OPINION | My experience working at a company with 92% black women

I knew I was lucky when I walked into the office everyday, writes Mamaputle Boikanyo

07 September 2018 - 11:39
By Mamaputle Boikanyo

The longest held and most outdated stereotypes of women working in the corporate environment is that they often only fill secretarial positions. In terms of their behaviour, they are believed to be super hormonal, illogical and too emotional to make serious decisions in the workplace. Worst of all, is the myth that women that work together women bicker, bring each down and create an environment full of jealousy and drama.

According to Stats SA, black women experience the highest unemployment in the country at 34%. However, black women still exist in the corporate world.

I discovered such women when I began working at Digify Africa, a company made up of 92%  black women who are helping young, black and disadvantaged people upskill their careers through social media and digital training.

I had done my research on the company before working there as a junior digital content producer and writer for Live Mag, one of the platforms that Digify uses to stay in touch with their young audience. I looked online, read up on all the work that they were doing in digital and tech and even though I saw the pictures of the mostly female staff on the website, I had been socialised to envisage that it would mostly be males that worked in an environment where it was all things tech, science or digital.

I still assumed that I’d be working in an office full of men, from the old bunch dressed in expensive suits making corporate decisions to the young hipster guys who mansplain everything and act like tech experts in their dirty jeans and oversized headphones.

What I discovered was quite different. When I arrived at the company’s old offices in Braamfontein’s Juta street, I didn’t think that I’d find that all the women who were responsible for the majority of this work would largely be black women. The women in this company were preparing young people for an economy that’s quickly becoming dominated by digital. In a country where there are more women than men, and where only 44% of those women fill skilled positions in the workplace, this  was groundbreaking to me.

The women in this company were preparing young people for an economy that’s quickly becoming dominated by digital

Unlike many of the women here at the office, this is my first job out of varsity and I don’t have anything else to compare it to. I knew I was lucky when I walked into the office everyday and I didn’t have to feel like the token black person/woman who’s there to tick the BEE demographic box. I feel like I’m part of a company where the black women are all indispensable.

They all play a huge role when it comes to contributing to the company’s successes and victories and to have people like this to look up to has been a great help for my own self-esteem and confidence. It’s like how people feel about the Black Panther film, except it’s not in the dream land of Wakanda, but rather, right here in Melville’s 4th avenue.

I remember when a number of us were sitting in on our weekly boardroom meetings. Luleka Mossie, one of our project managers at the company who’s currently in the process of running an internet safety campaign that helps young teens navigate the exciting and also scary world of online, captured this really cool moment on her phone.

We were doing nothing out of the ordinary, but she whipped out her phone for an Instagram post because it became apparent to all of us that that very image of us in the boardroom was a subversion of the historical image of what a typical corporate (and digital) company looks like. An entire room full of women were talking about what they had been doing throughout the past week, and the kinds of challenges they were experiencing in aiming to bridge the digital divide that excludes young disadvantaged kids from various opportunities. The moment sent chills down my back.

I had spent much of my time in varsity worried about being a creative writer in a cold and corporate environment, but I had found myself in a place that stood against much of what I feared about corporate. I was watching women build themselves up, respect one another and contribute to the growth of a community of young people.

I get to see my colleagues being vulnerable in expressing their challenges watch how other fellow co-workers are always on top of helping their colleagues without trying to dominate, overtake or bring down them down. I get to see this kind of support on a weekly basis, so when I hear stuff about women being difficult to work with and women being always being jealous and catty, I can tell people first hand that it’s complete nonsense.

On the other hand, the team has enough drama and emotion to distribute around the Melville area. There’s probably always at least one person who’s feeling a bit down, or super sensitive for one day and doesn’t feel like talking to anyone or someone who’s yelling at  someone else from the other side of the office.

But, whether that’s someone being hormonal or someone who’s going through the most in their personal life, the women at Digify get each other. You’ll always have at least someone you can talk to and sometimes you even get encouraged other to let off some steam and talk about whatever you’re going through in our boardroom meetings.

My co-worker Terry Simelane-Mathabathe once mentioned how there’s never any pressure to prove yourself, suppress your emotions or to do things like “dress appropriately”. This rings true for me as well because I’m often always uncomfortable and awkward around men. I don’t have to concern myself with whether or not someone is looking at my ass as I walk away, I don’t have to worry about how to handle a guy hitting on me while I'm trying to be productive and I don’t have to witness the sexist behaviour and the chats that some of my co-workers have been privy to in their past jobs. I often feel like it’s a safe space to be in.

Unfortunately, people of colour and women have largely been made invisible in the economic sphere. While the increasing pace of urbanisation in the early twentieth century brought many black women from the rural areas into the city, their gender and their race limited their position in the mainstream economy of the country throughout the century. Black women were mostly left to take on more subservient roles, where they worked as domestic servants or caretakers in the suburbs and the cities.

As a junior employee who’s only just starting out at this whole adulting life where I have to learn to wake up earlier than usual and pay for stuff, I certainly feel very fortunate that I get to be in this kind of space. There’s a sense of freedom and feeling of acceptance that I get here that I sometimes take for granted. When you’re surrounded by women who are just like you and who are doing great things for themselves and their communities, you’re inspired to do more. I don’t think I could get that in other working environments.

There’s a sense of freedom and feeling of acceptance that I get here that I sometimes take for granted

I’m a witness to the that quote by Kofi Annan about how “the empowerment of women is the most effective tool for development” and I couldn’t be more grateful. In the past 7 years, Digify Africa has trained over 85 000 young people and managed to kickstart digital marketing careers for over 200 people

I'm totally aware of the reality that I if ever leave Digify Africa, I might have to prepare myself for a workplace that's totally different from what I've been exposed to here. For now though, I'm taking in and enjoying my experience here. It’s not everyday that you find yourself in a space where the majority of the people that are in power are black women. Because I know the kind of power that the women in this office demand, if I ever leave, I know what kind of power I can demand if I want to and no one can tell me or show me otherwise.

- Mamaputle Boikanyo is a Rhodes University alumni with a BA in Anthropology and BA Honours in English Literature. She  currently work as a writer for Live Magazine SA and a digital content producer for Digify Africa. Her  interests and passions are centred on fiction and writing. She is currently working on an anthology of short stories.

- This article was originally published on W24