Women empowerment beyond the month of August(Speech)


Speech by Lincoln Mali at the Closing Ceremony of the Women’s month programme at the PRETORIA CITY MISSION METHODIST CHURCH


Rev Madi, members of the Pretoria City Mission congregation, I greet you all today in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ, Amen!

When asked by Mrs Ntombekhaya Masimini to come and speak to you today I was weighed down with a heavy burden – one of addressing a predominantly female audience, about Women empowerment, during Women’s month, in the House of the Lord being a man, and a sinner. What could I possibly add to the messages you have received from illustrious speakers before me? How could I do justice to such a powerful topic …´ When you empower a woman, you empower a nation”?

All I can do is to share…share my experiences and perspectives as one brought up and shaped by powerful God –fearing women, one who is married to a caring and loving woman, and lastly as one who has led and been led by amazing women in the Corporate environment. I hope that my reflections and thoughts about my experiences of women empowerment in my personal, family and corporate life will add something worthy of your noble endeavours.

I must state upfront that I have not come to close the Women’s month programme as I was asked to do; on the contrary, I hope to open an on-going, day to day dialogue on women empowerment in the work place and in the home. I do so deliberately as the challenges facing women go well beyond the month of August and we must all commit ourselves to address these issues in all our spheres of influence.

The story of Liza Dipenaar (Not real name)

In my previous role at Standard Bank I was responsible for 15 000 staff members, the majority of whom were women.  I received a lot of letters or emails from employees on a range of issues. Of these hundreds of letters, none touched me more than a letter from Liza Dipenaar, who wrote to me in 1995.

Liza wrote that she was brutally abused by her husband over a long time. It got so bad that he would go into the branch, beat her up and humiliate her in front of customers and other employees.

She wrote: “Things became so bad that I dreaded going to work. Staying at home was not an option, as the beatings would continue. After pressure from management because of the impact of the abuse on customers and employees, I chose to leave the bank. This was a huge decision after more than 18 years of loyal service.”

Unfortunately, for her husband, that was the final straw. He severely assaulted her and almost killed her. He was sentenced to five years in jail for assault and attempted murder and released after six months.

Liza continued: “After this, I changed my name, moved to a different address and set about rebuilding my life. I applied for a job in the bank, but was told that since I had left, the rules had changed. Because I did not have a matric, I could not be taken back.”

She concluded: “Could you please help me, Mr Mali? I have two children and I am battling to make ends meet. I did not leave the bank out of choice; I was forced to by circumstances way beyond my control.”

This was one of the most shameful episodes of my banking career, because we as an organisation had clearly failed this employee in her hour of need. However, I am not, for one moment, passing judgement on her managers or colleagues.

All I’m pointing out is that, as an institution, we could not just wash our hands and play no part in firstly protecting this employee, and secondly, welcoming her back and supporting her when she had fought alone to escape her husband’s murderous intentions.

We made arrangements with one of our managers, Annette Schonken for her to be taken on board in one of our Centres in Pretoria. Annette’s condition was that Liza should complete her matric. Three years later, I received this email from Liza:

“Dear Mr Mali.  You may not remember me. Through your help, I was employed by Ms Annette Schonken at the BFC after recovering from an abusive relationship. I am happy and proud to inform you that I passed my matric at the age of 48 years. I would like to invite you to my graduation party at my home. Thank you for changing my life. God bless.”

I found this message so moving and inspiring. This woman, who had placed the welfare of customers, colleagues and the bank above her own; who had endured pain, suffering and humiliation at the hands of her husband and who had been rejected by her beloved Standard Bank; had, against all odds, triumphed against adversity.

Liza is the type of bold and courageous woman that we should celebrate in this month of August, women who against all odds continue to do their best for themselves and their children under the most difficult conditions.

Liza epitomises the spirit and resilience of thousands of women in most companies. Every day, these women put all their domestic problems behind them to serve customers. They hide their pain and frustration to smile to customers. They overcome their own financial difficulties to sell products, services and solutions to customers. They suppress their longing for their own children to make the children of customers happy.

