The largest constituency in South Africa is made up of black women. They roam the corridors of advertising and media agencies and at media owners in significant numbers, but most are at junior levels.
The bottom line is that there are not enough black women in positions of influence and power in the advertising and marketing industries.
A reasonable number of black males have taken up ownership and management roles, while women, and especially black women, remain in operational roles.
The industry has to move beyond transformation as an exercise for ticking boxes on scorecards.
Unfortunately the word ‘transformation’ elicits feelings of fear and anger for many. Generally, the word has been twisted to serve a negative narrative and the potential in seeing it differently is explored only by the brave.
Fear makes it difficult for industry to progress and embrace what diversity gurus preach about each day. That a diverse workforce and leadership fosters creativity, innovation and breeds results.
The intersection of race and gender
I believe the conversation around black female leadership is one that many don’t understand because it sits at the intersection of race and gender. When I jumped into the media side of the industry (2019), I was astonished to find I was one of two black females in an executive role. One of two.
The absolute necessity of building our workspaces to be reflective of the country in which we live should not be something merely spoken about, but should be recognised for what it is, a requirement for survival. The largest constituency in the country are black females, a large proportion of graduates studying marketing degrees are women. Meanwhile there are just two black women in executive positions on the media agency side.
We all know that there is no shortage of women in the industry and there is certainly a belief that women keep the industry (and many of the world’s businesses) ticking. In fact, there are more women running Fortune 500 businesses today than at any point in the 63-year history of Fortune 500 companies. But of those women, there are zero black women to count.
Given that black women have worked since time immemorial and consequently have had the highest labour force participation than all women for years – from cleaning homes, raising nations on their backs (the same nations who now run the world), and forming a large proportion of the current workforce, it is sad that the statistics are what they are.
The truth is black women’s experience of work is deeply rooted in longstanding racial and gender biases. Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and an adviser to the Obama administration, has written extensively on women’s rights. She’s noted a negative stereotype about black women’s attitudes and work ethic, one that assumes black women resist hard work, must be pushed to perform well, are loud and should be satisfied with any job rather than deserving of the best job.
From my experience, it is challenging to be female in the corporate world, if not exhausting. American writer Maura Cheeks did her MBA research on the psychological effects of race and gender on black women in the workplace in the US. She found that the dominant experience for them was having to ‘code-switch’.
The authentic self
It involved embracing the dominant culture or vernacular among groups (like co-workers) and switching to a more authentic self when around friends and family. There is not a single black person who doesn’t have to navigate these worlds every single day and African American women do it thrice over – in gender, in race and in the tone of their blackness. And our deeply expressive nature is often a bone of contention, referred to as ‘loud’. The resultant reaction was to ‘dim our light’ to make others comfortable.
Black women have different experiences, backgrounds and a deep strength, which shape their approach to life and business.
Most will challenge you, each other and collaborate with people who think differently and from all walks of life. This can breed creativity, and it can increase what I call the female intelligence quotient (FI) as a way of improving accessibility at work.
They have an innate ability to promote different ideas (stuff that not even white females can access at the core) that can help leadership see things differently and therefore push organisations forward. They represent huge economic power, they offer important consumer insights and as the backbone of society. They are also the ones that can really shapeshift the country out of the space we are in. Good for business. Good for society.
The largest constituency in South Africa is made up of black women. They roam the corridors of advertising and media agencies and at media owners in significant numbers, but most are at junior levels and many in the same position for over five years. Now I heard that any organisation where an employee stays in the same position for over five years, without a promotion, is one that is choosing exploitation, and this is irrespective of colour or gender.
Exploring the truth
In our global group (IPG), the topic has been explored via a discussion hosted under the heading of: ‘Their Truth: The Summit on Black Women in Advertising, Marketing and Media’ which was held in 2017 in New York. The industry’s diversity issues were tackled head-on, sharing research about black female leadership as were personal stories from industry luminaries about survival and success.
While all of the takeaways are relevant in Mzansi, the one I find very relevant is one that is framed as ‘the biggest lie in advertising’ and that was that employers searching for black female talent for senior positions would say: ‘I can’t find them’.
I hear this all too often and I’m here to invite you to look around because they are there, in droves. They need to be supported and sponsored by leadership, coached for daily improvement, mentored with a long-term view, deliberately trained toward a goal and given the responsibility with everything it comes with. You will be surprised at the result.
And I say to the black girl standing at the door waiting to be let in, break the door down and ask for what you need and deserve. Put your soul into your work. It’s good for your craft.
The leadership guru Robin Sharma, who wrote ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrrai’ series, says when you have a brave idea that scares you, move toward it. He also says that doubt is destroyed by strong action; that fears are big liars. And that life is too short to play small with your talent.
Kagiso Musi is the group managing director of Meta Media South Africa, a new data-led media player in the country. She leads the Johannesburg and Cape Town offices with a list of blue-chip clients. The agency focuses on analysing and uncovering insights from the most granular forms of data and utilising that data to help clients win.