I am proud to be difficult, different, to have a voice that is mine and know who I am. It comes with years of experience, knowing who you are, and changing. Thank God we change. With all these experiences in our lives — good and bad — we transcend.
Dr Linda Meyer (right), Director: Operations and Sector Support at Universities South Africa (USAf), declared these words to members of the Student Women Economic Empowerment Programme (SWEEP) who gathered on 23 March to be empowered on Maintaining Independence and Dignity Under Pressure.
She said due to fear of being labelled as outliers or agitators — people often cower to opinions departing from the consensus. Often, women are said to be difficult when they hold strong opinions. It is a label used to corner them into conformity. It is for this reason she proudly embraces being “difficult.”
Addressing these aspirant entrepreneurs and leaders, Dr Meyer declared, “No longer can we be reliant on historic contexts and processes as we know them. We are sitting with the highest youth unemployment rate in the world. But we are also sitting on a mountain of possibilities and changing mindsets in how we do business.”
USAf’s Director: Operations said a crucial attribute of independence is having one’s voice heard; never underestimating one’s ambitions and being mindful of what this ambition means to one. “What is important to you? Is it to make a difference in people’s lives? Is it financial independence? Do you know your voice?” she asked.
Dr Meyer asserted that maintaining dignity begins with understanding what the word means. For example, she mentioned people who remain silent even when what is being said around them goes against their ethical and moral compasses. She added that each person has a choice – to speak out, or to stay quiet. The latter rarely achieves anything, she posited.
While encouraging speaking out, she quickly added that the crux is in how a person does it – remaining courteous and professional. Dr Meyer reminded her audience that in their professional lives, they will often be judged by their worst last event. Thus, she cautioned against conveying messages while feeling disconcerted.
“Make sure that nobody will ever point their finger at you to say this person is rude, obnoxious, troublesome. Let them rather say that person has strong opinions; that person stands by their moral and ethical positions.” She said the ability to professionally articulate viewpoints and to refrain from attacking others reflects the nobility of each person’s self-honour — the embodiment of dignity and respect.
Dealing with pressure
She also pointed out that people are bound to experience pressure in their professional space. At times, this may feel like intimidation. She warned SWEEP members to be alert and not allow themselves to fall for provocation. She said provocation is one of the strategies some use to provoke others’ weaknesses, thus emphasising the importance of understanding one’s flaws and anticipating scenarios of instigation, and, subsequently, their responses. One way of achieving that, she suggested, was for individuals to know their trigger points and what sets them off in the workplace, so that they can put safeguards in place, and mechanisms, to overcome such instances.
Dr Meyer cautioned that people who are not fearless can never change anything – in their lives, destinies, their families or associates. To illustrate this point, she borrowed words of politician Aung San Suu Kyi. See below:
According to Dr Meyer, being fearless is another instrument that people can employ when facing pressure.
She lamented how, at times, women are their worst enemies. She referred to how women will bemoan inequality in professional spaces, yet when they walk into boardrooms for meetings automatically assume the role of pouring coffee for colleagues or innately becoming caregivers. Dr Meyer underscored the need to set boundaries with such habits.
Moving on to mindfulness and dealing with difficult situations, Dr Meyer said that it was vital for women to accept their emotions, suggesting this births knowledge of self and knowing how to react to stressful circumstances.
She reminded her audience that their bodies will always communicate discomfort – be it through a headache, aching shoulders, or jumpy eyes. These may indicate that trigger points are now activated. She said understanding oneself helps to construct non-destructive reactions and maintain control of raging emotions.
“We need to identify, and label, our emotions. Say I am feeling anxious, hurt or frustrated. Once I’ve acknowledged it, I can do something about it. Often, we migrate through our day and hope that things will get better. We construct our day going from moment to moment without keeping stock of our emotions. Doing so may lead us to engage in critical meetings while being emotionally compromised.”
She said it was crucial to recognise the impermanence of emotions. Dr Meyer advised that it was vital to move from an emotionally frustrating environment when feeling overwhelmed. It is a sign of being mindful.
Furthermore, she said it was also essential for leaders to appreciate when those in their teams display signs of being stressed, to create supportive spaces and guidance. Dr Meyer said that sometimes people feel the urge to control others’ emotions, especially when they are in positions of authority. She cautioned against that.
“You might see that someone is upset or overreacting and then want to belittle them. It is not our place. What we ought to do is remain kind. Because the moment we try to humiliate people and ignore their emotions, we show that we think of them as valueless. We need to guide and be gentle when we are entrusted with responsibility.”
Taking care of one’s emotional and mental state
Dr Meyer said a mistake that people tend to make is to not prioritise their activities in the order of importance. Failure to do so throws them in a spiral of multiple commitments, thus leading to ineffectiveness, which impacts their performance negatively.
She encouraged SWEEP members to pick their high energy moments when engaging clients. For some, these moments could be in the morning, and for others, later in the day. “Start managing your energy constructively. Do not manage your diary. Rest when you are tired and irritable.” She said this was something she wished somebody had told her when she was younger.
