Diversity and inclusion

Let me tell you a story of Qondeni Ngcobo. She is a 50-year-old woman born in Zululand in KwaZulu Natal. She was born into abject poverty. Like most of her peers and those who grow up in villages, Qondeni never got an education. She grew up in a mud house. Lived from hand to mouth. And one day, 10 years ago, she was introduced to an opportunity in forestry where she could plant trees and sell them to big pulp and paper companies. Today, Qondeni lives in a 6-bedroom house, has taken her children through school, two of them at university, and now she is growing her business even further.
Pause for a moment and ask yourself this question: why is Qondeni not the poster girl (or shall I say woman) for savings advertising?

How many of us are battling from one paycheck to the next? How many of us, in spite of our corporate jobs, luxury cars and swanky lifestyles, have nothing to show when it comes to savings? Yet, when banks and institutions want to promote the culture of saving, it is one of the beautiful faces in this room they will find. It is a radio and media personality they will pay thousands to be the face of the campaign. Not Qondeni, the real epitome of saving.

Qondeni is just the face and metaphor of how we as a country fail to embrace diversity and inclusion. We continue to wallow in our comfort zones and in the process ignore or exclude those who should be inside the room, those whose lived experiences and insights can make a huge difference in our lives and our businesses. We want change, as long as things stay the same. Let me repeat that, because you did not hear me: WE WANT CHANGE, AS LONG AS THINGS STAY THE SAME.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. And a special happy women’s month to imbokodo in the house. Wa thintha abafazi? Wa thinta abafazi?

Thank you very much to the MC for that generous introduction. No disrespect or ingratitude on my part, let me re-introduce myself. I am a feminist. But if that is too hard for you to swallow or fathom, let me make it easy. I am a gender activist. But let me tell you something, it is hard to be a feminist. The world hates feminists. But it is even harder for a 49-year-old straight man to be a feminist. For as long as I have lived my life, I have no experience of being a woman or even how it feels to be one. And this is why I chose to establish Future Kings, a mentorship programme for teenage boys. I thought the best way I could support the feminist movement is to change those that look and act like me, to educate those that live their lives to make the lot of women heavier everyday.

Because let us face it, as men we are women’s biggest problem. And I believe only men should solve their lot. Only men can better themselves. And I have raised my hand to do my little best from my small corner. I am determined to create better men for the future, one boy at a time.

I have been asked to touch on four themes this morning. I hope I do justice to all of them, in less than 45 minutes. The themes are:

  • The social construction of identity, recognition, and representation – from home to the boardroom
  • Moral imperative – A case for Diversity and Inclusion
  • Business case for Diversity and Inclusion
  • Diversity and Inclusion – the role of men as allies in driving change

I do not know who said what to Qondeni to make her realise that she too can be part of a movement to enter the mainstream of the economy and change fortunes for herself and her family. But believe me that if the conversations are not deliberate, the results are equally less deliberate.

We need new conversations in society, And these conversations must begin at home long before we come to the boardroom. What are the stories, stereotypes and myths we tell, repeat and highlight to our children that they carry to the workplace years later? Few years ago my daughter, who today is a 11 years old, asked me: “Daddy would you allow me to have a body piercing” We had just walked past a young woman – somewhere in her early 20s – who had enough piercings to last the entire street. In fact, there were very few body parts – at least those visible to my eyes – that were not pierced. I refused to imagine those body parts I had no sight of.

I responded: “Sunshine, it is your body. I have no say over what you do with it. You owe me or anybody for that matter, no explanation how you want to live your life. But as your father I have the responsibility to warn you about things that could be harmful to you. So, if I found our that piercings can be bad for you, I will discourage you from them. But I will still defend your right to pierce your body from here to Timbaktu if you wanted to do so.”

Why is that important? Parents have a despicable tendency to try and create children in our own identity. And this tendency is exactly why transformation, diversity and inclusion are difficult to achieve. We bring our fears, prejudices, bad habits, hate, preconceived ideas and racism, chauvinism, intolerance, anger and denial into the lives of our children. They grow up as mini us. They end up as our mirror image. The cycle continues. Society remains untransformed. And they in turn pass on the legacy onto their children. And their children to theirs. And so on, and so on.

