For a brief moment, Cell C‘s Jose dos Santos was on the right side of history. Speaking on CliffCentral radio on Monday, the CEO of South Africa’s third-largest telecom company expressed his hopes that he would succeeded by a woman.
And then it went horribly wrong.
“If I can use the term on the radio station, women do have a bitch switch and, boy, if you see two women fighting, it’s worse than two men having an argument,” Dos Santos said.
Dos Santos also highlighted the effect of having attractive women in the office, like the finalists of the Miss South Africa pageant, which Cell C sponsors.
“Do you know what it does to the atmosphere in that company? The men dress better, they shave every morning,” he said.
His “bitch switch” comment went viral.
As public anger mounted, dos Santos tried to apologize. “I regret my choice of words which I realize were offensive,” said dos Santos. But that didn’t quite make things better.
But dos Santos’ comments do seem to reflect a corporate environment hostile to South African women’s career ambitions, studies show.
This week, OECD released a study that showed that South Africa has the highest number of skilled women leaving the country compared to the rest of the continent.
The study showed that 486,134 South African women left for the United States, Australia and and the United Kingdom between 2010 and 2013. The reason behind this is likely because women do not have access to senior positions, said Janine Hicks of the Commission for Gender Equality.
While South African women made up 48.6% of the South African workforce in the 2013/2014 financial year, their numbers dwindled in senior positions, according to a data journalism project by Code4SouthAfrica.
This week Cell C’s top women executives came out in support of dos Santos, saying they have had the opportunity to “shine” under his leadership. Dos Santos’ comments may also hurt the social responsibility reputation the company built on its annual Take A Girl Child To Work day that gives schoolgirls a look inside corporate South Africa, and includes a bursary and mentorship program.
“I mentioned that in my experience, I have seen instances where women do not support each other to get to the top,” said dos Santos in his mea culpa. “This is not an environment that was created by women, but one that has been entrenched in the general workplace.”