the common room, the dining room, the staff room or the boardroom. We have to deal with sexual innuendo, sexual harassment and sexual violence.
It would be so much easier if we just stood together and lived the immortal words of Charlotte Maxeke, who said more than a century ago: “This work is not for yourselves – kill that spirit of self, and do not live above your people but live with them. If you can rise, bring someone with you.” As women, we are resilient, we make it happen. We need to bring those younger women with us, creating spaces for their voices to be heard and for the seeds of their ideas to be planted. We need to understand – and help other women understand – that blowing out someone else’s candle will never make our one shine all that more brightly. On the contrary, sharing the credit – and the limelight – makes everyone shine that little bit brighter and makes us the best women we can be because at our core, women are nurturers, caregivers and leaders.
We need to start holding that ladder tightly, even if means wearing a high visibility jacket and putting up signs directing those young women to us so that they cannot miss the opportunity to get to the next level. And when we do that we will be surprised at how many more doors are opened for us – and how many ladders are left for us still to climb, because as Madiba famously said, it’s only when you’ve climbed that mountain do you realise how many more there are to climb. So, let’s do it together – this year and for as long as we are given to make a difference.
Lucia Mabasa is managing director of pinpoint one, a proudly South African black women owned boutique executive search firm providing critical c-suite, specialist and critical skills solutions across industries and professional disciplines, in South Africa and across Africa.
Visit www.pinpointone.co.za to find out more or read her previous columns on leadership, avoiding the pitfalls of the boardroom, and becoming the best c-suite executive you can be.