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From the Cape Flats to Harvard and Beyond: Read an Excerpt from Swimming Upstream by Shirley Zinn

shirley zinn


Swimming UpstreamCourtesy of KR Publishing, read an excerpt from Swimming Upstream: A Story of Grit and Determination to Succeed, by Shirley Zinn.

Zinn’s story is one of determination, courage, and triumph over adversity. She was born and raised on the Cape Flats, but was determined that the typical story of a girl from that area – gangsterism, alcoholism and teenage pregnancy – would not be her story.

Instead, Zinn relentlessly pursued her goals and forged an impressive academic career before setting out to conquer the world of business.

Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, calls Swimming Upstream “one of the most impressive autobiographies in recent years”.

“What makes this well-written book particularly relevant in the present,” Jansen says, “is that it draws attention to the role of nonmaterial resources in shaping the destiny of disadvantaged youth in circumstances where there was little money and even fewer opportunities.”


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Read an excerpt from Swimming Upstream:

Chapter 13
What it takes


There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what it takes to be a successful businesswoman, but I know from personal experience that it’s possible to conquer the boardroom in stilettos. It’s possible to crack that glass ceiling: set your sights high and aim for that apex. I refused to allow myself to be defined by the concept of a glass ceiling.

I’ve never assumed a particular persona, been something I’m not, said anything I don’t believe in, or said something I haven’t thought through properly. I’ve always been respectful of the views of others and I’ve never emulated male behaviour to get a few steps ahead. I have worked with men who believed in gender equity and that we need to build a society based on principles of equity and fairness together as men and women.

I love being a woman, and I celebrate my femininity in ways that work for me: I take great care with my make-up, I dress for the occasion, I try to make an impression when I walk in that I’m ‘all woman’. I see my femininity as a key strength, and I can only seek to be the best version of myself.

Women need to be allowed to be women; they need to be respected for who they are. We need to create a better South Africa – a better world – for all and we need to ensure that all are included: black, white, male and female. All of us must benefit from the democracy that we’re trying to build where men and women can flourish in an inclusive, fair and just society.

The spirit of our Constitution, of unity in diversity, isn’t about displacing any group of people. Neither is the spirit of ubuntu, and it certainly wasn’t Madiba’s vision that we do so. For me the philosophy around gender and equality is about creating inclusivity and an integrated society premised on the principles of democracy and a better life for all.

In my HR role, I realised that hiring diverse talent is one of the biggest challenges that leaders face today, given the global war for talent. The best mix and diversity of talent translates into diversity of thinking, optimal performance and provides organisations with a real, tangible, measurable competitive edge. Many organisations, however, simply don’t get the mix and diversity of talent right, but are happy to tick the boxes for the sake of compliance.

They also fail to harness and unleash the potential in their people by pigeonholing and boxing people in, or labelling them and telling them there are certain things they can and can’t do.

Individuals are also guilty of this by placing huge limitations on themselves, when they think they can only do so much. We sometimes think we need to be an Einstein to add value, but this really isn’t the case. Often, the little incremental things we do have a huge impact and there are many things that we have to do for the first time.

South Africa is desperately trying to grow its economy, and we need to harness the talent of every single person, male, female, white or black, to ensure that we’re effectively growing this country to compete in the global environment, in line with our national vision as expressed in the National Development Plan. Women constitute fifty-two percent of the population, and we simply cannot be dismissive of fifty-two percent of the talent in this country.

We need male and female leaders who can achieve this in both the public and private spheres. The more we can get the best and the brightest people into our organisations – irrespective of race and gender – the better.

Having said this, we still need to correct the past. We need to find a way to unlock economic liberation for people and find ways to harness the collective intellect of all people in this country. We must put them into positions of leadership and give them opportunities that they might never have had.

If we’re able to do this, South Africa will be a much better place, much sooner than if we spin our wheels and have endless debates that don’t go anywhere. Many of our debates about transformation are about compliance, tick boxes and numbers. We have lost the spirit of what we are really trying to achieve through economic empowerment.

As women, we also need to recognise the men who’ve made a difference in our lives. I’ve been fortunate to have had friends, colleagues, a husband and a father, including leaders like Tom Boardman and Pravin Gordhan, who’ve all displayed enormous generosity of spirit in allowing and enabling me to do the things that I’ve done. They’ve all supported me in a very real way.

I’ve always had great men around me. I intentionally surrounded myself all my life around good men. I subscribe fully to UNICEF’s definition of gender equality: “Gender equality means that women and men, boys and girls enjoy the same rights, resources, opportunities and protections … it does not require that they be treated exactly alike.”

I also subscribe to Wendy Harcourt’s views, expressed in the Report on World Commission on Culture and Development 1995: “The time is past when a women’s movement had to exclude men in the fight against patriarchy. The time has come rather for women’s vision to restructure and redefine work in order to fashion a new society for women and men based on women’s experience and skills as care-givers and reproducers.”

Some women actively seek out like-minded women: I’ve never done so. I draw on the strengths of everyone around me for moving the organisation forward and I try to take people along with me, even if we differ on some points.

Besides ticking the boxes from a legal and compliance point of view, research shows that where women are on boards and in senior executive positions, organisations have a better triple bottom line. I’ve always wanted my brain-power to work for me.

But while I believe that women play a huge role in board and senior management positions, I’m always very careful not to state emphatically what qualities women bring to the boardroom or to senior management. This can lead to stereotyping. You don’t want to see women defined by a cadre of leadership that does the soft stuff. You want to see women, together with men, being able to build a great organisation that is successful.

Women make a huge difference when they’re empowered to do what they need to do within the organisation. Smart organisations have worked this out. When you interpret this in a systematic and thoughtful way, you can realise results you never imagined possible.

