This year, International Women’s Day was celebrated under the theme #BreakTheBias. This theme called on everyone to “Imagine a gender-equal world. A world is free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated.”
Indeed, bias has no place in the workplace or beyond it. Old Mutual believes that gender parity is not just good for women, but for humanity because, as Michelle Obama notes, “No country can ever flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contribution of half its citizens.”
Old Mutual has long been a proponent of gender equality and women’s empowerment in the workplace and beyond. Through initiatives such as the long-running Old Mutual Women’s Summit, the Old Mutual Women’s Network, and several other women-cantered programmes across the Group’s 13-country Africa footprint, Old Mutual proactively seeks to empower women in the workplace, to recognise their achievements, and to engage in a way that promotes growth, safe spaces and provides inspiration.
A recent initiative created to spur gender equality in and beyond the Group, is the Women’s Summit Fireside Chats, a platform that engages with and gains insights from Africa’s female literary minds. Launched in September 2021 with renowned journalist and activist Gwen Lister as its inaugural speaker, the Fireside Chats ignite stimulating conversations on women-authored African literature and engage in the subject matter in a way that inspires excellence, learning and personal development.
Old Mutual recognizes the importance of “a world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination,” in line with the #BreakTheBias theme. It is based on this recognition that during Old Mutual’s second biannual Fireside Chat, held on 25 February 2022 and facilitated by Old Mutual Namibia Brand Manager Mauriza Fredericks, the conversation went beyond addressing gender biases, to engage on issues of age, race, economic status and more, under the theme “Navigating the Corporate World as an African Millennial Woman”.
Featuring Lindelwa Skenjana, author of the book “The Black Girl’s Guide to Corporate South Africa,” the Fireside Chat explored the need to address all types of biases head-on from the onset. Skenjana boldly states that “The intersectionality of being black, female and young immediately lends itself to biases to which black men and white women and men, do not relate.” She goes on to quote one of the book’s contributors in highlighting race and gender dynamics, stating that “Black men benefit from racial diversity, while white women benefit from gender diversity. The whole world is patting itself on the back for ‘progress,’ and no one is realizing that there is someone not in the room: black women.” In these two statements alone, Skenjana raises the complexities at play both in the workplace and in society at large across various dimensions that generate different levels of bias. She does this in a way that places young black women – specifically millennials – at the center of the conversation, as they navigate workplaces in which the biases that they experience can either uplift them or be detrimental to their humanity and wellbeing.
This placement at the center was particularly important, given the workplace leadership shifts taking place from Generation X to Generation Y (Millennials), and the conflict that may arise not only with respect to age but across the other intersectionalities noted.
Through the statements highlighted above, and throughout the book itself, Skenjana also begins to dig into the topic of unconscious bias. As a definition, “Unconscious bias (or implicit bias) is often defined as prejudice or unsupported judgments in favour of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair. Many researchers suggest that unconscious bias occurs automatically as the brain makes quick judgments based on past experience and background. Because of unconscious biases, certain people benefit, and other people are penalized. In contrast, deliberate prejudices are defined as conscious bias (or explicit bias). Although we all have biases, many unconscious biases tend to be exhibited toward minority groups based on factors such as class, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, religious beliefs, age, disability and more.”
Skenjana’s Guide beautifully handles the intersectionalities of race, gender, age, culture, economic background, and so forth, that exist for young African women in the corporate workplace. She addresses these issues in a way that tackles unconscious bias. It further interrogates the IWD theme, #BreakTheBias, by highlighting the need to consider more than just gender bias in assessing the impact of bias on the empowerment of women, given the complexities that exist. These various biases have real impacts on the workplace. The Employment Services Partnership (ESPHR) notes, for example, that “Unconscious bias can lead to bullying, harassment, discrimination, people feeling excluded, being less productive and unengaged. It impacts upon recruitment decisions, employee development, impairs diversity and negatively affects staff retention rates.” These factors, in turn, negatively impact workplace productivity and the bottom line, as well as the wellbeing of those at the receiving end of this biased behaviour.
Ultimately, in actively breaking biases and moving forward in excellence, a key lesson from Skenjana’s book and from Old Mutual’s Fireside Chat with the young author is the importance of honouring each person’s humanity in a way that inspires them towards their full potential. “Overcoming any bias requires systematic change, and needs to be deliberate. Humanness is key! Understand people for who they are, so that you can extract the best value from people,” she says.