Building Inclusion by Heather Sonn-Pather

Message from the AfrA Team: we felt this to be such an important piece and although intended for the our Intergenerational Woman’s Programme and not the normal blog length we want to share this for all in our blog section.

I was asked to consider the topic of Gender and Leadership recently, particularly in the context of business. What makes this topic interesting is its relevance to the experience of exclusion with the purpose of engendering greater inclusion as an imperative for improved growth prospects for our economy and unlocking the full true potential of our nation.

The exclusion of women is a specific experience rooted in patriarchy and reinforced by social, economic, religious and political norms. To dismantle its constructs requires focused and sustained treatment. The experience of exclusion generally however is similar and we can explore insights for creating inclusion more broadly. I believe that greater inclusion creates opportunities for business through economic growth.

The experience of the professional woman is one riddled with self-doubt which must be overcome. We tend to overthink, over prepare and then still feel slightly deficient. This is not only true for women, it is so for every group or individual that has characteristics other than the main or dominant culture. Simone de Beavoir considered the mother of the modern woman’s movement, described the experience of women in modern society as the oblique of the absolute vertical. There is an acceptable, dominant, reinforced way of being and everything else is – not that. In the modern age and of globalisation it is wealthy, white and male. Everything not that is the oblique and defined in the negative; as not that. This can be extrapolated to any “other”.

The response of business women, most notably in the 1980’s was to dress like men, act like men and try and be like the men they worked with. This was seen as a way to not stick out, to demonstrate a willingness to play by the rules of the game, to be seen as equal and to progress. In the professional context, the feminine was suppressed. It may seem obvious in hindsight but these actions put women at a distinct disadvantage.

Even if she gets the image 100% correct, the cost of that is having to leave aspects of herself behind and limit her full expression in order to achieve a level of acceptability. It also often leads to sacrificing further aspects of the feminine like the desire to have or the responsibility of having a family, a healthy intimate relationship and other aspects we choose that make life rewarding and fulfilling. Indirectly, she is reinforcing the skewed rules and places herself as subject to them without creating the possibility of greater diversity of representation, perspective and outcome. She becomes a cog in the wheel rather than an essential part of the design.

She becomes easily replaceable. The value of what she brings is not honoured and therefore her life choices become an inconvenience. In my earlier career in stockbroking it was common to hear stories of women returning to work after maternity leave to find someone else sitting at their desks, fulfilling their role without communication from the company. These choices were treated as inconvenient and an indication of not being committed to a career.

Emulating the behaviour and personas of acceptable parties in a dominant culture makes it increasingly harder to make your unique contribution the longer you play by these rules of assimilation. This becomes counter-productive because what is actually needed in companies and organisations is diversity of perspective and the complexity that reflects our context and society from which insights can arise. This is how resilience in businesses is built.

What is required is to shift the fundamentals of the place where you find yourself in such a way as to accommodate your uniqueness. This requires competence for the task at hand, understanding of the rules of the game, strength, courage and a series of extraordinary acts.

On the part of women – to stay with the gender example but keeping in mind that the example extends to all “others” – it requires a sober assessment of where you find yourself, your context and what needs to be done to carve an authentic path for yourself and for others and their uniqueness to come behind or after you.

The best example of this experience is growing up with a very competent, effective, driven and certain of himself father who held the best and highest intentions for his children. In the early days of my career he would advise me effectively but as time went by I began to construct my perspective externally, on how he saw the world and with an unhealthy weighting towards how I was being seen and how my actions would be judged. It created a reliance on him or his replacement figure and the views and perspectives of others as the key driver of which course of action I would take. This was not congruent with the desire to create greater independence and to continue to grow. In fact it became stifling and stunting.

I had to determine for myself what my values and convictions are. I had to interpret my context for myself and determine my role in it. Then it became empowering, independent and sustainable. My actions then became infused with my own unique views, based on my values and the ability to carry them through. To act with certainty, to cultivate the ability to follow through and to be fed by the source of one’s own authenticity is the essential empowering act. To take this leap from comfort and perceived certainty, to what is unknown and what must be continually created, is an extraordinary act.

The project of inclusion requires a series of extraordinary acts on the part of those that hold the privilege as well. It takes an extraordinary act to observe one’s privilege; the ease with which you flow within the culture, the deference to your point of view and presence, the way you defer to others like you. To observe it, to become aware is an extraordinary act. To allow spaces for a variety of perspectives to be heard is an extraordinary act. To endorse someone, an idea or concept even when you are not sure of the outcome is an extraordinary act. We tend to become comfortable with how we have always done things and we continue to want to hold onto this way even if it stops making sense. To use one’s privilege to make space for “others” even it represents uncertainty is an extraordinary act.

To consistently sustain the discomfort of changing the status quo, until it becomes the norm knowing that it may threaten your ability to maintain the leadership position is an extraordinary act. The feeling that privilege and power may be lost in this process and that the culture may shift leaving those of privilege in the uncomfortable or in a diminished position is daunting and may damper the necessary willingness to participate. The sobering and anchoring concept has to be that to maintain a culture of exclusion serves to benefit one group over another while standing for the value of inclusion means the inclusion of all. To find commonality with “the other” makes the catalyst integral to the project, able to absorb the lessons and therefore part of the inclusion.

These extraordinary acts serve to build a dynamic culture which reflects the markets in which the company operates and should result in more responsive product and services.

We have to find ways to make our companies and organisations more inclusive and responsive to the diversity or perspectives. It is important to get to know people of diverse backgrounds to get an understanding of what an inclusive economy and society might look like.
We must hold an aspirational yet achievable vision for our country. This allows us to define our context realistically and all that may be possible within it. The vision for our companies and organisations must be located within the vision for our country in order to be responsive to a broad range of opportunities. Our teams will naturally reflect the competencies and diversity required to achieve the vision. Leadership must consistently be represented by those best placed to achieve the vision – to lead the team powerfully and with purpose, to be an example for what is possible and stimulate a generative, dynamic corporate culture and environment of multiple contributions. Systems and processes must be infused by stated and lived values to allow for the full expression of all team members.
I believe that we will not only start to employ a more diverse workforce that will bring the knock-on benefits to their families and communities but we will be alive to many more opportunities presented by our context often in the form of needs that must be fulfilled and that business can address. In dreaming, living, building, struggling and winning together we will finally be building a future that breaks from our past. Our shared experiences will allow us to see ourselves in each other rather than stuck in crude differences that have no basis in reality and that no longer serve us, our society, economy or country.


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