Navigating Corporate South Africa
After reading “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, one can undoubtedly give credit to her work and how it underpins some universal hardships faced by women in the workplace; these being imposter syndrome, pay gap and sexism, and because these are universal experiences her recommendations on how women can “lean in” in order to change their experiences also has universal applicability.
However, one of my biggest critiques of her book is that it leaves out the voice and/or experiences of black women. There are many barriers for black women which make applying Sandberg’s “lean in” techniques difficult, if not impossible in all career choices and at all levels. I also struggled with the fact that this was an American perspective of the workplace which I could not entirely relate to, I have been craving to hear from South African women in the workplace; particularly black women.
I am happy to report that a young black woman has headed the call and courageously shares with us insights on corporate South Africa, in her book “The Black Girl’s Guide to Corporate South Africa”. Lindelwa Skenjana has written a memoir-guide which is a chronological reflection of her ten years in corporate South Africa. She reflects on her and other black female professionals’ experiences from entry level up to senior management positions. It is a frightening review of the racism, sexism, ethnic chauvinism, sexual harassment and ageism which permeates the corridors and board rooms of corporate South Africa.
The stories shared provide an insight into who the key role players are in the creation of toxic environments that black women are subjected to. One of the women a senior manager magnified these role players in her reflection on her decision to leave corporate and said “Black men benefit from racial diversity, while white women benefit from gender diversity. The whole world is busy patting itself on the back for “progress” and no one is realising that there is someone not in the room: black women”. The system it seems, is one where the skills, qualifications and professionalism of black women are either overlooked and/or are not good enough; this is clear from the fact that black women are ignored for two reasons, firstly because black men represent racial diversity and secondly white women represent gender diversity, there is a clear disregard for black women and their abilities. .
It is a crushing reality to have to experience and survive. Whilst the stories of the women in this book show that it is not impossible to survive and thrive in this space, the reality is that for most black women it comes at a cost. It comes with not being able to arrive and be your authentic self, feeling invisible, undermined, watching while someone takes credit for your ideas, being stereotyped and labelled as angry, aggressive and hard to work with.
Skenjana does well not only to validate black women’s corporate experiences, she also reassures us that all the stories that we have heard are in fact a reality and not imagined; this is done not only by amplifying the voices of other women but she backs it up with research and statistics. That this book is written by a young professional makes it even more necessary to read, it is 160 pages of authenticity and provides us with a hope and goal to aspire to achieve as black women. As she eloquently puts it, “I want us- black women who, many, many times in history, have been the least prioritized- to use our talents and tools and one another to reaffirm our voices, purpose and existence. We need to normalize the opposite of every negative stereotype associated with us…” It is for us as black women to prioritize ourselves and each other, to prioritize excellence and kindness and as burdensome as it may feel, to continue to hold space for one another for generations to come.
This memoir-guide should be read by young graduates who have ambitions to enter corporate South Africa, the stories are sobering which helps you manage your expectations but there are also helpful tips about surviving toxic work environments, mentorship relationships, networking , leadership, pivoting, promotions and exiting the corporate space. It should also be read by black men, because there is a need for black men to acknowledge their privilege and role in the perpetuated discrimination of black women; and it should also be read by white men and women who don’t truly grasp their privilege and the ways it impacts the lives and livelihoods of black women.
I hope that this book will lead us to have the very necessary intergenerational conversations about corporate South Africa and that we will re-look, rethink its culture; that our ideas of success in this space will become a reality. “Here is to black women, the undoing and unlearning and self-loving we are doing. The running of our own races, living the kind of life we want, doing the kind of work we want and being surrounded and loved by the people we want” Cheers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nthabiseng Motsie is a 29 year old second year Candidate Attorney, currently serving her Articles of Clerkship at a boutique corporate and commercial law firm. She obtained her LLB degree from Witwatersrand and has an Honours and Bachelor of Arts (Psychology and Sociology) degree respectively.
She has recently passed her board exams and looks forward to Admission as an Attorney. She is passionate about dispute resolution which entails focusing on dispute circumvention, risk management, advising clients on the correct and beneficial strategy to resolve disputes. Her intention is to practice and specialize in all forms of dispute resolution including but not limited to, litigation, mediation, arbitration, and negotiation.
She is an avid reader, not only because reading is the main work of a legal professional but mainly because she believes in the power of books to impact and change our lives for the better. She appreciates the way authors are able to express some of our own thoughts, teach us different life lessons and provide a joyful escape from our own realities. Some of her favourite books are, ‘I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai’, ‘The Yearning by Mohale Mashigo’, ‘Maybe you Should talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb’ and ‘A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson’.
She hopes that through her contribution to For Women in Law, she not only instills a genuine love for reading but also share books that are assisting her as she navigates and finds her place in the legal profession and continues to grow as a black woman.
“I hope the joy that reading brings me, will find you and that you may find and read books that bring you Joy. Blessings!”