In her New York Times bestselling autobiography 'Becoming', Michelle Obama shares intimate insights into her struggles of navigating corporate spaces that were not designed for her during her tertiary education, legal career and, ultimately, the White House.
She reminisces about the many times in her life when she had found herself to be the "only woman of colour—or even the only woman, period—sitting at a conference."
Balancing professional expectations
Michelle Obama rose above those struggles to complete a remarkable tenure as the First Lady of the White House and later went on to author a bestselling book. At the time, however, she endured constant criticism whilst occupying her role as FLOTUS. The criticisms she received covered a wide array of topics including everything from her appearance and clothing to her choice of "soothingly domestic causes" which were inappropriate for an "Ivy-educated, blue-chip law firm-trained first lady".
Her struggle is not a unique one. It is one experienced by South African women entering corporate spaces throughout their professional lives. At some point, we have all been thrust upon the tight rope of balancing professional expectations: to be seen as being confident but not arrogant, intelligent but not a know-it-all and to hold views but not be opinionated about them. The sword cuts both ways and, whilst softness is expected in certain situations, women are often labelled as too fragile to succeed in roles, such as a litigation lawyer or a judge, that are seen to require assertiveness and strength. And so, as women, we embark on an internal journey of trying to rationalize senseless and contradictory stereotypes.
Corporate professional spaces in South Africa, into which women have only fairly recently entered, are quick to label youthful female entrants with terms that enforce the expectation of conformity to existing structures and, simultaneously, subdue non-conformist aspects of their personality. Women are almost always expected to be softer and more emotional and any digression from the expectation is swiftly assigned to the territory of aggressive, dominating or stubborn.
Attracting a certain label
Labels are used for many reasons. At times, to advance, promote or prioritize the interests of certain groups and, conversely, to hinder or impede the interests of others. As acclaimed copywriter Ryan Healy opines, "Labels are powerful. Everything you think you know about a group of people is summed up in the label you apply to them — even if your assumptions are incorrect or you don’t fully understand their position. For this reason, labels are also powerfully divisive. They perpetuate misunderstanding and an unwillingness to associate with “outside” groups who think differently than you do." Simply put, labels are not reflective of an inclusive culture and serve only to further relegate individuals to the realm of "other".
Attracting a certain label, within in the workplace, often leaves women disillusioned by the perception that their peers may have about them. By grappling with these labels and attempting to conform to corporate structures, women invariably leave pieces of themselves behind, becoming apologetic for who they are and losing their voice in the process. Yet these structures repeatedly fail to convey one critical truth to their female employees: We value your thoughts and your voice should be heard.
Our own unique imprint and brand
During my lifetime, I have had the privilege of being mentored by several exceptional women, each possessing their own unique and wonderful characteristics. Some were nurturing, whilst others were feisty or even somewhat intimidating, however, each was a fearless woman in her own right. Over the years, my interactions with them has taught me that there is no single recipe for a successful woman. Instead she embodies varying forms. Whilst each of these women are pioneers in their respective areas of expertise, they all had one thing in common: Excellence. As Oprah Winfrey eloquently stated, "I was raised to believe that excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism. And that's how I operate my life."
In my view, there is no existing mould in corporate professional spaces into which woman can neatly fit. The richness of our diversity automatically prevents this. Trying to do so, is as pointless as trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Instead, it is for us to create our own unique imprint and brand by shifting existing culture to new and more inclusive paradigms.
Creating a differing narrative from the one projected onto you, in the environment in which you find yourself, is no easy task. It often requires your silence. Sometimes, it will require your roar. Personally, I am comforted by the hope that, at the very least, it will create a future with a few more familiar faces at the table for the generation of fearless women to come.
Associate in the Corporate Investigations Sector of the Dispute Resolution Practice Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr (CDH)