Our identity of who we are or who we think we are, remains a murky construct that requires a new thinking altogether. We need to start thinking of ourselves as bad models, so that we can teach our young to be better models. That is very purpose of Future Kings. I seek to remind these young men that the menfolk in society are what is slowly destroying the social fabric and that if they think differently and act better, they will redeem manhood and create a better society.

It is the same lessons corporate leaders must teach their juniors. I challenge you to allow young and junior people to think freely, to experiment, to innovate and to be wayward. Allow them to do things you could never do or even think about. Stand aside and allow them to be crazy. But be on the sideline to warn them before they burn the business to ashes. Because let’s face it, youth can be a hazard oftentimes. But corporate leaders must be brave enough to say to the young and the women in the company that, we have long created this business in our image. We need you to bring your youth, your femininity, your nurturing nature, your different perspective to how we do business. In that way, maybe, just maybe we can do things differently, find markets we never imagined, find new revenues, and like Qondeni the tree farmer from Zululand, be able to grow this business beyond our wildest dreams.

But for that to happen, we need recognition of two things: we need to recognise that we are not the beginning and end of wisdom and what works or doesn’t work. We need to recognise that others – different as they may be to us – have as much intelligence if not better to make FedEx an amazing organisation. It cannot be that breasts, vaginas, ponytails, tattoos and body piercings are seen as handicaps and curses that cannot be brought into our divine boardrooms. That is trash.

The sooner we recognise differences as a strength, the sooner we will engender more representation in the boardroom. The same way as the men in the house should not be the only ones that decide on the suitable family car, the next holiday and the schools where the children will go to, is the way in our businesses men should stop being the only ones that determine the direction of business. We need to bring more voices, emotions and hormones into the boardroom. Testosterone is overrated. We need representative boardrooms, and that begins at home. It begins with the small decisions about whether the remote control goes to Idols or Springboks. If we do not humble ourselves to allow and participate in the choices of our loved ones at home, then Lord have mercy on us the day we have to listen to these people in skirts and heels in the boardroom. Representation fails if it does not come as a habit. That is why quotas fail. This is why malicious compliance is a poor business strategy. I allow my children to participate in the smallest decisions at home. That is why I do not find it hard to allow those who depend on me for a salary to determine the next trajectory of my business.

Representation has another advantage. It frees you from the responsibility of always having to have the solution, the right answers, the wisdom. I told you I am a feminist. I belong to that group of people who piss off men because I challenge their conventions and comfort zones. So if by now you are thinking who is this corset hugger, you ain’t heard nothing yet. The worst is yet to come for you. The best is yet to come for me and the women in this room.

Let me tell you what diversity and inclusion has done for me in bringing up my 17-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. I now have two more people who can help in decision making. They contribute to the discussion about the next holiday. In fact, I let them debate among themselves, then reach consensus about where I must spend my money. Once they have reached an agreement, without me, I just execute, unless of course if their choice is Afghanistan or Orania. I may be liberal, but I am not adventurous. I do not do this for fun or because I am lazy to think. I do this because diversity and inclusion are a moral imperative. It is the right thing to do. It speaks to the old cry of “not about us without us”. If you have the same people in the room, you may as well have one person. You see, when men in boardrooms are not prepared to see skirts and lipstick, I shudder to think how on earth they will accommodate a different language. Diversity and inclusion require of us to let go of our fears and comfort zones. Did you know that you can still have a very expensive painting on your boardroom walls made in France and still be transformed and diverse? Yes. Just purchase a Gerard Sekoto. He is black. South African. Lived most of his life in France. And he doesn’t come cheap. So black should not necessarily mean cheap.
But of course the fear is that if we include everyone and are diverse, this may mess our business. Unless you purposely bring stupid women, black people and youth in your boardroom, you will not fail. So 22 years ago as a political reporter on The Star newspaper, I receive a call from my mentor, Ryland Fisher, then editor of The Cape Times, the newspaper where I cut my journalistic teeth. Ryland is offering me a job to be his political editor. I am all of 27 years of age.

“But you have Anthony Johnson there,” I said to Ryland in my veiled excuse of why I cannot be the right man.

