This is a platform for to share stories of women on their life and work journeys as they navigate through the beauty and difficulties of life at work, home and society at large.

Authenticity in the legal field: A woman’s unfiltered views

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The inequalities that women in the workplace face on a daily basis are varied: They are gendered in nature and often racially-based – and this makes it increasingly difficult for women to remain authentic.

This is the lived experience of Nomsa Sihlangu*, a prosecutor plying her trade in the legal sector.

’At times I am able to be authentic, while other times I am unable to,’’ states Nomsa from the outset.

For the astute prosecutor, authenticity is primarily about being original, or being true to one’s self. While she values integrity, honesty and helpfulness above all else, she has always almost found that being authentic in the workplace is a difficult act to juggle for numerous reasons.

Her first concern is the rampant corruption in the legal sector, which she believes presents the biggest hurdle in maintaining her own integrity.  

The other concern that Nomsa surfaces which we believe is a challenge experienced by many women is just the mere difficulty of showing her emotions at work, particularly in court. This is a grave concern as emotions are at the heart of who we are. When we suppress these, we deny ourselves a core of who we are.

’Many times when I am in court, I struggle to show my emotions. This is because displaying emotions in the courtroom can be interpreted by others as being biased and prejudiced. As a result, I find it easier to be authentic when I am outside the courtroom, interacting with people. At such times I am able to give advice and counsel to the witnesses and talk to my clients freely,’’ she says.

The issues of gender and race discrimination are also hugely at play in the legal sector, with Nomsa expressing much disappointment at the lack of real transformation in a South African legal field that has remained mainly white and male dominated.

’Working in such a sector does not make my job any easier as a black woman. I always find that I need to work harder to prove myself. Every decision I make as a black female prosecutor is often scrutinized, especially by my colleagues who are predominately white. This always leaves me with feelings of inferiority - especially when it comes from those of the opposite race. What is sad is that I am not able to do the same to their work even if I have views that could contribute positively to others,’’ she laments.

Nomsa also points out that in the past 15 years she has been the only black female prosecutor employed by her organisation. Similarly, she has often witnessed differential treatment between white female and black prosecutors with a bias towards whites. White employees, she says, are the ones who most often obtain ‘’merits’’ for their work.

’All these things make me feel alienated and limit my growth and potential,’’ she adds.

lack of recognition for women within her organisation is another stumbling block, according to Nomsa. She strongly believes this lack of recognition of black women makes it difficult for women to assume leadership roles – and to be successful within those roles.

’My immediate supervisor is a woman and because she is surrounded by males, she always has to be strict and more assertive. Fighting lawyers who consistently undermine her decisions has become part of her job,’’ she explains.

The disregard of women as shown in Nomsa’s organisation is also evident in blatant attempts to exclude women from important decision-making processes.

’I was once transferred without being consulted. I was completely removed from the decision-making process on a decision that directly concerned me,’’ she recalls.

Nomsa acknowledges that working in an environment that, in many ways, is toxic and unhealthy, makes it increasingly difficult for her to be authentic.

’But what keeps me going is my faith. It helps me to be assertive and to understand what my role is in the workplace,’’ she declares with admirable conviction.

*Not her real name

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Being a Woman in a 'Man's World' - Women's Stories

Being a Woman in a 'Man's World' - Women's Stories
Women deserve the right to work freely and to have their right to dignity upheld in the workplace. Historically biased attitudes towards women and their role in the work place have become widespread, normalise and structurally imbedded. Even when women’s negative experiences at work go against STATED organisational values, they often remain unchallenged. This article highlights the issue, illustrating it with real stories of women in different work set-ups.

Story telling is an effective way of challenging the status quo. When we receive a story we do not merely draw applications or moral lessons from it, we inhabit it and the truth therein. In that way, the story becomes a part of us, or rather we become a part of its reality. When we as women name our experiences at work, we make them part of a living human narrative, part of our collective social reality. Therefore, by amplifying the voices of women we seek to unearth what lies at the root of the widespread disrespect of women in the workplace. What must change structurally to narrow the gap between the values employers espouse and the real experience of women in the workplace? How can we displace the old assumption that women should naturally be subservient in the workplace?

