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 Women in business

 

 In the fight for equality we must take care, that once achieved, it does not become a prejudiced drive for dominance, and a warping of the truth. Herein is the challenge for woman in business.

Looking at history and the emancipation of women, which started around 1750, we can appreciate that we have come a long way. The question is have we come far enough? Of course, in debating the matter, women and men will almost always be divided on the issue. Women will say ‘no’ and most men will say ‘yes’. So, who is right? Generally speaking, in most countries, but not all, women’s suffrage, in the broader sense, has been accepted and achieved, but to varying degrees. Sadly, in some countries women are still regarded as chattel, and, as a result, are treated with disrespect – being the perceived lesser person, a possession, rather than an equally capable individual, or partner. South Africa is no exception, despite its much lauded constitution.

Where did it all begin? Quite simply with a misinterpretation of the Book of Genesis, and other writings, which, when read correctly, does not speak of men being more equal than women but rather each being a part of one, a greater entity, and therefore equal, but serving different (biological) purposes. Nowhere does it speak of women being intellectually less capable than men.

In the West, where the emancipation of women started, it all began with education becoming more available to women in general. From this, one could well coin the phrase “liberation through education”, which is certainly backed up by Abraham Maslow’s hypothesis, a Hierarchy of Needs, a theory in psychology as explored by him in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation.

Today, in looking at women who have ‘made it’ in public life, in business and in the sciences, amongst other vocations, we can see that women are clearly on a par with their male counterparts – depending of course on their capabilities as determined by their social development, education and experience, and what it is they are doing. Some women will be more capable than other women, and some men, but not in all aspects of life – obviously. As Albert Einstein said, “Everything is relative.”

At this juncture we need to bring in the issue of cognitive bias, something that affects women and men. It is an aspect of behaviour driven by distortions in the human mind, which are difficult to eliminate, that are influenced by evolution and natural selection pressure. Such distortions affect the mind’s ability to make balanced judgements. It is also the source of unnecessary conflict, especially when coupled with an inability to communicate correctly, and effectively. It can lead to actual and perceived discrimination against members of the opposite sex.

To illustrate this point I refer to one woman’s perspective. Remaining nameless, because I am critiquing what she has written, and she will probably be angry with me as I have hijacked her piece, she is nonetheless a very capable business woman as well as a very likable person who, in her enthusiasm to assist me, made the common mistake of allowing cognitive bias to creep into her communication. I do apologise for the hijacking but it serves the point of my article well. And, to be fair, stripping away the cognitive bias, I must agree with and support what she has said.

My lady responded to a question about women in business as follows:

“I believe that today, women’s opinions are valued far more than twenty to thirty years ago. Women are more innovative in business. They also tend to think more out the box.

However often women don’t take advantage of opportunities due to a lack of experience/knowledge. Today there are many women that are very successful in business without sacrificing their families and other non business responsibilities.

Women are creative, compassionate and are more open to reason when you explain a situation and the pitfalls that could possibly influence their business venture. They are therefore not as risky in their decisions. That can sometimes also be a disadvantage but more so it is to their benefit. Many platforms have now been created for women to be on the forefront, to speak their mind and to put their own business skills to practice. Women also continue to stay involved in other community activities and are not solely focussed on their business activities. Women seems to have unbelievable strength when it comes to keeping things together should they fall apart and that is normally the case in their personal life’s and the business environment. They bring great qualities such as leadership, compassion and modesty to the business environment.

If anything women should show more confidence and believe more in themselves as once they crossed that hurdle the world will be their oyster as women have all the qualities to really make a difference and be highly successful at it. In my years as an Investment Manager the one thing that has really stood out for me is that women are in general not arrogant and I have seen many times how arrogance has been the downfall of successful people. It is more important to achieve their goals than to win. To me those are two different objectives and winning does not necessary mean you achieved what you set out to achieve. It is Business Partners objective to give as many women as possible the opportunity to achieve their goals and to excel l in business by providing finance and guidance.

Women need to take control of their lives and the decisions they make. The days that women could rely on men only to be the provider are over. Learn to negotiate cleverly and don’t give in too easily. Develop their business skills and gain as much as possible experience. Women tend to take the backseat even when they are not at fault. This must change, stay strong, and believe in what you do and this will take women to the next level. All the attributes are there; it is just a matter of developing them and put it to practice.”

My criticisms, of some aspects of this piece, are the sweeping generalisations, which, being exclusive, say that all of one and none of the other can do X, with the same ability or to a particular standard. This of course is not true e.g. women are more innovative in business or they also tend to think more out the box. Ask your atypical man and he will say the same thing about men. Such cognitive biases are nothing less than the pot calling the kettle black. With a woman expressing this view, all that has happened is the pendulum has swung from the one extreme to the other. Men and women, besides their biological differences, are equal. We need to establish this principle, and observe it, at all times. Otherwise it is simply going to be a merry-go-round diminishing the effectiveness of what we do, the degree to which we succeed and the potential of what we could still achieve.

In the business world, particularly in South Africa, given our non-racial, non-sexist and non-discriminatory constitution, to allow cognitive bias to influence and/or diminish the effectiveness of one’s contribution, interaction and communication with others is tantamount to doing oneself a huge disservice. It’s time to think and act. It is time for ‘women to take control of their lives and the decisions they make’, disallowing extremist, prejudiced views to ultimately limit what they can achieve.

As managers and business leaders, women are just as good, or as bad, as men. And, as my lady says, women have all the attributes. They just need to develop those attributes and put them into practice – to become the CEO or the President.

Simply put, there are NO LIMITS to what women can achieve.

Thought for the day: In responding to a given situation, a good manager will lead from behind just as effectively as leading from the front. The wisdom of it all is knowing when and how to lead.

Written by Tony Stone

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