13 Aug Black Girl Magic — does it have a place in the workplace?
The advancement of professional black women continuing to be a priority has made it possible for these women to move beyond the racialised and patriarchal constraints that subjected all women to a subordinated status, onto a path towards positions of leadership. The rationale for continuing gender equality initiatives and women’s empowerment in the workplace has progressed from meeting diversity quotas in order to comply with statutory requirements towards promoting women’s economic development. Based on empirical research, several authors have concluded that, while an increasing number of women of colour occupy leadership roles in the workplace, they continue to be confronted by challenges(1)(2)(3). In keeping with the theme of this year’s Women’s Report, the focus of this article is senior- and executive-level black African women professionals and leaders between the ages of 35 and 65 years.
Faced with the persistent overt and covert biases of racism, sexism, and stereotyping, professional black African women in the workplace are often compelled to develop coping strategies, such as assuming identities — evident in their dialect and behaviour — that are closer to what is considered the norm in organisations that were historically dominated by white male leadership, to avoid or diminish the negative consequences of such discrimination and be assimilated into the organisation. Academic literature and documented memoirs confirm this, but also bring to the fore the alternative: that some of these women have chosen to embrace their authentic self and, in so doing, influence and reshape organisational cultures with values from the ancient African philosophy of ubuntu — a deep concern for others and upholding sound morals(4)(5).
Based on anecdotal accounts, press articles, and academic literature, it would seem that there is a surge of professional black women who are positively embracing their authentic self. They are affirming themselves in their work roles and career progression in self-assertive and empowering ways that bring about attention, change, and inclusion. These women’s authenticity, resilience, and accomplishments amplify #BlackGirlMagic, a movement that celebrates the beauty, power, and resilience of black women(6)(7)(8)(9).
In this article, I give a literature review of the concept of ubuntu from a management perspective and argue that professional black women practise leadership that is shaped by ubuntu values, which are aligned with the philosophy underpinning Black Girl Magic in practice. This is followed by an elucidation of the construct Black Girl Magic in relation to traits of professional black African women who embrace ubuntu, to investigate the potential of Black Girl Magic in creating more humane workplaces and engaged workforces.
Review of literature
African scholars and authors offer various meanings of the word ubuntu, a term widely used throughout sub-Saharan Africa, according to how it is lived in different contexts. In South Africa, the origin of the word was traced to the Zulu and Xhosa expression Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu — I am because we are, and, because we are, I am — meaning that a person is dependent on others to be a whole person. Ubuntu is a philosophy and worldview that manifests in shared values, norms, and practices that are based on the notion that, in meeting one’s own needs, one also has duties towards others(10)(11)(12).
In its simplest form, ubuntu means ‘humanness’, which implies warmth, tolerance, understanding, peace, and humaneness. The concept is understood to mean that every individual’s well-being is intertwined and interconnected with that of others. This then means that healthy relationships are critical for community well-being. The ideal is that a responsibility towards each other flows from a deeply felt connection to others. Ubuntu is understood to reflect primary African values of compassion, caring, reciprocity, harmony, sharing, respect, and dignity, in the interest of building and maintaining community. From a relational and ethical perspective, ubuntu has come to imply reciprocal relationships between people and how those relationships should be conducted. “If people live by the spirit of ubuntu, they will display characteristics such as being caring, humble, thoughtful, considerate, understanding, wise, generous, hospitable, socially mature and sensitive, and virtuous”(13)(14)(15)(16).
Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered this explanation of the traits of a person who upholds ubuntu:
A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished when others are tortured or oppressed(17).
Ubuntu can be considered a universal moral ethic; its validity is not limited to traditional familial relations. This notion of humanness, interconnectedness, being part of a collective, and making decisions with a view to both individual and collective well-being, undertaken in a manner grounded in ethical considerations, suggests value in understanding ubuntu from a practical management and leadership perspective.
Ubuntu in the workplace
Professor Lovemore Mbigi, a South African consultant, entrepreneur, philosopher, academic, and author of the book Ubuntu: The African dream in management, is widely considered the founder of the ubuntu philosophy for management practices. He argues that, within an organisational setting, leaders should consider the wisdom contained in the philosophy of ubuntu to improve the effectiveness of leadership, adding that the values of ubuntu must not be seen as African values, but as human values. Mbigi conceptualised five values of ubuntu as a management philosophy: survival, solidarity, spirit, compassion, respect, and dignity. Mbigi believes that ubuntu enables managers to facilitate the development of spirited and caring organisations, where people enthusiastically align themselves with organisational goals without sacrificing their own goals(18).
A recent study on the extent to which ubuntu can be used to engage employees, and thereby improve organisational performance, found a significant overlap between ubuntu and servant leadership, as servant leadership is characterised by moral authority, humility, service, and sacrifice, which bring about trust and respect(19). The study further found that leaders displaying ubuntu and servant leadership behaviours is closely related to their perceived effectiveness. Of specific importance is the finding that fostering a spirit of solidarity — one of Mbigi’s five dimensions of ubuntu — influences organisational performance positively, through increased employee engagement. The results endorse the proposition that leaders who practise the principles of ubuntu connect employees, promote team spirit, and enhance employees’ involvement in their work. In turn, these employees experience a sense of meaning, significance, inspiration, and pride in their work(20).
