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Thanks to the initiative and drive of the Durban Chamber’s president, Thato Tsautse, and a collection of businesswomen who joined a steering committee, we held an outstandingly successful Women in Business conference last week.
Special thanks to the excellent organisational skills of our events department under the management of Jane Pillay. The generous backing of eThekwini Municipality and the personal interest and attendance of the deputy mayor were greatly appreciated. The chamber valued, too, the contributions of Old Mutual and Business Partners to this venture.
More than 370 people, almost exclusively women (some men attended), enjoyed a programme with the theme “Inspire, enrich, ignite”. As the conference drew to a close, three important events occurred to ensure that the advancement of women in the business sector would gain even more momentum.
A Women in Business Directory was launched, the intention of which is to compile a ready resource for people who may wish to search for woman service providers. The Durban Chamber, together with its partners, several women’s associations and networks, has also initiated a Women Empowerment Fund, which will be in a position to provide funding to women who wish to start and grow small businesses.
The conference concluded with a series of Women in Excellence Awards. Finalists in various categories were announced and winners presented with memento trophies. These awards will be an annual event to celebrate the often-unrecognised talents and skills of many women who provide leadership in business, educational, medical and civil spheres.
The event was hailed as a great success. The right mix of speakers had been assembled and they delivered on topics that were pertinent and of immediate interest to the audience.
Personally, I was very impressed by the ambience in the conference room. A full house is always likely to support a certain vibrancy and liveliness, but this audience conveyed many characteristics of women. I failed to imagine an audience of men contributing to such intangible rapport with the speakers.
These women were patient in their listening and warm and empathetic in their responses, creating an atmosphere in which, I’m sure, the speakers felt very comfortable and influential. One was conscious of a particular spirit of goodwill and a detectable harmony among the large crowd.
These things, I thought, are the reasons that business should be more willing to embrace women leaders. It should be done, not because the law demands it, or because quotas are set, but because women bring unique qualities to the environment. These are often quite naturally complementary to the qualities that characterise men, just as fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, complement one another.
Male-dominated businesses succeed, in the same way that one-parent families may succeed, but lustre is added if there is also the enrichment of women and men in partnership.
The achievement of this depends on the commitment of men and women, and society at large, which must abandon the lip service that is characteristic in favour of the genuine belief that, whether in politics, business, education, or any other sphere, the greatest heights will be scaled by men and women together.
Men must forgo some traditional prejudices and women must assert themselves to the extent that their meritorious claims cannot be disregarded.
In 15 years in the business environment, I have seen significant changes in this regard. The talents and competencies of women have come to the fore in unprecedented ways, but not so forcefully that we don’t still need affirmative programmes such as the chamber’s conference and the legacy projects born of it.
* Andrew Layman is the CEO of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry.