The biggest mistake professional women make in business is trying to act like men. I am a businesswoman who believes that success doesn’t show up at work wearing a suit and tie. So, my first point is that the key to success at work doesn’t depend on gender. That said, there are still challenges that women face in the corporate sector that many of our male colleagues don’t. The key to success in business today for women is having a good network, courage and a good support base. For a man, often the support base is a woman and so the professional woman needs to develop a wider support base – friends, family and other colleagues as well as a partner, if one is around.
Recruitment in South Africa today is focused on employment equity appointments with a bias towards women so the opportunities for women in business have never been greater but – be prepared – just because you are the flavour of the month for the recruiters doesn’t always mean that the corporate environment welcomes you with open arms. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, wrote the book ‘Lean In’ in response to the ways women are held back – and the way we hold ourselves back. Hillary Rodham Clinton says that ‘women are the most underused resource’. These are strong words from incredibly strong female business icons and I think we need to look inwards as well as outwards. Whether we like it or not, at this point in history we are still fighting for equality in the workplace, so my philosophy is to learn from our male counterparts; they have some good skills. Since the philosophy is seldom returned, we can only enrich ourselves at their expense.
As professional women in corporate South Africa, we must understand the businesses that we are in and learn to speak business ‘lingo’. Whether we run our own businesses or work in the corporate sector, if we don’t understand the finances and the business strategy we are not in the game.
Especially when starting out in business and perhaps coming from a culture of male domination which many of us do, this is a disadvantage. The big thing, though, is what we do if we realise that we are at a disadvantage. My experience has been to continuously learn – I recently completed the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women [proper name] which taught me such a lot about aspects of business that I had not previously been exposed to. I continually learn from both men and women, people who inspire me to become a better person. Of course, I also leverage my natural feminine talents of good communication skills (particularly in listening, time management and emotional intelligence). I continuously scan to detect whether I can learn and improve from my experiences – I guess this is acknowledging my weak points and knowing what I can and cannot do well and then doing something about it. It’s like a system where, as a professional woman, you need to be continuously learning and also doing something else that woman do particularly well – continuously sharing.
Networking is an incredibly important skill but let’s not forget about mentoring. A cycle of being mentored and mentoring someone else is key to growing – both ourselves and our younger sisters who are just embarking on some of the journeys that we have travelled. Sheryl Sandberg talks about ‘leaning in’ and having courage and being willing to stand up and be counted – having the determination to succeed. One of my favourite quotes is from Nelson Mandela ‘when you are determined, you can overcome anything’.
I would add onto that to say that with self assurance and self belief you can achieve success beyond your wildest dreams and I know what I am talking about as my career has spanned plucking chickens to make ends meet as a single mother in a township when success didn’t look likely to today owning my own business and creating employment for others.
I am known by many as Mama Kate – and I am proud of this as it transcends both my private and professional life – as an African woman I live my life according to the principles of ubuntu and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world right now, doing what I am doing and claiming my place with my sisters as a successful, professional businesswoman.
Kate Dikgale Freeman
082 879 3570
Years of experience: