What’s it like being a woman in a predominantly male industry? Well, it’s a question that I’m posed often and the best way I can explain my experiences is by reflecting on my childhood. I have two brothers and we used to love to play ball in the backyard with our friends. My brothers served as captains of their respective teams, and I was always picked first or second. Years later I asked my brothers, why they picked me. The one chose me because I could catch a ball and the other because I was fast. Receiving an affirmation based on talent and ability made me realise the thanks I owe my brothers for teaching me a lesson that would serve me so well in my career.
Despite my positive experiences, I know that gender parity remains a thorn in the side of many corporates around the world – it’s not only a South African issue. Management boards are still under-represented and closing the gender gap is critical. No business in the world can succeed without hiring and promoting good employees, and when the numbers are one-sided, many talented women are unfortunately overlooked.
However, I must say that Jaguar Land Rover South Africa does buck this trend, more than half of our leadership team are women so we’re certainly leading the way in terms of gender parity from a representation perspective. There is admittedly still work to be done in terms of the independent retail side of the business and how these facilities are represented, and with this now forming part of my portfolio as Network Director, it is something that will certainly form part of my strategic focus moving forward. A challenge I look forward to addressing as a woman that approaches it with optimism but also much needed realism.
When asked if it’s possible for women to balance work and home lives I like to quote Michelle Obama. She says, “That whole 'so you can have it all.' Nope, not at the same time. That's a lie.”
Instead of pondering that question we should be asking, “can we do it all?” And again, the answer is no. We constantly make choices between work, family, making time for others and making time for ourselves. We have to make adjustments, compromises and sacrifices.
Decide what matters and what doesn’t. Only be a perfectionist in what matters. Done is better than perfect. To this extent, my heart goes out to all the small business owners, the single moms trying to make ends meet in what has been a devastating period globally. Managing a work–life–home school environment has no doubt been incredibly hard for so many women around the world. And, as is often the case, it’s marginalised and under-resourced women who are affected most during times of economic hardship.
To be fair, I think that many of the traits that make for successful leaders are not gender specific. Authenticity, the ability to build trusting and empowering relationships with your teams, honesty and agility – these are all universal. However, I think that empathy is something that comes more naturally to female leaders. My advice to women is to never lose this characteristic. A genuine care and compassion for those around you, whilst still being resilient and driven, is a formidable recipe for success.
In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, view your career as a jungle gym and not a ladder. Strive to move higher but don’t stress too much about the route you take. There are many ways to get to your destination. Always push yourself to learn as much as you possibly can and never settle for the status quo. Turning my passion into knowledge has helped me gain the respect of my peers and leaders.
As you develop in your career, never forget to build a strong personal brand based upon integrity, passion and a ferocious desire to serve others. This will allow you to go further in your company. Never let fear prevent you from taking calculated risks, and don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is an inevitable part of success, from which we learn.
I have always found that respectable people are listened to, regardless of their gender and age. People value authenticity, strategic thinking, and expertise. So, showcase your knowledge and don't be afraid to speak out.
There are times when that impostor syndrome kicks in – do I really belong here? Will they listen to me? Does my voice really matter? But it would be unfair to assume this is a gender-specific topic. I’ve worked in the automotive industry for over 20 years and key to my success has been to always understand, analyse and then act. Surrounding myself with the right people, building trust and taking measured, considered steps forward has worked well for me.
“Knowledge is power in a male-dominated field. As Director, I present the advantages of the welding field to prospective students. Knowing so much about such a male-dominated field makes me feel empowered, and making students eager to learn makes my job all the more satisfying.” – Crystal Quinter, Campus Director at Southern Industrial Career Center (SICC).
Find a group of strong women, even if they are in other departments, who can support you. Keep your eye on role models. Being a woman in a male-dominated field can be lonely. Find peers who understand what you’re going through. It can be women in your life who inspire you, or it could be well-known women with wisdom to share through podcasts, TED talks, etc.
I think at this point it is also very important for me to acknowledge that women aren’t your only ally opportunities on your path to career success. I can confidently say that there are many men whose influence, advice and mentorship should not be discounted or forgotten.
For those considering my words from a less personal and more corporate perspective, organisational change is paramount to achieving a more gender equitable environment for your employees. By putting best practices in place and by being deliberate in hiring and promotions, you will start to see the change required take root. Using diversity targets, as an example. It’s difficult to reach a goal that you have not set. Assemble a diverse slate of qualified candidates for every open position and train evaluators to be unbiased. Establish clear and specific criteria before employee reviews so it is less likely that reviewers will make decisions based on subjective feelings.
Efforts to hire more women or other underrepresented groups are sometimes seen as benefiting them at the expense of others. If done correctly, however, diversity isn’t about ‘cheating the system’ so a new group gets an unfair advantage while others are penalised. When a workplace is fair, everyone knows that if they perform well they’ll be recognised for it. If employees compete for a promotion, it should be done with no bias. If companies make this their focus, employees will trust that their workplaces are fair and opportunities are equal. The gender gap will naturally narrow, and hopefully even close completely.
When you take bias out of the equation, it’s not just women that will finally get an equal chance. Everyone will.
Regardless of where you currently find yourself in your career, always remember to remain true to yourself and to do your very best to put your foot down when required. Companies will never stop making demands on your time. It’s up to you to decide what you are willing to do. How many hours are you willing to work in a day? How many nights are you willing to travel? The best way to make room for both life and career is to make choices deliberately. Set limits and stick to them.
Larry Kanarek, who managed the Washington D.C office of McKinsey & Company noticed that employees who came to him when they wanted to resign had one reason only – they were burnt out and tired of working long hours, but all of them had unused leave. Larry implored his staff to exert more control over their careers. Just as I am imploring you to approach your career life with optimism and realism. It’s okay to not always be everything to everyone. Don’t put that unnecessary pressure on yourself and when in doubt, remember my personal motto “I will what I want.” It will help give you that strength when another glass ceiling needs shattering.