Changing face of gender discrimination
By Anujah Bosman
In 1956, 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings to protest against the carrying of pass books. This was a remarkable show of solidarity and it challenged the current stereotypes of women.
Since then, Women’s Day is used to create an awareness of gender discrimination and the challenges that women typically face. It is also used to “celebrate a part of society that is still marginalised”, says Chillisoft’s developer Nicolas Chetty.
The intention of Women’s Day campaigns is to celebrate women’s achievements, courage, strength and grit. It creates role models and sends out the message that it is possible to succeed in a male-dominated world. It is therefore interesting that we have increased awareness of the issues that women face, but we have also strengthened specific stereotypes.
Chillisoft’s Delivery Manager, Brendon Page, astutely observed: “The way we treat women in business is a manifestation of how we, as a society, treat women.” So, I have reflected on my experiences as a female entrepreneur and CEO in business to see if his statement is true, says Anujah Bosman, CEO of Chillisoft. There have been many stereotypical incidents in my career that have caused me to laugh or fume; however, the experiences below were significant in that they made me pause and reflect:
There were no female change-rooms or safety clothing for female engineers. There were existing female engineers, but they all worked in the laboratories. It was unheard of for a female engineer working on the “shop floor” or working shifts. My request to work on the “shop floor” required three levels of authorisation and me customising the smallest safety equipment so that it could fit. I distinctly remember being horrified and flabbergasted that I could not actually do my job and that the company was okay with that. It was even more nonsensical because they had paid for my bursary.
I successfully developed an alloy that allowed my employer to expand into a lucrative market segment. I designed and conducted the experiments and modified the alloy composition accordingly. I was therefore rather surprised to read a research paper about my experiments that did not mention me. When I confronted the director, to whom I reported, he closed the door and admiringly conceded: “You are a difficult bastard!” Our working relationship was much better from that point onwards.
A CEO of a respected online software training company requested a Skype meeting with me to discuss possible synergies. After pushing his product aggressively and him realising that we were not going to hand over our IP, he commented: “Maybe I should talk to a person who is more technical.” This comment is made to me, a CEO who has built two software development companies from scratch and who conceptualised and started our training division of DevFluence.
An acquisitions director requested an introductory meeting. During the telephonic conversation, I questioned him about his approach, intentions and why we should even consider the request. I also mentioned that all their directors were predominantly white male. The director became evasive and replied: “You are making a mountain out of a molehill and overreacting.” This is from an acquisitions director who wanted to purchase Chillisoft. Eight months later, this director is still trying to repair the damage to his company and justify himself.
Admittedly, these experiences are the exception in my career; however, they were shocking because the other party could not see why it was offensive. This was their 'normal'. Based on my experiences and my perceptions, the world has changed, albeit slowly, from women being excluded in specific careers to a more subtle form of discrimination. My experiences have indicated that the early discrimination in my career was born out of naivety, where “it is always done this way”. Nobody questioned the status quo. Today’s discrimination is more subtle, insidious and it requires difficult conversations before you see the nuances of discrimination. The typical strain of discrimination that I encounter is one where I am perceived as a token B-BBEE female CEO, masquerading as the leader of an IT company.
We have legislation that rewards businesses for more inclusivity and females in senior positions. However, legislation alone cannot change biased mindsets. It will take a concerted effort and solidarity in business to make discriminatory comments a thing of the past.
CEOs and executives can facilitate this by questioning our biases and assumptions. It is equally important that we, as business and individuals, dispel stereotypes that still continue to be propagated. To me, if you are silent in the presence of discrimination, then you are tacitly complicit. Today’s discrimination requires one to take a stand and risk being labelled as “aggressive”, “combative” and “making a big deal out of nothing”. It requires one to risk not being charming and it may irk some male executives who seem to think that all females are charming magazine cover models who are acquiescent. Instead of the embarrassed silences that usually mark these occasions, stand up against discrimination and make your support for women evident.
Female executives are not windowing dressing or token employees. These females are successful in their jobs because of a multitude of reasons. Females are not less important. There is no male-dominated second tier that is propping us up or approving our decisions.
Lastly, I am a CEO. I am female. I am not a female CEO, just as you are not a male CEO.