“Yes, but Anthony brings me no experience. He has been with The Cape Times all his life. You, on the other hand have worked in so many different places. You will bring your different experiences into our newsroom.”

That ladies and gentlemen, is what diversity is. It is not bringing women, blacks and youth into our businesses just for the sake of it. We bring them in because they bring different perspectives. They help us think differently. They introduce us to the many worlds unknown to us. They help our business by making us see things we have not seen before, think thoughts we could never have imagined, walk paths otherwise obscure to our minds. That is the business imperative for diversity and inclusion. We do not bring the women in the boardroom to make tea. That just makes our tea more expensive. We do not bring blacks in the boardroom to agree with us. That is a very costly echo.

We bring diversity because we want to find new ways of doing business, finding new markets, understand new constituents, but also to allow ourselves to sit back and not always be the ones required to have the answers. Did you know that most single mothers only access their social media during office hours and over weekends? I did not know that either, until I made up that stat. How else are you going to know when you reject them at CV stage long before you even give them a break to come for an interview and compete with the undeserving men you are most likely to give a chance because they support Liverpool, they think that the Springboks need a quicker flyhalf and play Saturday golf?

But where do us men start with helping to  create an environment of diversity and inclusion? I think it starts with softer things before we go hardcore. And one of those things is language. The late American author and thinker Toni Morrison put it better when she said: “Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”

So like Toni Morrison, I believe it starts in the head and expressed in language before actions. By the time we men act in sexist, chauvinistic and patriarchal ways, it was long formed in our minds and our language. It is in the jokes we share, the stories we relate, the associations we make and the assumptions we base our actions on.

This is no different with our children. They listen to our sexist language, our chauvinistic language, our patriarchal language. They believe it because they believe in us. They repeat the language. They internalise it. And in no time, they live the same rotten life we have lived all our lives.

Speaking for myself, everyday I make conscious decisions to be careful about the language I use in front of my children. There are words and phrases I have obliterated from my vocabulary. Words and phrases like: “Be a man”; “That’s a girl’s game”; “Girls don’t do that” are never to be heard in my presence. Similarly, in my household, everyone who eats can and must do the dishes, everyone who sleeps on a bed, can and must make it up. For my daughter, I teach her to demand the best out of everyone she meets outside home. She knows she is worth the respect, the courtesy and the recognition. For my son, I teach him humility to know and accept he is equal to all humanity and owes everyone the same respect, courtesy and recognition I have taught him to give his sister. This may seem small and even innocuous, but all the women I interact with daily, women I have employed, women who have worked under me, women I meet in the elevator and women who clean the floors in the offices and shops I frequent, they will tell you that I make an effort to acknowledge them, recognise them, respect them and accord the courtesies they deserve. I do not always win. After all I am a man who grew up in the most sexist environment. I grew up listening to and observing men – including my own father – who saw women as nothing but second-class citizens. I learned those despicable bad habits and only I could teach myself to unlearn them. It is daily work in progress.
So when people ask me, why quit a burgeoning consultancy and why leave an interesting radio career to dedicate yourself to a non-profit charity? I ask them, if not me, then who? If I am not going to teach these young men to respect women then who? If I am not going to educate these boys that women are not their property to touch, harass, abuse, rape and mock, then who do I expect to treat my daughter with the same respect, recognition and courtesy that I extend her. That is my bit in contributing to diversity and inclusion. I believe many of us men can do the same in church, in the office and in the sporting field. We have to start first by looking inwards and correcting our ways, and then extend the courtesy and respect to women. Because only when we have done this, can we be brave enough to let them into our boardrooms, our church committees, our military, our sporting fields, not as a favour, but as our equals.

When we promote diversity and inclusion, many more Qondenis will be born among us. They will access opportunities that were previously closed to them. They will raise among us children who will in turn create a society that we all dream of. Let Qondeni not be an outlier. Let her not be a sore thumb. Let her be the rule. But for that to happen, we need to break many of the old rules. And that we can do. That we should do. For ourselves. For our children. For our world. #BeThatGuy.

Thank you very much. It has been a privilege to be your keynote speaker. It has been an honour to be part of this event.