Woman Harnessing Their Power of Authenticity in the Workplace: A Birds Eye view

Woman Harnessing Their Power of Authenticity in the Workplace: A Birds Eye view

How can we talk about Human Rights when women’s rights are being trampled over and over again; and when women are struggling on a daily basis to show up as their true selves at work? These are the questions we should continue to ask, which this article partly touches on.
The article is a snap shot of a project that Womaniko embarked on in 2017, where it was seeking to understand and highlight the complexities women face in the workplace. We talked to a group of South African women, all black, who occupy various positions across different economic sectors, about what ‘Authenticity’ means to them and their experiences in the workplace. This comes against our firm belief that people can only excel in what they do when they are true to who they are.
Yet, women have to constantly endure negativity and external pressure to conform, which creates feelings of inadequacy and affects their confidence and self-worth. Conformity is regarded as having lost one’s sense of authenticity.

How do Women View Authenticity?
Generally, women viewed Authenticity as the ability to be “Yourself” and embracing one’s uniqueness. They also viewed it as a person’s ability to stand one’s ground and uphold one’s values at all times. At the same time, most women viewed authenticity as ‘originality’. We believe this is not the same as being static which may be equated to the inability to develop yourself.
The women associated authenticity with values, placing a premium value on honesty, integrity, respect, a mutual desire to help one another and the freedom to express ones’ views and emotions.

Factors That Impact on Women’s Authenticity at Work
A number of factors impact on women’s ability to be authentic in their places of work. From the stories of those we spoke to, the major factors are primarily based on issues of gender-inequality, race, culture, and religion. These stories described women’s daily realities of trying to balance between appeasing and pleasing their colleagues and seniors at work. As such, women’s ability to remain authentic in the place of work is constantly tested.

Women shared about how they often found themselves compromised, despite the fact that they deeply value the principle of being authentic. The extent to which they felt compromised varied from one industry to another. Of those we spoke to, the greatest amount of compromises expressed were in the legal industry. For one, women felt they were not able to show their emotions at work as this was seen as a sign of weakness. This left them feeling that they can only show this part of who they are outside of the courtroom.

The depth and pain of these compromises is felt when women - despite their level of education - feel they are being put under pressure to resort to extreme measures in order to get work. One of the stories we heard was from a young advocate who lamented about the disheartening environment she works under. She believes lack of women’s recognition in her industry is vicious, leaving young women advocates under pressure to “entertain” male “clients” in order to get work.
Women also felt that Gender Stereotypes run through their places of work. This is felt across the different levels of work. For women in positions of authority, they believe they are expected to talk and act like men to be recognized and respected. One way of explaining this is just sharing a statement that was apparently made by a junior employee (male) to one of the women we talked to, who said, “Do you talk like that with your husband?” Clearly, this man was taken aback when confronted by a woman who seemed to have and speak with authority to him.

Sad to say, that such attitudes don’t only stem from men. Women in managerial positions talked about experiences of being belittled by their fellow women. It would seem from the stories that women tend to compete with one another. Safe to say that such sentiments are not isolated but such are often reported elsewhere. In an article of “The Dark Side Of Female Rivalry In The Workplace And What To Do About It”, Bonnie Marcus, attributes this female rivalry to the workplace itself, suggesting that this is both a psychological and a workplace cultural phenomenon. This is seen as particulalry rife in male dominated workplaces. According to Marcus (2016), the culture in these kinds of workplaces tend to “set[s] women up to compete due to increased scrutiny and a scarcity of top leadership positions for women”.

Alongside, gender was race. Women argued that they always go through discrimination in their places of work, with a clear bias towards white employees. Many times, the treatment that Black women received reinforced the general stereotypes which suggest that Black women cannot be trusted to do good work. This was felt in the way in which their work is always under scrutiny, seemingly because of their gender and race. Again, the gravity and extent of these experiences differed from industry to industry. In the legal industry, women expressed their real frustration which often left them feeling that they have to “beg” for work from their white male counterparts and at times Black male counterparts.
Lastly, religion and culture hinder women from showing up authentically in the work place. This was seen as very heavy when women are forced to change the way they dress up to accommodate men. One woman explained of how she had to change her way of dressing when she had to see her male clients to ensure she does not offend them.

Women’s Strategies for Mitigating against Their Challenges
Despite these challenges, women have discovered different ways of coping. Most women draw from their inner strength to build their resilience. Some have turned to their faith as a source of encouragement, support, and strength for them.
At times, women resort to taking tough measures to assert themselves even when that is not their natural way of engagement. Because this is done out of character, women argue that this is tiring and takes them away from productive work.

This project was very insightful in expressing women’s understanding and value they place on authenticity in relation to their work. It is evident that whilst women value their ability to show up authentically in the workplace, they are faced with a number of challenges that make it difficult for them to be true to themselves.
In all the stories we heard, it is clear that the challenges faced by women in the workplace are rooted in inequality, be it gender or race. This has a direct bearing on their ability to harness their power of authenticity so they can excel in their work. As with any battle, the physical, mental and emotional energy required to ‘keep up the fight’ is draining. Whilst women’s time, effort and uniqueness could be used better in more productive things around their work, most of it is expended trying to prove themselves. As such, their gifts and talents become hidden under the cloud of restrain and external pressures.

These are major concerns for the future too. Young women working towards entering the workplace in various fields will have to deal with the very same issues if they are not challenged and resolved. Sadly, there does not seem to be enough effective and targeted response given to women in their places of work. As such, women tend to draw on their internal sources of strength to cope and sometimes resort to measures that are not always true to the core of who they are.
Going forward, there is a serious need to create platforms in workplaces where women can talk about their challenges. It is also true that the challenges facing women at their place of work are societal problems that need partnerships between women and men, corporate and other societal structures.

This article is an extract from a project that was carried out by WomaNiko Transforming Spaces in 2018. For more information, contact, Thembela Njenga at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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