The process is far from over, says Kgomotso Ramoenyane, executive director for human resources at Business Partners Limited, and it is inevitable that tensions will arise as old-fashioned attitudes clash with an assertive generation of women taking their rightful place in the world of work and business.
It is a process that business owners should actively manage so as to minimise tension between men and women in their business, and maximise cooperation and harmony, says Kgomotso. She offers six tips for how business owners can do this:
Trying to keep your business gender exclusive is no solution to the problem. Apart from the fact that it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, your business is sure to fall behind those that cultivate diversity. The advantages of diversity inside a business has been extensively researched and proven. Companies with a diverse make-up are more innovative, grow faster, find it easier to retain market relevance and are ultimately more profitable. The tensions that arise in a diverse company are well worth the benefits. By actively working towards diversity, a business owner sets the tone in the company that helps to minimise the tensions.
Get rid of practices that make diversity difficult
Although it is changing, the burden of childcare still falls mainly on women, making it very difficult for working moms to attend early-morning and late-afternoon meetings that run too close to the time that children need to be picked up from day-care. Establishing a policy that meetings should be avoided at these times, as far as possible for the business, is easy to implement, without much cost to anyone except those who don’t like change.
Changing the venue of your Friday-afternoon social from a male-orientated sports bar to more gender neutral venue is another example of the many practices that are relatively easy to change to enhance gender harmony. Scan your business for these and invite suggestions from your staff members.
Check your pay structures
Make sure that the principle of equal pay for equal work applies in your business. Even if you have a general sense that it is, check the numbers carefully. It is easy for unconscious bias to create a gender pay gap, starting at the recruitment process.
Fight the assumptions of stereotypical lifestyles
The basis of much tension and resentment between genders in the workplace is the assumption by old-fashioned managers that men and women have certain predictable lifestyles. Men who want be involved in the raising of their children are therefore frowned upon when they request flexible hours for child duties. Women are assumed to be unreliable on the long term because sooner or later they will leave to have children. At worst this leads to them losing out on promotions and at best not being taken seriously as a permanent member of the team.
These assumptions can be subtle and deeply ingrained. It has taken generations to start the change, which is far from over.
Start with an examination of your own mindset, and raising awareness about it among your managers.
Fight the assumptions of stereotypical behaviour
Old biases such as the assumption that women are emotional and men are rational, women are care orientated and submissive and men action orientated and dominant often lead to misjudgements and the dismissal of workers’ complaints, suggestions and contributions as irrelevant, causing much frustration in the workplace.
In their own management style and approach, business owners can do a lot to raise awareness among their staff that men and women are capable of the whole range of behaviours and that pigeonholing colleagues and subordinates into gender stereotypes limits the potential of workers.
Take sexual harassment seriously
Although the global Me Too movement has done a lot to shine a light on the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, the voices of South African women in the workplace are still somewhat muted. It might be that some of your workers are suffering quietly the inappropriate actions of their colleagues.
An explicit policy on unacceptable forms of behaviour can help to clear up differences in expectations between different generations in your business.
Most importantly, take allegations of sexual harassment seriously. Don’t sweep it under the rug and hope that it will go away. Confront it by investigating and listening carefully, and taking firm action where necessary.
Keep the conversation flowing
Discussing gender issues and tensions need not be a heavy, threatening exercise? With a light touch, and a healthy dose of warmth and humour, it can form a regular part of company gatherings and meetings.