(Published - 26 July 2018)
The silence of 20 000 women must have been ear-splitting that fateful winter day on the doorstep of the Union Buildings in 1956. It has been recorded that the sea of women – who flooded the seat of apartheid to protest against the introduction of pass laws for black women – stood stoically, unwavering for 30 minutes.
They had come to deliver petitions signed by thousands, but the architects of the repressive legislation had abandoned office and refused an audience with them.
The retaliation of these women was not marred with hysterics. It was devoid of destruction – it was simply spine-chilling silence. It was pure genius from the great Lillian Ngoyi who had the idea to make it a silent procession. On that August 9th, the women of the land displayed seamless unity, resilience, strength and leadership.
Together they tore apart the demeaning stereotype that women are weak.
If one is to consider this a social experiment that yielded positive results, why has the female voice today been little more than a whisper in so many sectors? Are the attributes that the women leaders of ’56 so bravely displayed not what companies need to survive in an era of economic uncertainty?
What is certain is that women empowerment has to move beyond the philosophical debate.
Businesses need to embrace diversity to become more innovative, creative and competitive. If we are to tackle the challenges of the 21st century, it makes sense to tap into all of our potential – not just part of it.
Unfortunately government documents, like the Employment Equity Commission report, reflect the slow pace of transformation in achieving gender equity in South African organisations. This suggests that gender parity is not a priority for many organisations, or that there aren’t sufficient numbers of suitably qualified women yet.
How do we solve this problem? Through education, and through role-modelling and mentorship.
We need to encourage young girls at an early age to pursue educational qualifications, particularly within the area of scarce skills professions such as Information Communication Technology (ICT), accounting, finance and public policy.
Being in education is a privilege because we are afforded the opportunity to make a tangible difference in various sectors of society, and particularly in the lives of our students.
The Economic and Management Sciences (EMS) Faculty at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) is strategically positioned to support and encourage women in small business through connections with industry, government, national and international university collaborations, as well as with other relevant stakeholders.
We are preparing students, many of them first generation graduates, for the world of work and for in-demand or scarce skills professions. Furthermore, we contribute to industry, government and the non-governmental sectors through our research and community engagement. We don’t just publish because it’s a key performance area. We publish for impact.
For Women’s Month at UWC, we will be addressing some of the salient and contemporary issues facing South African society – women in ICT, women in small business and women in land and agriculture.
And we are employing an important tool for doing so – one that women have used for thousands of years: storytelling.
Past and present colleagues have been invited to share their stories and talents with the women in our Faculty, providing the role-modelling necessary to inspire and encourage others.
Why these issues?
Given that we are confronted with the advent of that buzz-phrase, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, encouraging young people to pursue careers in ICT is fundamental. And women deserve a chance to shape the technologies of the future.
Small business and entrepreneurship can help solve the high levels of unemployment in South Africa. At the same time, we know that in spite of various policies and strategies, women continue to be underrepresented in the ICT sector, and empowering female entrepreneurs can advance an economy and a society.
The third event at UWC is a public seminar on women in land, presented by Professor Moenieba Isaacs and Professor Ruth Hall from the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies – better known as PLAAS. These three questions will shape the focus of the seminar: how far have we come in securing women’s access and rights to the land and sea? What are the struggles now and what is the strategic vision for the future? Is there scope for solidarity among women struggling for land and fishing rights – in cities, on farms, in communal areas and in coastal communities?
When it comes to natural resources, agriculture, land and property rights, the contemporary and controversial land debate is important. But it is also important to consider equity when it comes to gender. Women in cities; women on farms; women in the context of inheritance; women in communal areas, and women in fishing or women and the land - they are all interconnected.
We encourage young women to join us and to learn from the inspiring stories of colleagues like Professor Hall, who is currently championing the land reform discussion in South Africa. Young women can also have the chance to interact with Dr Mmaki Jantjies, who is preparing the next generation of ICT professionals.
What stands out for me about these women is their hardworking nature, their determination to make a difference and their passion for their disciplines. They are willing to go the extra mile to help other women succeed in their endeavours.
It is time, I believe, for organisations to set robust targets for gender transformation and to introduce formal mentorship programmes through which young or early career women are partnered with women in senior leadership who can support and nurture them.
Simultaneously, women are maternal by nature and hence may prioritise their families over their professional ambitions. Other women still may not have much choice in terms of setting priorities. By this I mean that a woman may consider not to apply for a promotion or a job because of the challenges of having to manage a family, a high-level job, and extended family responsibilities.
Organisations should recognise this, and provide a degree of flexibility for women workers, like allowing for flexi-hours, allowing women to work from home a day or two during the week, allowing for paid maternity leave and job security, or by simply encouraging more family-friendly policies. Every bit helps.
As we commemorate the day 20 000 brave women took a stand at the Union Buildings, let us celebrate their legacy. It is my vision that our EMS Faculty at UWC taps into this bravery and strategy by preparing women for the marketplace. It is my wish that they will boldly light the way for others to come and stand together – stronger than ever to forge a new legacy for women.
About Michelle Esau, Dean of EMS at UWC
Michelle Esau has been the Dean of the University of the Western Cape’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences since January 2018 - but her journey with the University began much earlier when she enrolled for her BAdmin qualification in 1989. Over the three decades since then, she has completed her postgraduate studies and earned a doctorate at the University (while working as a secretary, a lecturer, a researcher, and more), served a stint as Acting Dean, and served on many national and international bodies. She is a firm believer that knowledge is power, and that students deserve role models and mentors who help them reach their full potential - and she strives to live out those beliefs while being a loving wife and mother.