Radio and television personality, Penny Lebyane has enjoyed a full career in media for a quarter of a century, and in her years in the industry, she’s garnered a lot of experience that challenged her to become the person she is today.
If she’s not on radio or television, she’s busy with advocacy and activism work to make our society a better place. This women’s month, she’s urging employers across all industries to do better and ensure that the workplace is a safe and comfortable space for women.
We sat down for a chat with her about her experience and opinions on how employers can foster positive change for women employees.
Q: Your passion for engaging and uplifting women through shared experiences is palpable. Was there a specific point in your life where it hit you to just start doing it?
A: I was born and grew up in a rural setting where l saw the impact of poverty on families yet how resilient and industrious the women were so in hindsight, I realised that it must have been embedded in my consciousness.
Also, in my teens, my mom had a friend who worked for The Women’s Network, which was the precursor to the Gender Commission. So, I used to go to her office reading a lot of material from the USA and across the continent on challenges women face and have to overcome.
The picture I saw as a child gave me the context so, without trying my default mode is to uplift and hold high standards for women to look up to.
Q: What does Women’s Month mean exactly, according to you?
A: Women’s month for me is an opportunity to understand what is at stake if half of the population is not enabled to participate at their full potential. It’s also a moment to reflect on the wins of the generations before, while we [also] celebrate what that has enabled today’s generation to access. I am proud of the women of our country, especially, the previous generation as they had a lot against them.
I study them to always be informed, so I don’t piss on their hard work as I pursue my dreams. I honour their spirits daily through my work, from Charlotte Maxeke in the late 1800s to Winnie Mandela. For me, the impact that women make in society.
History has a way of repeating itself so we must be conscious and intentional, which is what I’ve learned from Oprah Winfrey and Jada Pinkett-Smith.
Q Ideally, how do you see us celebrating Women’s Day as a society?
A: Pause reflect, count the wins, acknowledge the challenges, emphasise the plans, so we all understand what our collective role is. A lot is at stake, but it presents great opportunities to build an equal society.
Q: How do you feel about the way SA addresses and deals with women issues?
A: At times, I feel we are not as committed; it’s only on women’s month that we do a lot. It should be an everyday commitment from the schools, university campuses to newsrooms, and corporate SA.
We need men who will be #HeForShe* advocates and women themselves to live the ethos of what we speak to truthfully, and daily through actions not just on public platforms on women’s month.
* UN Woman Campaigner that calls on men of influence to be champions for gender equality for the world to achieve gender balance at a faster rate.
Q: Drawing from your own experiences, what challenges are women of SA facing currently in the workplace?
A: Equal opportunities and equal pay as men. Women of South Africa work so hard, and we bring change, but we get less for so much effort, and we still have to keep families together.
Balance the pay scales we will see and feel the change. Obviously, gender-based violence and the trauma that comes with it will take us generations to heal, but we are on the way to a better place.
Q: In your thread, earlier in July where you spoke about the effects of radio and mental health, you mentioned that you mastered standing alone despite being marginalised and thrown into depression because of your experiences. Where do you believe that gap is, in terms of addressing the experiences of women in the workplace?
A: As women (or Black people) we suffer from “I don’t want people knowing my business”, and in the workplace, we hide behind our titles that enable us to suffer in silence.
As a mental health advocate and a person who practices mindfulness, I believe in speaking about things and not bottling them up. Even with my children, I’m teaching them to own up to every emotion so that we can get through things and not let our emotions own us.
We need leadership that is invested in understanding that they’re working with people who have lives outside of the office, lives that impact their performances if they’re out of balance.
Just like when the work-life is toxic, the home life becomes affected. Women need support to thrive at work, clear strategy about our growth paths and of course, equal pay.
Q: In your recent #SisterHoodHour chat, you said there was a time where you worked with people who told you to “tone down” and “be a lady.” Every single woman has experienced this more than once in their lives, particularly in the workplace, how do we navigate such conversations?
A: We navigate it by asserting ourselves collectively as women, so the divide and rule system doesn’t continue to keep us stuck and out. We have to get to a place that we influence policy in the spaces we work so those that come after us find tangible landmarks to build on.
Patriarchy unfortunately in some spaces is upheld by women at times causing more damage and creating confusion, especially when trying to belong to the “boy’s club” instead of leading as women.
Being told to tone down or “be a lady” is always in comparison to another woman in the workplace. The idea is to pit women against each other, it’s a big gimmick in the entertainment industry, and sadly, women fall for it.
What most don’t realise, is that men are never in competition with each other, they occupy spaces unapologetically and never try to practice prejudice on one another based on beauty, age, personality or temperament. They embrace how different they are and carry on with the business at hand.
Q: In 2018, you did an interview at 702, where you spoke about women owning their voices. Connecting with the previous two statements and questions, what would you recommend women do to start using and owning their voices?
A: We own our voices by speaking with honesty and sincerity. We cultivate it through actions. Wherever we are, we have power and influence; using it is paramount.
I find that in media spaces, people only turn to speak up only after they have been victimised. They don’t use their voices to advance change and conversations. We have to be more empathetic in that way we identify with others’ pain as people, as women before we are victims of those experiences.
Yes, experience is a better teacher, but prevention is most definitely better than cure, and we can learn from others by alignment.
Q: What can employers do to empower women to use their voices, meaningfully and effectively?
A: Employers can create platforms, monitored, advancement tracking that’s clear for the most junior employees to see the possibilities.
I attended an event recently; I was so impressed that the company hosting the event has an internal program specifically for women, which helps women in junior positions grow and advance into a management position.
Companies must account for what their policy and agenda is on the status of women is. And women must take up those opportunities, do well and encourage each other to use their voices effectively.