It is these unsung heroines who daily fly our corporate flags high, who deliver exceptional service and produce the profits for shareholders. Liza carried her pain for many years. How many other women have scars, are in pain, are battling to make ends meet and are victims of abuse, neglect or rape in our organisations?

As a Corporate leader, I salute each and every one of our thousands of women employees for their dedication, professionalism, sacrifices, hard work and commitment. I hope and trust that the drive, passion, commitment and tenacity of Liza Dipenaar and thousands of women in Corporate South Africa will be matched by decisive corporate leadership and that we will never fail our employees as we nearly did Liza, all those years back.

To ensure this, I think August, Women’s month, is the ideal time to reflect on some key questions that affect our women employees in most organisations:

This is the reality that faces many women in our businesses:

  • They have unsupportive husbands;
  • They are recovering from traumatic divorces;
  • They are raising children without any support;
  • They are young women who have become heads of families at a very early age;
  • They are the victims of rape and abuse by those close to them; and
  • They face a constant battle to make ends meet.

Sometimes I wonder how much we male managers really know and understand the woman members of our teams. Most managers will argue that they know their team, but is this really true? Do you really know the people who report to you and especially the women …their past work experiences, the skills and talents they possess? Have you truly cared about and inquired about their aspirations, their short- and long-term goals?

In my own experience, knowing and taking an interest in the total life of my women colleagues allows me to better understand them; to support them; to anticipate things that may affect their performance and to provide coaching, guidance and mentoring.

As managers and leaders, we must fully understand what the majority of our employees go through so that we can be supportive and helpful.

I would further argue that, as men, we have to take extra effort to support our woman colleagues to ensure that they are not prejudiced in their careers because of their commitment to their children and families.

Most importantly, we must never, ever place women in situations where there is a conflict between their roles as wives, mothers, leaders and community members. Women should not be forced to choose between such roles and their role in the corporate. Our role is to facilitate matters so that they can be successful both at home and at work.

This is easier said than done. There comes a time in the life of every woman when these roles seem to be in conflict. It is at this time that a woman needs a sympathetic ear, wise counsel, a sounding board and the time and space to make up her mind.

As we observe Women’s Month, we need some candid answers to the following questions:

  • Are women good enough for lower jobs, but not senior jobs? Is there a view among senior men at executive and senior management levels that women should be at home looking after children? Do we, as men, have this prejudiced view because our wives do not work (which is their democratic choice, just as working is a choice)? What do we expect from our own female children?
  • If we profess to be interested in women’s development beyond mere rhetoric, why are the vast majority of appointments, promotions and bursaries not favouring women? What programmes are there in Corporates to promote women development?
  • How many of our policies and practices in the Corporates are built around the realities of our employee demographics? Our employees are largely female, divorced or single, with children, and receive very little support from either a broader family or state agencies.

I raise these and other questions to argue for change. We must all do everything in our power to make dramatic and sustainable changes in the working environment for women. As a Corporate leader, I commit myself to advance the cause of women in the workplace in all my spheres of influence now in Nigeria, Ghana, Angola, DRC, and Namibia and off course South Africa, my homeland.

You may be wondering why I bother with the issues facing women who work with me. I bother because I care and care very deeply about every person who works in my organisation, secondly I was brought up by strong women and lastly I would want my daughters to grow up in a more equitable society.

Addressing these issues is also a business imperative, if we cannot handle these issues as managers and support our team members, this will impact on their ability to perform. This, in turn, will impact the overall performance of the organisations.

In many cases, poor or mediocre performance is the result of the people in our teams dealing with personal issues. Most managers will apply more pressure for results; push for more improvement. The correct approach is to look at the underlying issues. If they are addressed, it changes the mood of the team.

The essence of my message is that we, as leaders, particularly male managers, must get closer to all our employees, particularly women employees, so that we can address issues that may affect or hinder their performance.

I want to challenge male leaders to think through the following matters very carefully. In working with your team, the majority of whom are women, how would you support a team member or colleague in the following circumstances?