Ubuntu is already both an unconscious cultural behaviour and a lived experience for most black African women leaders, particularly professionals, as set out in the article “‘I am because we are’: Exploring women’s leadership under ubuntu worldview”. The article was based on a qualitative study of black African women leaders who found that ubuntu in leadership and employee engagement is widely practised by black African women leaders. The study highlighted that women’s desire for leadership is fuelled by a sense of having a higher purpose or calling, a conviction that they need to engage in order to change the status quo. These women leaders’ view of leadership was found to be based on deeply held spiritual and ubuntu values that focus on achieving goals through unity and collective action. The women viewed leadership, not as a role to achieve personal goals or wealth, but as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. The women noted that they upheld these values through interdependence, and advocated having a high regard for every individual, irrespective of identity or social standing, and engaging in collective action and collaborative problem-solving. Ubuntu behaviours, for these black African women leaders, included “being tolerant, non-judgmental, acceptance, respect for humanity, compassion, building authentic and genuine relationships”(21).
Some studies found servant leadership behaviours of black African women leaders to be rooted in motherhood. Mothers are protectors, pillars of support, and community builders who are invested in the welfare of their communities. These studies identified the behaviours of these women leaders as monitoring, identifying, building, and nurturing talent; empowerment; foresight and planning; approachability; flexibility; relationship-building; multitasking; listening; managing relationships; altruism; compassion; and fairness(22)(23)(24).
These women’s ubuntu behaviours were rooted in their belief in the importance and value of three aspects: spirituality and resilience, interdependence, and unity and community-building(25).
Spirituality and resilience: Whether employing religious terminology or not, the participants in the study linked their spirituality with a desire to serve others. These women’s spirituality enabled them to be strong and courageous in the face of difficult circumstances, gave them a sense of purpose and a calling, and was their source of practical wisdom. Spirituality powered their resilience — their ability to bounce back from adversity — and to manage the challenges inherent in leadership. The women drew strength from their spirituality in times of struggle or in the face of challenges to their authority as leaders.
Interdependence: The participants explained that interdependence is about working together — leaders and followers alike — to meet collective goals. Interdependence for the leader involves delegating both power and authority to others, so that they are empowered to act in the interests of the greater good. This includes recognising the need to ensure a pipeline of others to be trained, mentored, and supported to take on leadership roles, by recognising and utilising the talents of others, and by gaining their support. To these women, interdependence means self-sustenance through collective action and the sharing of resources to solve community problems.
Unity and community-building require the ability to see the value in each person and to help everyone live a life of dignity. These women saw value in every human being, and were able to transcend ethnicity or tribal affiliations, to bring about harmony and build their communities.
Based on the above insights, it can be argued that rekindling humanness or the spirit of ubuntu in organisations should perhaps be considered one of the most significant features that professional black African women contribute to an organisation to improve the effectiveness of leaders and, consequently, enhance organisational performance.
Professional black African women who have triumphed over trials and hardships, and established themselves as effective leaders who are universally celebrated, are said to possess and personify Black Girl Magic. University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng and former first lady Michelle Obama are two of the many black women said to have given a human face to Black Girl Magic. In paying tribute to Michelle Obama, Sonita Ross wrote(26) that Michelle was not just the first lady, she was the first black first lady. “I was in awe of her beauty, grace and accomplishments. She came from a working-class family and worked so hard that she was, at one time, her future husband’s boss. She is notable because, in addition to her many accomplishments, she became the First Lady and transgressed obstacles that limit black women’s access to the fullness of womanhood and, indeed, humanity. Michelle stopped the world when she reluctantly stepped into the role, and she dazzled us, inspired and reminded so many black girls of our own possibility. Michelle is our Black Girl Magic”(27).
From Ubuntu to Black Girl Magic
The first reference to the hashtag #BlackGirlMagic dates back to 2013, when it was used on Twitter, a social media platform. The hashtag was adapted by Cashawn Thompson from the original phrase “Black girls are magic”, coined by American blogger and influencer Auntie Peebz(28)(29)(30). This modern-day social and political phenomenon emerged as a collective voice for black women and girls to celebrate who they are. #BlackGirlMagic is part of an emerging sphere of social experiences where thoughts and ideas, communicated via a hashtag, act as a catalyst for building communities and influencing change. The representation of black women by the hashtag is not considered to constitute a monolithic group, but to consist of all black African women diaspora, inclusive of all classes, levels of education, and religions(31).
Vast evidence of the hashtag found on other social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram and in anecdotes, press articles, and literature shows that the hashtag has gained considerable universal traction. The #BlackGirlMagic phenomenon soon permeated organisations and prominent institutions, where professional black women identified with the contemporary movement and publicly posted their stories attributing their ubuntu-inspired leadership traits such as resilience, their accomplishments, and their triumph over adversity to Black Girl Magic.