“You need to allow your body sufficient time to recuperate, lest you manifest irritability and frustration and being triggered by minor things,” she warned.
Still on taking care of one’s emotional and mental state, Dr Meyer advised against saying yes to everything, except if this involves new opportunities.
Lastly, she spoke about reflection — critically evaluating experiences, situations and self. Critically evaluating oneself was not about merely judging oneself but rather about identifying past errors and planning how to do things differently in future.
“Mindfulness is understanding yourself, the situation, taking time to become conscious of the things around you and be present to those in front of you,” she said, adding that one’s intentions and what they tell people should also reflect in the body language.
Dr Meyer said this was most critical in life: “If you do not respect yourself, do not expect anybody to respect you.”
She said people who do not respect themselves tend to assume that it is okay to address people haphazardly and hurl hurtful remarks. Essentially, they are reflecting what is within them. “Self-respect is defined as holding yourself in esteem and believing that you are good and worthy of being treated well,” she said.
Dr Meyer added that it was paramount to set boundaries, more so in the business world and the workplace, as these are spaces where people err on the side of overstepping boundaries.
Know your value
According to Dr Meyer, knowing one’s value is about avoiding settling for what is beneath what one has to offer. She cited instances where individuals attempt to sabotage others’ lives and careers. She said one way of dealing with such moments was recognising those moments and deciding on the best course of action, which might well be “to walk away,” she said.
Dr Meyer was sharing all of these to empower SWEEP attendees to mitigate stressful situations, reminding them that stress kills.
In conclusion, she advised the women students to maintain composure in difficult moments and to never give credence to people who attempt to belittle and diminish their credibility.
A discussion ensues
Joining Dr Meyer in a panel discussion was Professor Tshidi Mohapeloa (right), Senior Lecturer at Rhodes Business School and Professor Eunice Seekoe, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching, Learning and Community Engagement at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University.
Professor Mohapeloa echoed Dr Meyer’s viewpoint about understanding oneself and managing emotions when contending with difficult situations. While admitting that she still found this challenging, she had found that confronting her feelings by having an internal conversation with herself, worked. In doing so, she assessed the situation to identify her trigger points. She then examined her reactions to identify what she could do differently, and better, in future.
At this point, Dr Meyer invited Professor Seekoe to share insights over maintaining mindfulness, especially when rising to seniority levels in the workplace.
In response, Professor Seekoe (left) said notwithstanding government’s numerous strategies to transform institutions of higher learning after 1994, these establishments were yet to realise gender parity. “Women in higher education continue to face male domination and marginalisation,” she said, wondering why transformation has remained elusive despite the government’s best efforts.
She said one of the contributing factors were institutional cultures that are structured to reproduce these inequalities, much to the detriment of women. “The women who succeeded despite these challenges – emotional and academic – have been mostly sustained by the philosophy of Ubuntu, which has taught us that ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’.”
Professor Seekoe said when one goes through these challenges, one develops resilience.
While urging SWEEP members to utilise Dr Meyer’s tips, she cautioned that the resilience that people develop sometimes works against them, especially when such individuals are unaware of the factors that Dr Meyer highlighted in her presentation.
“Now, it becomes important to focus on your vision, move out of frustrating environments and continue developing yourself,” she said. Professor Seekoe encouraged SWEEP members to form strong networks with other women who have experienced these steep hills as the latter can offer guidance. She also warned against focusing on distractors and to rather look for opportunities to better themselves.
Professor Mohapeloa interjected and said, “Women who have climbed the ladder of success must remember to open the doors for those still climbing… to inspire, manage relationships and influence. That will enable the young professionals to become better women and future leaders.”
Question from a SWEEP member: How one can fight stress? One minute you are confident and then the next you have a challenge, and you are so down and demotivated.
Dr Linda Meyer: You need to know yourself and to understand that you are going to have ups and downs. The downs will pass. Do not judge yourself because you are having a bad moment or feeling depressed and tired. You need to start focusing on getting through that difficulty. We are all human. Accept that you have peaks and values, but, at the end of the day, you need to work on trusting yourself, respecting yourself and knowing that you will succeed, because if you do not believe that nobody else will. Be kind to yourself because you will get through this challenge, and things will get better.
Wrapping up the session, Dr Meyer reminded the aspiring entrepreneurs to own themselves and their space, and to support one another.
“I believe in the collective consciousness,” she said, emphasising the need to be kind to self and others. “It is not going to be easy. There are no handouts. There is no entitlement. If you do not put in the effort, nobody will do so on your behalf. More importantly, set boundaries and do not allow people to take advantage of you.”
It is an initiative of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, established to address the underrepresentation of student women in entrepreneurship, at public universities. It seeks to equip student women for entrepreneurial activity by offering them transferable and practical skills and opportunities, backed by a foundation of academic stewardship.
During these SWEEP webinars, student women are exposed to thought leadership of proven entrepreneurs and successful professionals to inspire them to aspire to independence – especially in the context of gender-based violence. EDHE thus positions these young women for economic participation while studying, so that they are firmly entrenched in business by the time they graduate.
The thought leadership shared at past SWEEP webinars remains accessible.
Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.