Valu­able lessons in cor­po­rate con­fi­dence

CityPress - - Business - MARI BLU­MEN­THAL busi­ness@city­press.co.za

‘Boys, clean up af­ter your­selves. Your moth­ers don’t work here.” Sally Hut­ton says she knew her son was a fem­i­nist in the mak­ing when he took a pic­ture of this no­tice in his school’s li­brary and sent it to her in out­rage.

As man­ag­ing part­ner at Web­ber Wentzel, one of South Africa’s big­gest law firms, Hut­ton seems the po­lar op­po­site of the tra­di­tional gen­der stereo­type of a mother fo­cused only on rais­ing chil­dren.

Cor­po­rate law has his­tor­i­cally been dom­i­nated by men and, while she has never ex­pe­ri­enced di­rect dis­crim­i­na­tion in her ca­reer, Hut­ton be­lieves gen­der stereo­typ­ing and the ef­fects of so­cial­i­sa­tion still have a huge ef­fect on the con­fi­dence lev­els of women.

A no­tice in a school li­brary may seem harm­less, but this kind of mes­sage con­trib­utes not only to the way boys per­ceive girls, but to how boys per­ceive their moth­ers and, more im­por­tantly, to how girls per­ceive them­selves.

“It is not nec­es­sar­ily for­mal bar­ri­ers that hold women back. A lot of it boils down to con­fi­dence and the be­lief that you can do it,” she says.

Hut­ton took up the man­ag­ing-part­ner po­si­tion in March last year af­ter the firm’s then se­nior part­ner stepped down be­cause of ill health.

He was 56 and she was 44, and Hut­ton says when she was asked to stand for the man­ag­ing-part­ner po­si­tion, her first thought was that she wasn’t ready yet.

“Many women seem to only want to take on a chal­lenge when they feel that they are 100% ready and able to do it per­fectly. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, this is a uniquely fe­male is­sue. We have been so­cialised not to take risks – but ca­reer de­vel­op­ment re­quires leaps of faith.”

Hut­ton says she was slightly un­com­fort­able at first with the amount of me­dia at­ten­tion she re­ceived as the first woman to be ap­pointed to a se­nior lead­er­ship po­si­tion at one of South Africa’s Big Five law firms. Her ap­point­ment was a gru­elling process in­volv­ing psy­cho­me­t­ric test­ing, ap­point­ment panel in­ter­views, man­i­festos, part­ner pre­sen­ta­tions and an elec­tion.

“The me­dia at­ten­tion sug­gested that it was a sur­pris­ing de­vel­op­ment, but for me it felt like a nat­u­ral, al­beit daunting, pro­gres­sion. I felt I had worked hard and that per­haps the fo­cus on the fact that I was a woman de­tracted some­what from this.” She soon re­alised, though, that she had un­der­es­ti­mated the sym­bol­ism of her new po­si­tion as well as the im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion she could make as a role model.

“Al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter my ap­point­ment, I started re­ceiv­ing cor­re­spon­dence from young women – both in­side and out­side our firm – ex­press­ing what it meant to them to have me in this po­si­tion. It struck me then that for women in se­nior po­si­tions within the le­gal pro­fes­sion, it is our re­spon­si­bil­ity to be role mod­els, to be more vis­i­ble and to be more vo­cal.”

She says women in lead­er­ship po­si­tions can also help to dis­pel stereo­types – es­pe­cially for young women and girls who want cor­po­rate ca­reers af­ter they have chil­dren.

“When I was at school and univer­sity, there was al­ways a sub­text that it would all end when we had chil­dren.” Then she fell preg­nant un­ex­pect­edly as a first-year as­so­ciate.

“In those days, man­ag­ing a pro­fes­sional ca­reer with moth­er­hood was still fairly un­com­mon and there were a lot of peo­ple who said: ‘Oh it’s such a ter­ri­ble shame. She had such a bright fu­ture ahead of her.’”

Hut­ton worked part time for about seven years and watched a num­ber of her male peers surge ahead of her. But she con­tin­ued her ca­reer and had her se­cond child while she was a ju­nior part­ner, and her third when she was an equity part­ner. “Ca­reers don’t al­ways have to progress in a lin­ear fash­ion or at a con­sis­tent pace … mine cer­tainly didn’t. “There will al­ways be some plateaus or hold­ing pe­ri­ods and other pe­ri­ods of fast ac­cel­er­a­tion. Tim­ing is never right or per­fect,” she says. In her cur­rent role, she tries to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that pro­vides women with enough flex­i­bil­ity to en­sure they do not feel forced to leave their jobs so they can man­age the ex­tra re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that come with hav­ing chil­dren.

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