A review of #BlackGirlMagic stories and Twitter posts shows that there is power in the narrative. The movement sought to amplify the voices of black women, celebrating what black women deem particularly inspiring about themselves. #BlackGirlMagic grew through women posting their own and others’ stories of accomplishment using the hashtag. Through this sharing of stories and experiences, these women grow, learn, and encourage others to persevere in their own lives and to continue advocacy for inclusion, change, and defying the odds. Since its emergence, as revealed by a Twitter search of the hashtag, key themes of #BlackGirlMagic have been sisterhood, self-love, black beauty, power, resilience, accomplishments, and everyday positive affirmations from the voices of black women, in narratives about black women(32)(33)(34).
What is considered ‘magical’ is diverse. Recently, #BlackGirlMagic has been the subject of criticism and push-back. Critics against the philosophy of the hashtag identified it as having the potential to overemphasise the strengths of black women and preach an unreachable level of womanhood — which will become expected — a level that denies black women permission to be human(35). In response, Ford contends that this is not the case, and suggests that, rather, #BlackGirlMagic transcends the ideology of strong black women by offering a conceptualisation of black womanhood that is multidimensional and that celebrates black women in all their glory, a narrative of pain, strength, vulnerability, and, ultimately, triumph(36). As Ford puts it: “Being magical has never been about being in possession of superhuman mental or emotional strength. In fact, every magical being we read about has moments of weakness, powerlessness, and obstacles outside their control. What makes black girls magic is not an inherent access to some form of super strength. Magic is about knowing something that others don’t know or refuse to see. When a black woman is successful, and the world refuses to see her blood, sweat and tears behind the win, what does it look like? Magic. It’s not for them. It’s for us”(37).
Thompson agrees, and adds that black women use the word ‘magic’ because others do not always understand the ways in which black women and girls create, achieve, and excel, despite the multiple odds they face. “This rallying cry serves not only as an inspiration to black women but also as a way to pay homage to many black women and girls who are defying the odds, day in and day out. That is Black Girl Magic”(38).
Over time, in countries like Brazil and South Africa, #BlackGirlMagic has run into tricky terrain. The movement has received some push-back from the very women it seeks to represent. These women argue that the phrase implies that black women being able to succeed in systems that were never meant to accommodate them takes supernatural strength. Furthermore, they claim that the hashtag has been gobbled up by the mainstream, and has begun to privilege mainstream black women, at the cost of women who do not conform to the traditional persona(39). This unintended consequence is not the hashtag’s fault, nor is it the truth behind its intent. In reality, the black women who continue to associate positively with the hashtag, use the hashtag, and feel proud of it far outnumber the dissidents.
I prescribe to the predominant view that Black Girl Magic is an affirming phenomenon that resonates deeply and perhaps amplifies the traits professional black women embrace when they practise leadership that is shaped by ubuntu values. #BlackGirlMagic appears to have given prominent professional black women who practise ubuntu-inspired leadership notable legitimacy through their public sharing of their stories and celebration of their accomplishments. #BlackGirlMagic both acknowledges and connects black women. Black Girl Magic could be a powerful force in the South African workplace, because its power lies in uniting black women and establishing a collective voice among black African women leaders who are all striving for the same thing — to challenge the status quo and create humane workplaces. In reality, black African women should be supported to reach their full potential through community, while they, simultaneously, protect each other from the world that often views them as ‘others’.
This article was based on an extensive literature review, during which it became clear that research and theorising on women and leadership in the African context is limited, and that Eurocentric leadership development and training approaches continue unabated. The concept of ubuntu-based management, specifically in the context of its application by black African women through Black Girl Magic, provides a foundation for leadership development that is more contextually and culturally relevant in transformed and diverse South African organisations.
I submit that professional black women who embrace their authenticity, affirm themselves in their leadership roles through ubuntu values, and thereby promote the creation of humane and caring organisational cultures remain in the minority in South African organisations. The authentic relationships resulting from genuine ubuntu-infused leadership remind leaders that people — employees, constituents, students, and community members — are human beings, not just human ‘doings’ for the achievement of organisational or community goals. People want to experience a sense of community, a sense of belonging(40). The magic of black African women leaders who operate from an ubuntu worldview will contribute to sustaining such healthy relations and will help to build community. This should be promoted and entrenched through contextualised leadership development programmes. By understanding these women’s impact, organisations can begin to adapt and tailor their inclusion programmes and initiatives around the unique needs of professional black women and ubuntu-infused leadership, capitalising on Black Girl Magic. This could influence the organisational culture towards higher employee engagement, productivity, and profitability.
Human resources practitioners should consider mentorship strategies to foster a welcoming environment for professional black women, one that facilitates their application of Black Girl Magic through ubuntu-infused leadership.
Training and development opportunities geared towards African women need to be enhanced, and should focus more on utilising existing studies on ubuntu as a management concept, to ensure that these programmes are culturally and contextually relevant.
Mentoring is critical to the career success and retention of professional black African women(41). Human resource practitioners should pay more attention to enabling leaders in the workplace to set up systems that identify and eliminate discriminatory practices. They should report experiences of perceived bias that may impede professional black African women in advancing in their roles or that compel them to assume identities as a coping strategy, thereby causing a loss of self-esteem and the ability to live out, share, and teach others Black Girl Magic.
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