Black Women Can Shift the Status Quo in the Workplace

Some years ago, when I was a young commodity trader, I visited Korea for the first time. It was my first business trip and I was infatuated with the excitement of it all. In order to fully prepare, I researched the local culture, food and made sure that from a business perspective, that I was fully equipped for any negotiation.

Day one went better than I expected, and it was clear that the customer was keen not only to continue to purchase the product that I was selling, but also wanted to increase their offtake. It remained for us to finalise the price of the next shipment and to discuss the next quarter requirements. We agreed to do so over dinner, which was arranged by him.

That was where it all went wrong. My customer had arranged for a woman to assist in serving me dinner. She was young, beautiful and spoke no English. It became clear that she had been reserved for an evening that extended way beyond the meal and that the expectation was for her to accompany me back to my hotel.

I contemplated my response to this and decided that honesty was the best policy. And so, I explained that although I was grateful for the gesture, I was married, which meant that I would not be taking her back to my hotel as this was not in line with my value system.

He was deeply offended. I had rejected “Korean hospitality”, he told me and that was a mortal insult to him.
As a result, I went back to my hotel room alone and he never did business with me again.

I have often considered how I would have dealt with the same set of circumstances if it happened again later in my career. Although I like to believe that I would still not have acted outside the confines of my marriage or moral code, perhaps I would simply thanked him, gone back to the hotel with the young woman and parted ways in the lobby. No one would have been the wiser and business could have continued and expanded. But I am not certain.

My Korean experience is an extreme example of an issue faced every day in the corporate world. How far does one need to go in order to “fit in” and succeed? How much of our own morals do we need to sacrifice in order to achieve our goals?

This question, although relevant to every person in business, is particularly vexing for women. And more specifically, black women who have historically been excluded from corporates. A significant challenge for many women is how to deal with a male dominated (often white) corporate that might not even be aware of the subtle prejudices that exist within the boardroom.

A recent series of workshops that I ran on the “Power of Perception” highlighted some concerns and dilemmas. One particular workshop was very interesting. The relatively small team was a heart-warming example of diversity and it was clear that the respect and concern for each other was genuine and authentic. This meant that we could engage in real and productive dialogue.

It was whilst we were unpacking the significance of the “handshake” that one of the participants raised a concern. “As a black woman, I find it difficult to look someone in the eye. Particularly a man. In my culture, it is not the done thing.” This is significant as we often assume that eye contact avoidance is a sign of something negative. “What am I meant to do?” she asked.

The dilemma is a real one. To advise her to stand by her culture might be the politically correct and sensitive thing to do. But it would do her no favours in the board room. “If it doesn’t cross the line of unacceptability for you, then leave it at the door,” was my reply.

Whereas I don’t want to disrespect her value system, and I accept how unacceptable my answer might be, the reality is that there is a corporate dynamic and there are corporate rules. My reasoning was that in her role she is expected to deal with companies around the world, not only South Africa. So even if we decided that our goal is to change the South African corporate environment, we certainly could not take on the world.

One can choose to play the game by their own rules, but it will be more difficult to succeed.

Black women in South African corporates have it tough. The double whammy of misogyny and racism (both probably more covert than overt) often places them in a more difficult position. A recent study by Harvard has shown that in general corporate political rules are determined by white males, disadvantaging anyone else. This means that for black women to succeed, they need to be prepared to modify how they interact and play by the rules set by others.

I believe that instead of viewing this as a disadvantage, black women in corporate South Africa can use this knowledge to their advantage. They need to be conscious of the ongoing dynamics and nuances that the environment places them in –  a position of power over those who are unaware that these issues are even a factor.

The power is immense. With a real understanding what the lines are that cannot be crossed, black women have the ability to shift the status quo, add value to the corporate and to pave the way for the others. As absurd as it sounds and as unacceptable as it might be in 2018, black women in corporate South Africa are pioneers in the corporate world.

Without the skills to be able to deal with the prejudice, however, they will continue to face subtle and overt disadvantage that will not only hamper ambition, but will also limit their workplace value-add.

Lines need to be drawn and a conscious decision needs to be made as to what each person is prepared to compromise in order to succeed. It is not a simple exercise. I know that I might have lost the business in Korea but I remained true to who I am as a person. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I just wish I understood what I was facing before boarding my flight.

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