Assumptions that denigrate women are a carry-over from other contexts in our society where male dominance is taken for granted. Women need to valorise an alternative narrative to change social attitudes so that we can socialise our children and their children in an environment that takes gender equality seriously. Though women have today made impressive strides, they are still disadvantaged by lack of commitment to redress toxic power relations that deny women the autonomy and agency.
The importance of women in the workplace and in the society is well documented. To want to do it all and to do it well is a well-known female trait. Women’s productivity and contribution to the well-being of society is nothing but subservient. The UN Gender Report of 2012 captures the skewed worldwide facts regarding women’s work as follows, women:
• perform 66% of the world’s work;
• produce 50% of the world’s food;
• earn 10% of the income; and
• own (only) 1% of the property in the world.

The notion of equality is a contested and difficult term to reckon with. When courts decide equality-related cases, they take each case based on its merits rather than based on an established timeless principle that defines equality or the lack thereof. As a result, when the rights of a woman are infringed upon in the workplace, the burden of proof is on her. In such instances, women’s stories that corroborate each other are important in this regard. We have seen this kind of corroboration at play in the #MeToo movement. The individual stories of women’s experiences about how their rights are violated – written or told orally – form an important body of work that when used in juxtaposition with empirical research is a viable tool for advocacy and empowerment of women.

Below are three examples of women’s workplace issues with anecdotes from real women .
1. The proverbial ‘competing in a man’s world’
Women experience the proverbial ‘competing in a man’s world’ in the working environments because the workplace is a male-centred space to be in. The Church as an example of that, can be quite confining for women because the position it takes is theologically/religiously sanctioned. Cheryl Dibeela, an ordained woman from South Africa who resides in Botswana quipped, ‘I think the church is the worst at human rights of women in the work place.’

Although churches in Africa have recently been increasingly committing themselves to the fight for social justice and freedom and the call to stand for the rights of the marginalised has been growing louder, they are not as outspoken on the question of women. The late Pope John Paul once wrote, ‘The moment is coming, the moment has come, when woman's vocation is fully realised; the moment when woman takes on the power until now unattained. That is why at this time when humanity is undergoing so many changes women filled with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to help humanity not fail.’ (Papal Pastoral Letter, 1989). It is an encouraging meditation and call to radical action, change of mentality and a redefinition of the man-woman relations in the church. Yet it largely remains just a beautiful meditation. As an ordained minister of the United Church of Zambia, which has a relatively long history of ordaining women, I know how that would be. Structures remain persistently patriarchal. Ordination is not necessarily an invitation to lead the challenge to the oppressive culture, which persists even when women occupy leadership positions. Therefore, although on paper women are welcome, but the structures remain prohibitive.

For instance, the traditional understanding has been that women play a supportive role to men as reflected in the role of the minister’s wife. Though not employed by the church, she was / is the unpaid extra whose role was / is to offer hospitality and to be a mother figure of the congregation. Implicitly, women clergy are expected to play the duo role of minister and minister’s wife rolled into one. Competing in the man’s world, means the woman minister’s performance is evaluated against hospitality and mothering skills in addition to ministry skills. Only the latter applies to her male counterparts.

This experience is not field-specific. I have heard stories of women corporate executives mistaken for personal assistants who must serve rather than participate in meetings as decision-makers. Then, there are myriad ways in which male colleagues undermine their female counterparts based solely on their gender.

2. Duality in women’s lives
Outdated policies in many corporates and other organisations entail the assumption that a woman’s personal life and child-bearing will affect her work performance. On the other hand, there is the age-old assumption that a woman’s career negatively affects her roles as mother and wife. As a result, working women find themselves conflicted internally, even as they work in environments that do not support their diverse roles. Successful career women are often asked how they balance their work and personal lives. Successful career men never have to answer that question.
Research has shown that when duality is harnessed, it can prove to be an advantage, not just for the individuals but for employers too. It makes women more suitable for leadership roles that require multi-tasking and flexibility. The question is, how many institutions and employers recognise this gift and create room for its expression?

