We recently looked at the pressing need for more female voices in the mainstream of African business. Not solely a cause of gender discrimination, this lack of diversity also limits the perspective and scope of business in an increasingly connected, digitised world. But while gaining recognition is one thing, it’s quite another to encourage forward momentum on a truly level playing field. For that we need male advocates. Men who are, like the women around them, prepared to be partners in bringing about a more diverse and inclusive working environment.
Recently the #MeToo hashtag made its way into both the industry and consumer press. But just as quickly as this phenomenon arose, it soon caused a global identity politics backlash and is subsequently fizzling out. Successes and failures aside, the fact that most women at some point in their life have to go through some form of abuse or another is now a widely accepted fact. This digital movement at least did its job in propelling that conversation.
Where we can improve the debate even further is in the attitude we take towards workplace equality. Equality by its very definition refers to the equal state of all parties, and for that it requires the involvement of both men and women. Rather than helping to vocalise a backlash against movements such as #MeToo that seek to change the status quo, our male counterparts can join with us in taking responsibility, becoming allies, and looking for positive solutions in the journey towards equality.
For women, the reality is that statistics in the business world still tell a very troubled story. In 2017, the Washington Post reported that in the US, the number of female CEOs at the helm of Fortune 500 companies had reached an ‘all time high’. However, that article very quickly went on to highlight that this was an all-time high of 32, a proportion of just 6.4 percent. In other words, half of the US population is female, yet women occupy little over one in twenty of the top leadership roles in American business.
While a lack of female leadership does not intrinsically mean that harassment within business is more likely to take place, it’s not difficult to see the connection. Business remains a male dominated arena, its companies male-controlled, hierarchies often patriarchally structured, and this, despite the march of globalisation and technology in recent years, has sadly remained true all over the world. When beginning from such an imbalanced starting point, equality is unlikely to flourish.
In Africa, the debate around workplace issues is still an emerging–rather than mainstream– one. Often, when we speak of a lack of gender balance in corporate Africa, we deem it a matter of course, blaming a more widespread African culture that treats women as inferior. And it is true that deep rooted institutional/cultural obstacles are a major barrier in keeping African women from obtaining and securing the most powerful and prestigious jobs, whether in the private or public sector, regardless of qualifications or achievements.
As recent headlines show, harassment at work is not a predilection of African men. Clearly, neither is dominance of the boardroom. However, until African women – and men – stop treating these matters as par for the course and start speaking up when abused or harassed by those in positions of power who should be mentoring, the twin problems of inequality and harassment will not go away. The result is that so many exceptional African women feel forced to pack it in, rather than having to constantly dodge and navigate the men at the top.
In beginning to scratch the surface of this issue we must also recognise that it is a fact that some people behave badly simply because no one has called them out, or because they do not know any better. While women in corporate Africa may not yet always be ready to call out workplace inequality, especially where the system offers no safeguards for women, we will disrupt the status quo if we speak up collectively.
We do ourselves and our menfolk a disservice by not giving everyone around us the opportunity to improve their conduct. In addition to those men that still act archaically in the workplace, there are those that speak and act with the same passion and understanding as women in driving forward the wheels of equality. Shame on us all if our little sisters, daughters, nieces and grand-daughters should face the same rampant harassment because we have not raised our voices. Just like other women, strong men can be allies in the workplace too, and it’s time we realised that feminism, and the wider themes of equality that it stands for, is not solely the preserve of females.
As leadership in other countries and across other continents has shown, speaking up about harassment and inequality in the workplace can begin to have an impact on both male and female attitudes and move forward the debate. But there is still a long way to go. In Africa especially, maybe it is time we moved towards more hard-hitting, transparent hashtags, so that we may further open up the conversation: #MenAsAllies, #ManUp
This article was written by Dr. Nkiru Balonwu, Chair, African Women on Board (AWB)
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