Public sector must groom young women leaders

The world is moving in a direction where the preferred leadership traits are those associated with women

01 September 2020 - 16:23 By Nonceba Mhlauli
The writer says South Africans must intensify the struggle against the continued oppression of women in society.
The writer says South Africans must intensify the struggle against the continued oppression of women in society.
Image: Thuli Dlamini

As we end women’s month in South Africa, most, if not all, of our engagements occurred over virtual platforms due to the novel coronavirus which has taken the world by storm.

Over the past month we have celebrated the contributions of the phenomenal women who not only fought in the struggle against the apartheid but continue to build a SA that will be united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous. Women whose contributions to the democratic ideals of equality have created opportunities where young women can freely and equally participate.

The month of August is also a time in which we witnessed the most gruesome and frightening stories against the bodies of women. We heard about the brutal killing of 20-year-old Kwasa Zozo, allegedly murdered by her ex-boyfriend for wanting to leave him. We also remembered the brutal rape and murder of 19-year-old Uyinene Mrwetyana at a branch of the SA Post Office in August 2019.

The reality of the South African condition is that as we celebrate the emancipation of women, the brutality against our existence intensifies. Dialectics teaches us that when hegemonic power becomes threatened, its force against resistance becomes even greater. Hence we must now, more than ever, intensify our struggle against the continued oppression of women in society.

It is now about nine months since the detection of the novel coronavirus, and scientists around the world are still battling to develop a vaccine.

Crafting a new society

At a global level, our understanding and acceptance of this virus has differed. We have seen some governments refusing to acknowledge the existence of the virus at its initial stages, adopting a form of denialism, while others have used the pandemic as an opportunity to craft a new society.

I want to argue that like the novel coronavirus which has taken the world by storm, SA has in the past few years experienced a novel generation of vibrant and militant young women who have claimed their space in society and have positioned themselves as leaders of today. This novel generation has been the most engaged in public discourse about their future, and the most daring and fearless in leading popular struggles on the ground. From student politics to contesting space in all spheres of society, we are witnessing a SA in which young women have decided to liberate themselves, and are doing so daily.

Within the youth cohort, more young women participated in the 2019 national and provincial government elections compared to young men. Young women also constitute a greater student population in the higher education sector with a better educational outcome. These are two examples that demonstrate we are a generation who have exploited the gains of our democratic system for the further emancipation of young women.

The question therefore arises: If we are this generation of current young leaders, why is it that we are not affirmed within society as leaders of today? Why is it that within the public sector, for example, only three out of the nine provinces are led by women as the administrative heads of provinces? At the level of national government, only five out of the more than 40 director-generals (DGs) are women.

'Back office' for women

Within the public administration itself, while women constitute 43% of senior management level, the categories of work are largely in human resources and corporate services, which eventually traps them in the “back office.”  Because executive posts such as DG and deputy DG often require technical knowledge of the sector for which the department is responsible, this  leads to men who are already specialists ending up as DGs, hence the current demographics we see at a national level.

At the level of the state, if we are to accept gender mainstreaming as a strategy to achieve equality between women and men in society, we must fix the pipeline of leadership within the public administration. This means we must ensure that government implements employment equity across all levels, starting from internship right until senior management level.

We need deliberate executive leadership programmes that put women on progressive career paths that affirm their leadership capabilities. These will make career advancement deliberate, and not coincidental as we are currently experiencing.

For example, bursaries for executive programmes should be biased towards women so we move out of being back room managers and become sector experts – which later clears the path for us to become DGs, municipal managers and CEOs in the public sector and beyond. Without addressing the skewed trajectory of the current makeup of the public sector pipeline, we will see a recurrence of the current demographics of top level management within the public sector.

Gender equality

At the level of the executive, while we appreciate that for the first time in SA’s history, women now make up half our national ministers, none of them are below the age of 40, even though there exists no lack of talent among young women within the political sphere. Therefore, leaders who project themselves as committed to the cause of gender equality must demonstrate that through affirming the existing cohort of young women who are leaders in their own right within the political sphere.

The reality of the matter is that the world is moving in a direction where the preferred leadership traits are those associated with women. Covid-19 has presented us with a unique opportunity to craft a new society, a society wherein we will be deliberate in the affirmation of young women as leaders in our quest for transformation.

In 2020, there is no excuse for the current gender demographics we witness in leadership positions within the state. A capable developmental state must be one which affirms young women as leaders of today. If the powers-that-be do not want to do that, it will be done in any case, as we have witnessed in the recent years through popular struggles.

Mhlauli is spokesperson for the Ministry in the Presidency and writes in her personal capacity.