A diverse workplace has many benefits but can also come with challenges for employees and managers as they navigate ways to appreciate and respect people from different backgrounds and experiences and find common ground in the workplace.
Understanding how to identify and address cultural differences allows an organisation to facilitate productive communication and cultivate a positive company environment accepting of people from all cultures.
As a young professional, I’ve always assumed that professionalism is the most important modus operandi when navigating the corporate world. The reality is, as a young black Tsonga woman in the corporate world, I’m subject to intersectionality on a daily basis. I’ve always had to be sure of myself and stand my ground when it came to acknowledging the existence of different cultures (specifically) in the workplace, while also knowing that the company’s values provide a level of protection against discrimination of any variety.
Although a professional environment has its own norms and rules, culture will always play an important role. As a young black woman, with experience working primarily with other women, it still comes as a shock to me that cultural considerations play such an important role in the workplace.
For example, it’s not acceptable for me to look older black male colleagues directly in the eye as this is seen as being challenging. There is also an expectation by some of the older generation that I would use the terms ‘umama’ and ‘ubaba’ to demonstrate respect for my elders. That should not be happening in a modern workplace where everybody is on first-name terms. However, the complications arise when people know that you come from a similar background, and they expect you to behave at work as you would at home.
Some cultures are more restrictive than others when it comes to how women and men should interact, but the corporate world is no place for those traditions to play out. In addition, some believe that young people must behave in a certain way; they may not sit at the head of the table, and they must be seen and not heard and so on.
Lindelwa Skenjana recently published a book called ‘Black Girl’s Guide to Corporate South Africa’. In this book, she describes the challenges that most black women in corporate South Africa face at various stages of their career. Her book provides very real details that most of us prefer not to talk about such as racism, ethnic chauvinism, toxic work environments and sexual harassment in the workplace. While being cognisant of the aforementioned, she notes that in order to succeed in corporate SA, you need to exert masculine energy i.e. be assertive, openly ambitious and take charge.
It’s difficult to find a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to dealing with such topics but I do believe that it all boils down to respect: respect for each other and respect for yourself. As a young woman who grew up in a matriarchy, I try to be considerate, but I also know my rights. My approach has been to stand my ground with integrity and without compromising myself.
My advice to other women confronting these types of situations is to be sure of yourself, be respectful and considerate, and expect the same in return. Do not let other people’s views change how you feel about yourself.
Work should always be a safe space that gives people a place where they can share their ideas and opinions without fear of repercussion and live their identity without facing discrimination or harm. It should be a space where guidance, advice, vulnerability and honesty are allowed and indeed encouraged.
Sensitivity training is essential to equip all people with the same understanding of expectations and how to respect any differences without being hindered by them in the workplace. After all, if you feel forced to keep quiet, you are not adding value to your organisation; if that is the case, then why be there?
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