By Wendzile Zwane

The workplace is an interesting, complex, and diverse space. It houses people of different ages, social backgrounds, academic abilities, and so much more. It is a space where all these people, with all their differences, come together to supposedly work towards a common goal. Regarding women, in particular, most societies have specific expectations of women, from reproduction to intellectual capacity and more! With all of this, the workplace is not exempt from these social expectations. These expectations set the tone in the workplace, sometimes inhibiting a woman’s ability to perform or even grow.

Let me give you a simple and yet classic example, women on the road. When a woman is behind the wheel, she is not asked if she is a skilled driver, but the treatment towards a woman expresses the assumptions being made by the public. In other words, women are not asked about their abilities, their abilities are assumed, and usually not in a positive light. People usually assume that no matter how long a woman has been driving, she will always be incompetent and subsequently need assistance parking, reversing, and maybe even doing something as simple as indicating what direction she’s going in.

Yet, when a woman shows experience in driving, she is labelled a man. People do not assume that the skilled woman is now exhibiting confidence in herself and her driving skills. Why? Maybe our core assumption of people is that men are the only gender capable of exhibiting confidence, or women are never actually skilled people and are incapable of learning and evolving. It is an unfortunate scenario, and the workplace perpetuates this as well.

When women join the workforce, it is difficult to find spaces where they can learn and grow with little interference. Members of the public mentioned in the example above, are the same people we find in the workplace. This affects how a woman’s performance is appraised. This affects her ability to grow professionally, and this affects how a woman is expected to conduct herself. For example, during the learning phase of a woman’s employment, it becomes an opportunity for those around her to exhibit their skills, not for her to learn and grow.

Like assisting her on how to park, the workplace is an opportune time for those around her to let everyone know what they can do, by using the woman as their contrast. On the other hand, if a woman shows that she is confident in her skills, she runs the risk of being labelled aggressive, opinionated, or masculine.

It is not uncommon, therefore, for women to learn survival traits such as stating that their views are the views of their male colleagues, for the views to be taken seriously and approved.  Or, learning not to share ideas and strategies openly because doing so can lead to them being handed over to a male colleague and made their achievement instead. The good driver grows, whilst the bad driver’s potential remains in a perpetual state of learning.

So, how a woman is perceived by society does cross over to the workplace in many ways. The workplace is ideally a space where people are to be measured according to their skills and organisational fit, women, instead are measured according to their willingness to openly possess their skills or otherwise, and neither narrative promotes growth. One narrative perpetuates a stereotype that a woman is incapable of reaching competence, and the other shuns and invalidates her competence.

Much of who we are as a society is still to evolve, making space for differences to be accepted without being compared to what is considered a norm. Much of who we are in the workplace is yet to evolve, reflecting professional environments that can accept differences in people.


UCT Graduate: Industrial Sociology and Clinical Psychology 

Ted X Speaker: The Power Of Confidence In The Workplace 

YALI Alumni: COHORT 12, Public Management and Governance 

Profession: National HR Manager, NGO sector  

Share With Friends