Whenever there are talks about Gender and Diversity, the biggest question that arises: “Will we ever reach gender equality in the workplace?” or is it just a theory that can never be realised. In this woman in leadership interview feature, Istyleblaq connects with one of the most influential women leaders in Africa, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. I am delighted to have someone of her stature in our interview series for the blaqnifiscent feature.
About Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng
Mamokgethi Phakeng is currently the Vice Chancellor of one of the Top Universities in South Africa, the University of Cape Town (UCT). A professor of Mathematics Education, having graduated from the University of Witwatersrand with a PhD in Mathematics Education. She has occupied many leadership roles such as that of the president of the Association for Mathematics Education South Africa (AMESA), President of Convocation of Wits University, trustee of the FirstRand Foundation and a member of the Board of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
Phakeng is the founder of the Adopt-a-learner Foundation, a non-profit organisation that started in 2004 and provides financial support to learners from township and rural areas to acquire higher education. In 2013, she received an award from CEO Magazine for being the most influential women in education and training in South Africa.
MUZI: You have occupied senior leadership roles and sat on different boards, and you’re currently the vice-chancellor of UCT – How is it like being a black female in leadership and how are you handling it?
PROF PHAKENG: It is rough but it can be done. Firstly – I think handling it is accepting the fact that if you’re a woman in leadership, particularly a black woman in this country, you are going to have scrutiny. Scrutiny on you will be excruciating and you will just have to accept that. Secondly, you will also have to make peace with the fact that not everyone will like you. You are here to do a job and thirdly, you are here because you can do the work. There will be detractors but you always have to be convinced that you can do the work. That doesn’t mean you are a God but it means you are capable; you are able and you can do it just like any man can. I think those three key aspects are
MUZI: Have you ever had any instances where you felt undermined in leadership because of your gender and how did you deal with it?
PROF PHAKENG: Yes, I have been undermined many times and it depends where the undermining happens. When it happens in meetings, I have so far kept quiet and let the people who are undermining beat themselves up doing it but if it happens in a meeting where it’s just the two of us I will call it out because, but in a big meeting, I don’t call it out. That is the burden of being a black African woman in leadership in this country.
MUZI: How do you feel when that happens? Honestly, for me, I am very emotional, and such instances break me.
PROF PHAKENG: I feel humiliated, and I have felt humiliated many times at such meetings. I have felt bullied but one thing that my mother told me when I went into the world of work was that I must never cry at work about work. So, there are times when tears want to come out, and I hold myself that I will not cry at work. You do it at home, so I hold my tears – I will never cry at work. I have now accepted that this is the burden of the black woman, so I don’t respond any more in meetings. I just keep quiet and let the man or whoever is disrespecting and humiliating please themselves and I hope that people in the meeting will notice. It doesn’t always happen but I still keep going because the idea is to remove your attention from the work.
Remember that if you are a capable woman the agenda is to prove that you are not capable so if you remove your attention from the work, you get absorbed focusing on these issues of interactions and whatever and not doing the work and then they can catch you on the work, you know. If you are competent, Of course, there is nowhere else where they can catch you so that’s why they have to irritate you on that side.
MUZI: What are your thoughts on women empowerment? Is it about gender equality or is it more than that?
PROF PHAKENG: Yes it is more than that, it is a subset of a much wider issue about how we build diversity and inclusivity into the way we make decisions that will affect people. Either people in our place of work or the country or anywhere else but it’s a subset, you know, it doesn’t hang on its own, it comes under building diversity and inclusivity. I am saying that because under the umbrella of building diversity and inclusivity there is a whole lot…there’s gender, there are women but there is also diversity in terms of making sure that we get LGBTIQA+ into our spaces, in terms of people living with disabilities and of course if it’s women living with disabilities then the burden is way more. So, this umbrella of diversity and inclusivity that’s where women empowerment resides, I would say.
MUZI: There’s a small percentage of men who feel the focus is more on women and they are forgotten and side-lined – How can we involve them in this process or concept?
PROF PHAKENG: Good question. I think we need men who can be allies and I am a mother to young men. I have raised them to be feminists, to be pro-women, to see and be irritated by toxic masculinity. So, how our sons, brothers, fathers, partners and male colleagues see themselves and their important role in supporting their daughters, sisters, mothers, partners and female colleagues is hugely important. This is not about protecting, it’s about supporting, you know. So, you can become an ally and be that support and as a mother of young men, I have made it my problem that I want my sons to be good men…to be feminists. So, I identified the mix about the power of masculinity so that they can reconsider important roles that men and boys need to play in balancing the world so that violence against women and children can be unheard of in future generations, if men can do that if they can understand they’re role in balancing the world. I think gender-based violence should be a thing of the past for future generations.