It’s not always perfect, but as a general principle, in a world where talent is in such short supply at decision-making levels, you cannot possibly exclude half of your candidates. Women such as Oprah Winfrey, Gloria Serobe, Maria Ramos, and Graça Machel have stepped up even when they’ve had to stand alone. There are women on our own continent who’ve played a great role and have made a huge difference, not just to organisations, but to society. These women have to be celebrated.

It’s important to acknowledge that while we need to create gender equity in the workplace and in society as a whole, we still face many challenges and deep-seated prejudices. Women have been socialised to be subservient, so when women step up and want to have their voices heard they’re often seen to be too aggressive, too outspoken, and too pushy. Paternalistic behaviour is still very much alive and well.

We live our lives within a broader environment, within a society that has decided to structure and frame itself based on things that are acceptable, and things that aren’t. We have all kinds of unwritten rules and intangibles that sometimes play themselves out in the most horrific way in boardrooms and engagements in the workplace.

It’s also important to acknowledge that women are socialised as little girls to be polite, nice, subservient, co-operative and accommodating, so we sometimes struggle with the notion of being feminine and being ambitious at the same time. The challenge is that we have to compete in the world as it’s currently set up. We have to come to terms with personal ambition and not be defensive or apologetic about our aspirations.

I’m currently coaching a woman whose boss has told her that when she speaks out she’s too “aggressive”. He actually used that word in his brief to me. If it were a man speaking like this, it would be acceptable. When women do the same thing, however, they try to silence you or take you out, which is what they tried to do in this case.

Women often find themselves in this position because someone, perhaps even their boss, thinks they’re a little too confident. The confidence is identified as being ambition. It’s never a case of ‘she’s done her homework’, ‘she knows what she’s doing’, or ‘she has a point’ and she is a valued member of the team.

Many women suffer emotional abuse at work and at home, the fall-out being depression, anxiety and decreased morale. You can’t always choose your boss, but you don’t have to take abuse. You have the right to respectfully and professionally disagree, and to reserve your rights if needs be.

There are, however, many men who’ve understood this and who accept that equity is required. We need to recognise our common humanity as men and women, and that we need to co-exist and build a meaningful future together.

We need to engage men and women in the equality and mainstreaming dialogue; we also need to make men accountable for gender equity. This isn’t a women-only issue, but a societal and economic issue to make everyone financially sustainable and contribute to overall economic growth and prosperity.

South Africa is still without adequate representation of women in JSElisted corporations, reports the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa (BWASA) in the 2015 South African Women in Leadership Census. It is very concerning that only 8.79% of JSE-listed companies have twentyfive percent or more women directors (BWASA 2015). The research conducted also draws on international benchmarks and cites South Africa as a top performer amongst BRICS countries, with almost double the percentage of women directors, compared to its nearest competitor, China (at 11.1%).

There is a concern that although there are more women than men now graduating with degrees, women are still pursuing degrees in non-critical disciplines as per the country’s skills requirements. We are beneficiaries and guardians of our Bill of Rights and have a collective responsibility to ensure that all women benefit from this. We, both men and women in this country, have to continue to be activists for change and equality. The job is never really done, and we could regress if we take our eye off the ball.

We especially need to pay attention to rural development, as women in these environments have endured even further marginalisation economically and socially. Our big enemy is our history of gender inequality and social engineering. We are not confronting this sufficiently, and superficial, peripheral efforts will not be sustainable. We need to collectively drive systemic solutions that will permeate public policy, organisational practices and social responsibility to ensure that justice prevails.

We require a convergence of both public sector, private sector and civil society to focus on what will make South Africa great. We need to unify our nation around a single vision, and embrace the notion that social stability and national cohesion precede economic growth.

Our personal contributions to equality should not be underestimated. We are called upon in the South African National Development Plan to be “active citizens” and to make the changes in society that are enshrined in our Constitution. We need to shape the values and behaviours in our families, communities and society through dialogue, debate, education and personal accountability for change.

The fact is that life is harder for women than men all over the world. Society, in general, still engages in economic, social and political discrimination and inequities continue to pervade our life experiences. The lists of challenges and atrocities that women face as a result, are endless. Many of these have been documented, but for most women, their stories remain locked in the silence of prejudice and pain.

Even after twenty years of democracy in South Africa, the struggle for gender inequality continues. We need systemic solutions; we cannot simply leave it up to women to fix the societal ills of discrimination against women.

About the book

Shirley is a formidable woman with an amazing story to tell. She has risen to the top of the pile in both academic and business circles, and yet she has retained great humanity and empathy in the face of great personal tragedy.

Her story has lessons for us all – whether we are ordinary or extraordinary, whether we work in business, in government, or at home. Shirley’s story will inspire you and show you that it is possible to achieve your goals, if you are prepared to swim upstream and be single-minded in getting where you want to be.

About the author

Shirley Zinn, who holds an MEd from the University of the Western Cape and a DEd from Harvard, was awarded the Top Woman in Business and Government and Top Executive in Corporate South Africa by Topco Media in 2008. She was recognised by the Black Business Quarterly and received the award for Top Woman in Business and Government and most Visionary Woman in 2008.

Zinn served as HR Director for SARS, Nedbank and Standard Bank. She is currently the Chairperson of DHL: Global Forwarding SA, and a Non-Executive Director on the Boards of AdvTech, Tuesday Consulting, Business Engage, Sygnia Asset Management, and the Boston Consulting Group SA. She also serves on the Advisory Boards of Monash, African Society for Talent Development, and the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences. She is the President for the Harvard Alumni Association South Africa and a Fellow of the Institute of Directors SA.

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