Women of the 21st century increasingly face a different set of challenges including being discriminated against in the workplace.

The problem manifests itself not only in accessing career opportunities but also when ascending the career ladder and is not confined to academia rather spanning other predominantly male-dominated career paths in the workplace.

Against this background and in the spirit of August as Women’s Month, the College of Health Sciences committee of Women in Leadership and Leverage (WILL) dedicated a workshop to highlight the challenges and identify solutions to the discrimination of professional women.

Keynote speaker at the workshop Professor Margaret Nair - a psychiatrist and Honorary Lecturer at UKZN’s Medical School - said a sound education and a supportive home and work environment were key to success in employment and career opportunities.

According to Nair, Career women have the added burden of being providers and nurturers in the home environment, which is often a difficult balancing act.

‘Since the advancement of civilisation women have been tied to the home and seen as homemakers. Women’s lives were controlled by their reproductive function.’

Nair said times had changed. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle of yesteryear was no longer conducive for contemporary career women who sometimes needed to put food on the table for their families.

Because of deeply rooted stereotypes, attitudes and role strains, career advancement for women today was still a major challenge and there was a need for an all-embracing support system in the home and especially the work environment.

‘The number of women who are married as housewives in ante nuptial agreements is shocking,’ said Nair. ‘Wives are generally expected to make the greater sacrifices and adjustments.’

In what she termed: The Cycle of Disempowerment, Nair said: ‘The lack of adequate education leads to unemployment and women being forced to stay at home; being disempowered and being financially dependent on their (sometimes abusive) husbands and family members. This leads to helplessness, depression, hopelessness, suicide and other “avoidable” circumstances.’

Her argument was strongly supported by statistics revealing a "poor number" of executive corporate positions held by women in the workplace.

‘Discrimination against professional women is prevalent and the data on South Africa is not good.

‘Because of machoism, women often fail to stand up for themselves. They can’t say no. They constantly need approval from their male counterparts and are afraid of offending others. They accept this role and adopt a “suffering” lifestyle.’

Nair suggested 10 powerful career strategies for women:

·         Get as much Higher Education and training as you can

·         Search the internet to keep in touch with cutting edge information

·         Have leverage and focus on your communication and interpersonal skills

·         Plan your career

·         Network!

·         Find a mentor

·         Cultivate and project confidence

·         Self-promote

·         Incubate your talents

·         Become a free agent

‘Women must learn to be competent in dealing with criticism, recognitions of “put downs”, not putting themselves down, dealing appropriately with power issues, leaving personal matters at home and networking with other women.

‘The superwoman myth of dealing with quadruple roles results in stress, resentment and burnout,’ said Nair.

‘Women need to realise they have unique skills and a feminine ethos which they can introduce to the workplace:  these include nurturance, mentoring, compassion, empathy and intuition.’

Nair shared techniques for developing resilience and spoke about the importance of "believing in yourself" as well as living a balanced lifestyle which included having a bit of "me-time" for a set period daily.

* During her tenure at the Medical School, Nair was appointed a Full-Professor in the Discipline of Psychiatry and distinguished herself as the first woman of colour to qualify as a Psychiatrist as well as the first woman President of the South African College of Psychiatrists, a position she held for many years.

-Lunga Memela

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