MUZI: Where do you think we are as a society or as a country when it comes to women empowerment? Is there balance, especially in the workplace?
PROF PHAKENG: Not at all. I want to say that there will never be balance. The balance will never be about numbers, it is about regarding women in the same way that you regard men, giving the same privileges when they’re in the boardroom and not assuming that women are making one decision because they are angry. You will never hear anyone saying a man is angry, that a decision came from anger. So, it’s about the voices of women also being equal to the voices of men, it’s about women being regarded as professionals, as capable, that when you make a decision, the fact that you’re a woman should be irrelevant. Even in the interest of the institution, or country or organisation it should be that way. If we can’t get to that level then we’ll never achieve gender equality even with the numbers being the same, the number of women being the same or more.
At the moment it’s not, there are too few women in boardrooms across the country, too few women vice-chancellors in the country. In 26 universities you probably have six women vice-chancellors. The power of patriarchy, of masculinity… patriarchy always stands together and we as women are the target to be co-opted into supporting patriarchy and we should resist that because that’s going to help bring us to gender equality. We’ve got to start with the numbers so that we’ve got the critical mass and when you’ve got the critical mass it becomes easier to increase the voices of women.
MUZI: The University of Cape Town created a programme to empower women in local governance. Can you tell us more about that and how it is going?
PROF PHAKENG: I feel like I should tell you about that but I should also tell you about when I came into office, I also created a program that’s called #forwomenbywomen. It is empowering women and we invested R25 000 000 to appoint women who can research areas of study where women are in
short supply and secondly in areas that research aspects that affect women like GBV or reproductive science and so on.
Also, in #forwomenbywomen we made the requirement that we want to develop capacity so these women that won the grants to do research also have to mentor other women. As a woman vice-chancellor, I felt like that’s important to do and that was the first project that I launched.
Then in 2019, we launched the programme to empower women in local governance. The idea here is that we as women want to be the change that we want to see in our communities, in our municipalities, in our state-owned enterprises and our lives. So, we did this programme as the UCT Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, we partnered with the South African Local Governance Association (SALGA) and the Zenande Leadership Consulting and we created this women leadership development.
The programme is about leading and being the change so the course includes an accredited short course training. It also includes access to individual coaching sessions to support the women who enrol for this programme, to support them on their learning journey and thirdly it includes one-on-one mentorship. In addition to them doing a course and getting these coaching sessions to support their learning journey, we give them one-on-one mentorship of who can work with them and it has been very successful. So far 110 women leaders participated in the open invitation August 2020, we advertised it in 2019-2020 and 110 women participated. The 70 women leaders will graduate from the programme this year in October and they work in all dimensions of the local government sector with most of them having about 10 years of experience. So, it’s a way for us to contribute to good governance in the country and empower women, not only those who are in academia but also those who are in the municipalities, who work with men so that we can see women leadership roles rising.
MUZI: What are your future hopes for women out there?
PROF PHAKENG: My future hope is that as women we can come together and coming together is about supporting one another. If you see a woman struggling with something, go to them and help them do it better. Women are being co-opted into patriarchy and we need to change that mindset. Never go into the boardroom with a CEO that is a woman and you have an idea of bringing her down. Every time you bring a woman leader down, you’re bringing yourself and many other women down because when any woman fails, it is all of us that fail.
We’ve got to accept as women that there will be someone better than you, and that’s okay. If they are in a leadership position, you should know that they are in the struggle, support them because it’s tough. If you don’t support them then there is nobody else who will support them. Stop criticising them for whatever they’re wearing, their hair or whatever…men don’t do that. We have got to build women.
MUZI: Finally, what does black excellence mean to you?
PROF PHAKENG: For me it means celebrating and showcasing any excellent work that is done by a black person because that gives the message that we CAN, in a world that’s dominated by whiteness and being western. If the world was not dominated by whiteness, there wouldn’t be any need for black excellence but we live in a world that is dominated by everything western and everything white is the best, it’s the way to be and so black excellence has to be highlighted, celebrated and embraced in this country and the world because it says to younger people coming after us that we don’t have to be white to be a pilot or that kind of athlete or leader, black people can do it and it means you can do it too.