  • An abusive relationship;
  • A horrible custody battle;
  • A nasty divorce;
  • Inability to have children;
  • Miscarriage;
  • Sick children;
  • Financial difficulties;
  • A disabled child or a child with special needs; and
  • Doubts about continuing with work or staying at home to raise children, or indecision about having another child.

These are just a few issues I have had to deal with in working with women in my teams at all levels, providing that support, lending a sympathetic ear and giving space and time for people to work through these issues has improved my own understanding and cemented my relationships with these colleagues for life.

I have laid out many challenges that face male managers and I feel we need to play a role in addressing these issues because of the current power dynamics at senior levels in Corporate South Africa. However, I would be remiss if I did not challenge women leaders on the following:

  • How many of you actively champion the cause of other women, regardless of personal career consequences to you? Do women leaders tread carefully on this issue for fear of being labelled?
  • How many women leaders have a majority of the leadership team made up of other women? Or is it more convenient to move up the ladder alone without empowering other woman leaders?
  • How many women leaders have other women as their successors?
  • How many women mentor younger women?
  • How many of the very issues that hinder women’s performance and development are dealt with unsympathetically by woman leaders?
  • Are woman leaders ready to drive change in Corporate South Africa and women’s development beyond the celebrations in August?

I would like to leave you with 3 concluding thoughts on this topic:

1. Women have what it takes to succeed

Throughout my career, right up until today, I have been inspired by remarkable women colleagues and team members whose talent, experience, business acumen and potential rates up there with the best.  I have constantly seen how women are able to take a challenge and turn it into a success, in business, at home or in broader society.  Against all odds, many women have proven throughout history that, with the same opportunities afforded to them as to men, they can do exceptionally well and far surpass expectations. I am proud of the amazingly talented women that have been part of my teams, and can stand here today and speak about these issues because of the lessons I drew from their experiences, their struggles, their courage and their tenacity and resilience.

  1. 2.    Women must not be forced to make false choices

Those who stifle women’s progress in the workplace normally place a false choice in front of most women: career or family. It’s not really a choice at all, because there are trade-offs that women will make for themselves; not as a response to paternalistic pressures from males bosses or unsupportive partners.  In his book, Find your Strongest Life, Marcus Buckingham argues that the double burden syndrome – the combination of work and domestic responsibilities – weighs heavily on most working women. Working women remain at the centre of family life, with all the attendant constraints, such as maternity, child-rearing, organising family life and care of the elderly. The situation is further compounded by the significant number of single mothers. Women have to rely on extended family, relatives, and crèches and so on to help.

For a woman today this is almost impossibly hard, because the choices are so numerous and the stakes are so high:

  • Should you have a child first and then focus on your job?
  • Should you follow your artistic dream now or wait until you’ve saved money in the bank?
  • It is better to take the job with fewer responsibilities if it means more time with your family?
  • Should you keep your child at home or send her to day care?
  • Should you work longer hours to afford a better-qualified nanny?
  • Should you answer that e-mail or finish your son’s puzzle?
  • Should you care for your mother or take that better job to help pay for the nurse for your mother?
  • Should you stay in a job that numbs you or risk it all for one that doesn’t; risk everything for yourself or stay settled for others?

The questions are endless; the answers open-ended; the consequences of making the wrong choice almost too frightening to contemplate. You may hope that being at work while your child is at day care is a sensible option (research shows that it can be), but you know you would never forgive yourself if your choice proved to be the wrong one.

These conundrums, coupled with outdated policies and poor leadership, have a huge impact on women’s mobility, career success and job satisfaction. Buckingham argues that a strong life is the opposite of juggling. Juggling requires you to keep everything at bay, up in the air, away from you. The secret to living a strong life lies in knowing how to draw a few things in toward you. It asks you to be discriminating, selective, and intentional. You can find energizing moments in each aspect of your life, but to do so you must learn how to catch them, hold on to them, feel the pull of their weight, and allow yourself to follow where they lead.

