It was the cover image that captured my attention to pick up the book and lean in, the image of two black women in their beautiful black hair, smiling at each other. With closer attention, I learned that one of the familiar faces with one of South Africa’s most decorated woman in business and leadership, Dr Judy Dlamini. It was the third point of observation, the title on the cover “Equal But Different: Women Leaders’ Life Stories – Overcoming Race, Gender and Social Class” and paging through the pages and seeing the black powerful women leaders profiled that convinced me to eventually buy the book with much excitement.
“My interest in this area of study is based on my strong belief that people are born equal but different. It is a belief that equity across gender, race, social class and sexual orientation will be attained in my lifetime.”
This is the opening quote of the first chapter of the book, where Dr Judy Dlamini unpacks the motivation for choosing the social identities of race, gender and class to carry the narrative of the book and the genesis of the book’s conception. The strongly academic tone of this opening chapter (very well consistent throughout the book) is sweetened by a framework suggested by authors Dlamini fondly quotes Nkomo and Ngambi (2009), a meso-level approach to women leadership that is operational at Societal, Individual and Organisational Level.
I’m so incredibly excited to be affirmed every day I see a sea of women, and particularly for my societal identity, black women who are successful in business and technology. Representation matters, it does, and what matters within the confines and decoration of the politics of the image of your role models is also what they consume to inform their society. Taking into account the time period of Apartheid that these women grew up in, the socialism of not only gender but race played a role in how their lives turned out and ultimately, what class they managed to place themselves in, consciously and unconsciously.
In the chapter that followed, Dr Dlamini goes on to profile numerous leaders including United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, CEO of Barclays Africa’s Maria Ramos, Founder of Fly Blue Crane’s Siza Mzimela, and current President of the Republic of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa to name a few – this is where it got real for me.
The general consensus from the series of interviews confirmed this for me from the array of women leaders interviewed:
· Most of the women interviewed were black women, and the further education either in Europe or North America afforded them the entry point into the social class privilege that they enjoy today
· Men, and especially white men seem to be better mentors and sponsors to women at the start and peak of their careers
· Black women don’t see white women as allies, mainly because as Gloria Serobe puts it “…. White women are struggling to accept that they were marginalised; the fact is that they were. They benefitted from employment equity.”
From foreign perspectives of both women and men leaders, the consumption of feminism from both men and men to the strategy of quotas to enable more women into not only boards but also the transition from middle-level to senior-level management, this book peeled many layers to its honest core. The one unpleasantry of the book had to be the constant repetition of quotes from Chapter 2 “South African women’s life journeys” throughout the book from Chapters 3 onwards through to the final chapter. The reference of the chapters were written in a manner as though the reader started reading from Chapter 3 and skipped pages, instead from the beginning.
“There was consensus among the interviewees that women tended to work in support departments, which did not expose them to leadership positions. Cora emphasised the importance of being in a revenue-generating position within the organisation as a success strategy, while Tomatoe Serobe, co-founder and CEO of WipCapital, emphasised the need for women to understand the business of their company as a whole rather than only the small division where they worked.”
For a young woman starting out in her career and/or business, this is a book of great insights and a look at what not only successful black women representation looks like, but also a consultation on where and how one would draw the line in being an ableist of sexism, tokenism and other –isms in your career journey. Take heed of the strategies and advice supplied by these global leaders and do your best in your journey.
Images : Dillion Phiri.