I haven’t had an office job in over a year. Sometimes I miss it. The routine. The structure. The watercooler chats. Other times, I think about how grateful I am to not have to deal with other people’s emotions and behaviours, and not having to tiptoe so much around the issue of humility.
As an independent worker, I don’t have to be humble. I am the one being looked at for answers. I am the one who is likely to be speaking. But it wasn’t always like this.
In the office environment, I often found myself subscribing to the cultural teaching of not speaking unless I am spoken to. And dare I talk back, well, ‘Rest In Peace, Ayanda.’ (But would I really die? Would I be fired?)
Does this cultural teaching have a place in a professional environment? Was I, and so many other black women, sabotaging my progression up the ladder and through the rat race?
There’s also a tendency to put your foot in it and start offering things you shouldn’t and then, suddenly, adding to your workload. So why would only speaking when a question is posed be such a bad idea? I mean, let the work speak for itself, right?
Sometimes. Sometimes you just have to make yourself and your brand within the work environment visible in order for anyone to actually care about asking anything of you to begin with.
Waiting to be spoken to becomes incredibly complicated in an environment where competition between colleagues is rife, and if you don’t speak, someone else will do it and take all the credit. The presentation or output you have worked so hard on will be credited to someone else. The horror.
It doesn’t help that we could express a great idea in a meeting and have it ignored. But then have someone else say the exact same thing and it be lauded as the greatest idea that mankind has ever come up with. How do we reconcile with such situations? How do we become visible?
I guess it boils down to the old ideas that women are meant to be submissive. However, in addition to being subjected to “patriarchal African cultures,” in 2015’s The Colour of Our Future, Joel Netshitenzhe states that black women are “disadvantaged and marginalised in class terms, [as well as] in terms of being black in a racialised society that privileges the white minority.” This is what he calls a “triple oppression.”
It’s like running in a maze and getting to all dead ends. You are in a space where you are the most disadvantaged. You are the most needed (read as needing to work the hardest), but the most voiceless.
UCT Vice Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng further says that, “since black African women are almost entirely invisible, the possibilities of becoming, and then being, visible are an enormous challenge”. And that can be compounded by the ideals and norms of culture. (It doesn’t help that I’m introverted.)
With this in mind, shouldn’t we just be throwing away these cultural values and principles in a professional setting and play strictly by the corporate rulebook? Take credit where it’s not due or insert our opinions in the middle of presentations. It seems to work for other people. Or it could backfire on us, as this is not what is expected of us. We’ll be seen as aggressive, disruptive or surly.
We can’t win. But we came to win. So, we will.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Society has woken up to the importance of having representation in the boardroom and in leadership. As slow as the progression might be, we have had some exceptional women at the helm who are seen as neither aggressive or disrespectful of any inherent cultural beliefs and teachings, such as Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa of Naspers or Priscillah Mabelane of BP Southern Africa.
I have had to find ways to be visible and assertive while keeping within the values, and it could be as simple as not interrupting speakers in the middle of their presentation. That example might purely be a thing of politeness and common courtesy, but it happens so often in meetings and the interrupter comes across as someone who knows what they’re talking about.
Although I have the advantage of working as an independent consultant, to no longer have to deal with so many things that could compromise my identity and cultural beliefs among managers and colleagues. I’m not saying that you have to go out on your own in order to have a voice, I’m saying that it helped me.
If there’s one thing you can take away from this, you need to be absolutely unapologetic about getting what’s yours by not compromising your cultural beliefs and values.
Ayanda Moholi is a freelance digital marketing and technology consultant, having over 8 years of experience in the digital industry. She’s worked on brands such as Nedbank, Woolworths, Nestle and JSE. She recently graduated from UCT’s Graduate Business School with a Postgraduate Diploma in Management. She enjoys reading, listening to podcasts and playing Lego Marvel video games.