I recently had the privilege of participating in several meaningful conversations at a gathering of extraordinary women, facilitated by the "Women in Conversation" initiative.
This platform, which I helped establish, aims to bolster women's professional growth.
Our discussions at the event highlighted a concern that has occupied my thoughts for some time: the idea that encouraging women to simply "lean in" for gender equality within workplaces falls short.
In reality, rather than placing the burden to crack the class ceiling squarely on women’s shoulders, what we need to foster are organisations that confront systemic inequalities head on to build a truly gender inclusive world.
Systemic change is critical
In my two decades of navigating high-performance work environments, I have met many resilient South African women who have the shattered glass ceiling.
But the crucial truth remains that the "lean-in" ideology doubly burdens women, to work twice as hard and sacrifice more to “earn” their place in the organisation. The onus of dismantling systemic obstacles should not rest solely on women's shoulders.
We need a paradigm shift where women and organisations stand together and collaborate to identify and dismantle the barriers to their success.
True change to policies and practices
Confronting gender inequality in the workplace must go beyond surface-level gestures and window dressing.
Mentorship programmes and diversity training are steps in the right direction but these alone will not create lasting change.
Organisations must re-evaluate policies and practices that inadvertently perpetuate gender inequality. This includes reassessing recruitment processes, pay scales and promotional pathways.
Women of colour, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities face additional challenges that need to be considered in this process.
Diversity is progress
Diversity is not just a buzzword but a fundamental driver of progress. The United Nations estimates that if women play an identical role to men in labour markets, about US$28 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025.
To achieve true gender equity, we need to make fundamental changes to policies and culture. This includes ensuring fair pay, providing flexible work options, and promoting more women to leadership positions.
However, diversity cannot thrive in organisations where patriarchal and exclusivist attitudes control. It's not enough to increase the number of women in leadership; women must be empowered to voice their views, influence decisions, and drive real transformation.
Inclusive organisations value collaboration and the leverage that individual differences can contribute to their success.
Lessons from my employer
My employer, Mars, has a bold aspiration: to achieve gender equilibrium across all leadership tiers. Mars' journey to empowering women highlights the importance of interweaving women's voices into the fabric of workplaces transformed into diverse and empowering landscapes. This has sparked discussions at leadership level about the talent pipeline, policies, procedures, and our overarching development strategy.
Mars is pivoting its policies and focusing on cultural transformation to ensure diversity and inclusion permeate every facet of the organisation – from the factory floor to the boardroom.
The future is in our collective grasp
As a post-apartheid society, we have proved we can overcome a myriad challenges.
We have the power to create workplaces where every woman’s potential is celebrated and harnessed to contribute to the organisation’s success.
Organisations must be held accountable for their progress in achieving gender equity. They must advocate for policies that foster women's advancement and a culture of continuous professional development. This will empower more women to break the glass ceiling and create a legacy for the next generation.
But to achieve gender equity, we need a collective effort that gets organisations, government and every one of us working together. We must advocate for systemic change that will reshape the workplace so women’s strengths and triumphs are not merely celebrated once a year in August but integrated into our professional environment every day.
*Helen McDougall, General Manager, Mars Multisales Southern Africa and Co-Founder at NGO Women In Conversation.
**The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.