When women take leave to have children, sometimes companies do not restore the opportunities they would have missed while away. World-renowned tennis player Serena Williams who recently returned to the game after giving birth has highlighted this issue. The assumption is that family takes precedence henceforth or that balancing a heavy workload with the demands of family is too much. The bigger question then becomes how women can use such stories to challenge the very structure of the workplace, which limits women by failing to accommodate their needs.
Arising from that is the assumption that women cannot handle stress as well as their male counterparts. That is true only to the extent that the male-centred spaces in which women work do no accommodate their life-experiences.
Additionally, sexual harassment in the workplace is a stressor for women who are more likely than men are to become the victim of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is difficult to prove, embarrassing to report and compounded by the fact that the burden of proof is on the woman.

While working for an international organisation in Singapore, Mona received a call from her boss while he was away on a work trip abroad. He asked to meet her for coffee after work when he returned. She was still new and not sure how to respond to such a request, so she said yes. On the day, she went to his office just as others were knocking off. She had a premonition that this request was not innocent. She went in with pen and notebook in her hand to signal that she expected a work-related meeting. Her boss noticed and nonchalantly dismissed her from his office saying the planned ‘coffee date’ would not happen. The organisation’s values plaque greets visitors to the office stating the organisation’s commitment to justice in relationships and mutual accountability. Mona later resigned after her boss created a hostile environment for her and would ridicule her at every opportunity. She could never have proved the validity of sexual undertones of the incident. Nevertheless, she knows and trusts her experience and continues to tell her story because she knows it echoes the experience of other women.
The 2018 South Africa Film and Television Awards poignantly highlighted the problem of sexual harassment in the film industry through its #ITSNOTOK campaign hashtag. The entire audience stood and read a pledge during the ceremony as an act of solidarity and commitment to the cause. This is one example of a platform that is capable of amplifying women’s stories.

3. Women taking their power back
The UN General Secretary, Antonio Guiterrez recently said, “Gender equality is a question of power. And power is never given, it is always taken. That is why the empowerment of women is our most important objective.” Kalila worked as a middle manager for a US funded organisation in Zambia. She could not explain the sudden insolence of one of the administrative staff she supervised. She later discovered that the boss had been having an affair with the female worker in question, which had emboldened her to act as the boss’s proxy. The organisation clearly forbids sexual relationships in the work place, particularly where there is a skewed power dynamic. Kalila confronted her boss, at the risk of losing her job. She did not lose her job owing to the congruence of sound grievance processes in the organisation.

Women’s stories are laments that help to vent pent-up feelings that arise from work experiences that threaten to take away our power. However, the stories are not just laments; they must lead us to ask deeper questions, to disrupt the status quo and to replace it with more life-affirming alternatives. We need to connect with our own personal and local stories as well as connect to women’s stories beyond our immediate contexts. When we connect our stories within networks, we amplify our voices for the cause of gender justice. The Agreed Conclusions of the just ended 2018 UN Commission on the Status of Women has a natural link to the subject of this article (see http://www.unwomen.org/en/csw/csw62-2018). It is an example of a movement with which to identify this cause. It is equally important to pay attention to research outputs on the issues of women in the work place to inform and undergird our advocacy.

Conclusion
This article serves its purpose if it stimulates further thought on the subject and prompts more stories. Story telling is an important strategy for empowerment. Empowerment happens when the strengths women and the contribution they bring to the workplace are recognised and utilised. More importantly, the structure of the workplace itself needs to be responsive to the contribution of women. Telling our stories of experiences in the workplace is not an end in itself. Ultimately, these stories must challenge the status quo of the male-centred nature of the work place and creatively offer alternatives of how to transform the workplace to suit both women and men.

Rev. Kuzipa Nalwamba, PhD
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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.

Conclusion
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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