This means that you have to learn how to intentionally imbalance your life. So often you are told to strive for balance. But balance is the wrong target –it is almost impossible to achieve and unfulfilling when you do so. Study the happiest and most successful women and you’ll realise that they ignore balance, and strive for fullness instead. The deliberately tilt their world toward those few moments that genuinely fill them up. This isn’t self-centeredness. It is the strong life practice that gives them the strength they need to provide for all those who rely on them.

  1. 3.     Empowerment in the home

Thousands of women sit in church silently agonising over crumbling marriages and dysfunctional relationships. Their silent prayers, their sleepless nights, their physical and emotional scars and burdens they carry reveal the lack of voice and empowerment in their marriages and relationships. Finding your voice in a relationship is a strong basis for success –this is easier said than done because we as men come from a dominating patriarchal upbringing. It takes a strong woman, and I would argue a stronger man to create a marriage or a relationship of equals. This voice is important to define and find consensus on some of the most divisive issues in any relationship or marriage. These issues on which a woman’s voice has to be heard are:

  • Family finances
  • Rules of the house
  • Infidelity and temptation
  • Children’s upbringing
  • Future plans
  • Career and family choices
  • Relationship with broader families; and
  • Household chores

These are not easy issues to address, Sva and I have been together for 24 years, and married for 15 years, and we have worked on these issues over these years. Ours is not a perfect marriage…it is daily work in progress….it is that work that makes our marriage to be enjoyable, exciting and worthwhile. We have benefitted a lot from being equal partners with the same level of “airtime” in our relationship.  My challenge to women is find your voice in your relationship or marriage. To my fellow men, I urge you to allow that voice of reason from your partner as it always brings a richer and different perspective to our everyday decisions. God had a plan to give us one mouth and an incredible two ears…if we spoke less and listen more to our partners or wives, we would understand their fears, appreciate their contribution to the success of the relationship/marriage, benefit from their advice and insights and ease their pain, frustrations and suffering. In such environment love thrives, harmony prevails and children have a happy environment in which to grow up.

Most importantly, and often ignored, our wives or partners are not spectators in our game, they are not mere supporters to our success, nor just people to be loved and protected, although that’s important, they ARE and should always be, full and equal partners in our relationships and marriages.

They have dreams, careers, ambitions, fantasies, friends, interests, hobbies, passions, values, principles…these must be fully supported in words and deeds. I am proud to say that my soul mate Sva is an independent, assertive, successful woman who is living her life to the fullest, in fulfilment of her own dreams and desires.

Those men who succeed and are happy in their relationships or marriages will confirm the critical role played by their wives and partners. Maintaining and improving a relationship or marriage is a joint responsibility –it is not only the responsibility of women. In my career, my family life, my marriage and my role in society, I have truly benefited from the wise counsel, swift reprimand, stern warning, words of support and new ideas from my wife, Sva. Whenever she is in the limelight, I’ve learnt to be in the background, when she speaks, I’ve learnt to be silent and to listen, whenever she is down and frustrated I’ve learnt to be supportive, and whenever she has dreams or ambitions I’ve learnt to share in those dreams, whenever she has felt wronged, I’ve learnt to apologise and makeup. Whenever she gets upset…I’ve learnt to disappear…..


Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s been a singular honour for me to address you today; I hope that some of my words found some resonance in spite of my obvious disadvantages of being a man and a sinner. May the women in our lives continue to hold the baton high, ready to hand it over to the next generation. A lot depends on our women leaders -they must chart new territories and create a path for continuity. Our families, businesses and our world depend on the next generation of women leaders to lead a greater march towards Women empowerment and prosperity. As we are about to enter the Spring season, may this signal a renewal in the quest for women empowerment. Such a renewal must be characterized by a sober and dispassionate assessment of our women empowerment efforts in the home and the workplace; prominence to be given to women’s voices in society and an increasing role by men in this empowerment struggle. Our success in this struggle will be the best possible tribute to the Women who marched onto this city all those years back.


I thank you