Superwoman’s cape may be frayed at the edges

Bone-weary after eight hours in the office, the average woman does not have the luxury of collapsing on a comfy sofa with a glass of wine.

Instead, there is dinner to prepare, homework to supervise, school lunches to make and the empty grocery cupboard to think about. There is so much to do that children excited to share their day are tuned out, which brings an unhealthy dose of guilt to an already overburdened mind.

‘Women can have it all’ is a phrase meant to inspire but for most women, run ragged by societal expectations, it is a yardstick by which they measure themselves and yet again come up short. “Statistics overwhelmingly show that women suffer more from mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, than men,” says Melene Rossouw of the Women Lead Movement.

Despite women making up a significant percentage of the South African workforce, our gender unequal society also expects that they carry the majority of home and family responsibilities. “This often comes at a cost to their own health and personal interests,” says Melene. There is little doubt that the capes of many so-called superwomen are frayed and worn.

“If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” – Maya Angelou

Melene Rossouw – An experienced attorney, Melene is the executive director of the Women Lead Movement, an NPO that promotes gender equality at community level. Melene is an internationally recognised gender and human rights activist. In 2020, she was selected by Junior Chamber International as one of the Top 10 Outstanding Young Persons of the World honourees in the category World Peace/Human Rights.

“Throughout society, we see women ‘getting it right’,” says Melene. “And why wouldn’t they? Women are tenacious and resilient by nature. However, I have a challenge with this narrative because whether we are getting it right or not, does not justify the gross unfairness in many of these scenarios.”

Melene comes from a household in which her single mother was the only breadwinner. “It was not necessarily a heroic picture, but rather reflected how women are failed by the system and society daily.

“Women are known to wear many hats and there will be those women who have no issue with that, because they have the necessary financial, mental, and emotional support at home. However, there are millions of other women who do not have the support and comfort of relying on others,” she says, adding that their battles are highlighted by the reality that depression is overwhelmingly more common in women than it is in men.

“Women who wear many hats, especially women living in poverty, do not have a balanced lifestyle, but instead operate in survival mode. In my view, this substantially impacts their quality of life.

“There is nothing to celebrate in these circumstances; rather, we should feel ashamed for not altering the oppressive social infrastructure that would be able to assist these women,” says Melene.

Support through sisterhood

Nonhlanhla Skosana – This passionate gender equality champion is the community education and mobilisation unit manager at NPO Sonke Gender Justice. Her political activism was sparked while growing up in Tembisa during the height of mass resistance against apartheid in the late 80s. Sonke Gender Justice is committed to the development of gender-just and democratic societies.

Nonhlanhla Skosana of NPO Sonke Gender Justice says women need to become better at supporting each other, to create a more enabling environment for their holistic well-being.

“We need to be our sisters’ keepers. When you are in a space where you have access to resources, you need to deliberately prioritise less enabled women,” she says.

Women who hold positions of power must work to influence policies on women’s rights and gender equality. She says those women who are in a position to do so, must help ensure their employer has gender-sensitives budgets. “If you have gender advancement policies, but no budget for programmes, it is meaningless,” says Nonhlanhla.

Penny Streeter, an entrepreneur who built an empire that spans two continents, believes that women have the attributes needed to shine brightly on all fronts. She warns, however, that it will take considerable work. “Women are brilliant multi-taskers and already run their families, their lives and everything associated with it.” Penny says that if a woman is lucky enough to find a job she loves – her niche in life – having it all will become that much easier.

“It is an adventure!”

“Being a woman in SA today is an adventure,” says ‘spice lady” Tonine Warden.
Tonine, architect and owner of the popular spice shop To9 Herbs & Spices in Hartbeespoort, juggles two businesses at the same time and describes it as a carefully planned balancing act.

Tonine Warden

What obstacles do women encounter in the business world?
“I think it is tough for women and men alike to own a business and carry all the responsibilities that go with it. I would say it is easier to be a businesswoman today than a couple of decades ago. I don’t think the issue is “can women run their own business” but whether you can run it while running a household at the same time.”

What challenges do you face to run successful businesses?
“I am currently running three businesses… That includes being a mom and running a household because face it, that on its own is like running a business! Maybe that is why being successful in the business world comes so naturally to a lot of women. My biggest challenge is to find a balance between all three, to continue with one job while building a new business and still find time to spend quality time with my children and husband. Three challenges I faced the moment I decided to start a new business were: Time, Money & Courage. But let me tell you, that should not discourage you! Because the less time you have, the more time you make; the less money you have, the better you plan. As for courage…you only need enough to take that first step, the rest you will build as you grow your business.”

How do you balance business and home life?
“Luckily I’ve got the best husband a woman could dream of. Times have changed and more men share household chores like cooking, cleaning and looking after the kids. My husband also gives me more emotional support than I think he realises. His involvement allows me to have more quality time with my kids and to have some energy left to continue working late nights after everyone is in bed.”

What inspires and motivates you?
“My passion for what I do is a very big motivator. This year I decided rather than thinking about what I would like to do and achieve in life that I am going to take action and just do it! So far, I love every moment of it.”

How do you see the role of women in our society?
“Unfortunately I find that women are sometimes more sexist than men. We live in an era where women are allowed to follow their dreams. But your strengths should be used to complement the shortcomings of those around you. If you can find the balance with the other men and women in your life or workplace then you will be able to make a powerful team.”

What is your wish for women?
“Don’t think other people should bow before you and serve life on a platter, but also never undervalue yourself! And never underestimate your ability to succeed!”