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Column

SheEO Sleepout? Seriously?

Any initiative that patronises and demeans any sector of our society by its name alone is problematic, writes guest columnist Samantha Perry.

Samantha Perry, co-founder of WomeninTechZA.

Samantha Perry, co-founder of WomeninTechZA.

Dear CEO Sleepout,

My name is Samantha Perry. I'm an erstwhile journalist, PR, kicker of wasps' nests and co-founder, sorry − found-her − of an initiative called WomeninTechZA. I'm sure you've noticed by now that your ‘SheEO Sleepout' concept hasn't been as well received as you'd hoped, so I thought perhaps we should point a few things out to you.

While I realise you probably mean well (I assume you do, if you don't we need to have an entirely different conversation, but I digress), I must question how much thought you actually put into the idea?

We live in an age where most of us are working towards creating inclusive, diverse spaces where we can all grow, engage and prosper. Yet you seem to think it's a good idea to have an entirely exclusive event? SheEO Sleepout is women only, I understand. Were previous CEO Sleepouts men only? Why do we need something that is women only?

Gender diversity, and diversity in general, have been proven to be good for boards, with companies led by more diverse boards showing greater profits. According to an MIT study, moving from a single-gender to an equal split office could improve revenue by as much as 41%. Diverse teams are also more profitable and productive, the same study found. A McKinsey piece shows gender-diverse firms perform 15% better and ethnically-diverse companies 35% better than their untransformed counterparts. So why are we going exclusive? Why are we not working towards encouraging this very diversity that our company boards need?

And then there's the name − in an era when we all agreed yonks ago that titles, like bad ideas, are not gender-specific, why did you think this was a sensible idea? We've all seamlessly moved onto the concept of spokespeople, waitrons and other gender-neutral terms, yet you deem it appropriate to make a fuss about female CEOs in a way that is not only not even vaguely neutral, but demeaning and dismissive too. "Oh look, it's a female CEO, let's make her feel special by not according her the same title as her peers."

You deem it appropriate to make a fuss about female CEOs in a way that is not only not even vaguely neutral, but demeaning and dismissive too.

As if that wasn't bad enough, there's the tag line "The SheEO Sleepout empowered by The CEO Sleepout". How, precisely, are you empowering women CEOs? The name is, frankly, patronising and so is the tag line. The CEO Sleepout raises funds for charity by letting CEOs do one, high profile event, and spend a large amount of their CSI budget (which has tax benefits) with very little effort. That's why it is well supported. How exactly is any of that empowering women CEOs?

The invite to male CEOs is as patronising to men as the name is to women, by the way. The invite states it is "compelling male executives to celebrate and showcase their female colleagues by fully supporting their participation". I'm not sure how it is compelling them? Or what they are going to do in support? Make them tea while they're sleeping out?

Then it says: "No women in your c-suite*? Nominate and support an outstanding female future-executive to take part." The * footnote under the rest of the text states: "Think about that for a second." Yes, because none of the male CEOs you have sent this to have given any thought to the lack of transformation on their boards and in the business sector in general. None. That's why they're C-Suite. Obvs.

Your beneficiary is ‘Door of Hope', which, it must be said, does sterling and necessary work. I do not, however, believe that the linking of SheEO Sleepout to babies and children is either sterling or necessary. We're women so obviously we need to be raising funds for children and babies? Because that's all we are, right? Potential and actual mothers?

Raising funds for charities that desperately need support is a Good Thing (™). But how it is done is as important as what is done. Any initiative that patronises and demeans any sector of our society − let alone roughly half of it − by its name alone is problematic. Especially in a country where women and girls are still regarded as property, second-class citizens, and not quite equal to men.

On behalf of all of the women and men who have objected to this, I call on you to rethink your initiative and to change it into something that celebrates and furthers human dignity, inclusion, respect and diversity.


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