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The challenges of being a female leader

Posted by Veronica Wainstein on May 18, 2017 at 8:00 PM
Veronica Wainstein
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Penquin’s MD, Veronica Wainstein, writes about her rise through the glass ceiling and the challenges other women face doing the same.

I’ll be frank - when I joined Penquin, after nine years in marketing - I was joining what was pretty much an all boy’s club.

Now, I run the company.

Similar to most other marketing companies in South Africa at the time, every head of department and all the top tiers of management were men. Despite this, and because of my passion and experience on other accounts, I was tasked with working on what has now become our biggest account: Suzuki. Though a great opportunity for me, the auto-industry is a very male dominated environment and I literally learnt to ‘speak car’ while on the job.

After months of working the account hard and stretching myself to the limit, I knew that though I didn’t have any female mentors, my managers were on my side and wanted me to succeed. One of these was the then MD of Penquin, Darren Leishman, who remains my biggest inspiration, confidante and friend. One of the many things I appreciate about him as a manager, and a person, is how he made me feel valued. One incident, especially poignant in light of the wage gap, was being called into his office for a raise without me proactively asking for one. He said he wasn’t morally OK with the fact that I was earning less than the male colleague I was outperforming on every turn. This was a huge morale booster, and I respect him for giving me a raise without me even being aware there was a discrepancy.

The wage gap is an all too-real hurdle for female employees. As the Atlantic writes, “Extensive research shows that even when controlling for factors like education, skill, and experience, women routinely earn less than men employed in the same professions. Often, this argument is accompanied by the now-famous statistic that women earn about 79 cents for every dollar men make at work.” Not having to fight this, but rather having my worth recognised by my superiors in the office, was an incredibly rare and rewarding experience that boosted my confidence and set me on a trajectory to success.

Penquin's female leader at the State of inbound conference 2016.jpg

Me at one of the biggest international marketing conferences in 2016, with Darren Leishman and the head of marketing at Suzuki.


I became a shareholder, and last year, after nine years at Penquin, became the MD of the company. Though I was luckier than most, there are some very real challenges that come part and parcel of the package when you’re a female leader. The New York Times explains this beautifully: “If women stay boxed in by the norms of our gender — passive, gentle and congenial — we may not be viewed as leadership material. If women adopt the norms of a leader — commanding, decisive and assertive — we may be punished for being too bossy, too pushy, too strident, too ambitious, too scary.” Navigating this line is extremely difficult: “It’s hard for women to convey both accessibility and authority,” says New York Magazine.  

Though this is not inherently a female trait, I know that I’m a crier, and I cried through eight years of performance appraisals. It’s a sign of the quality of leadership I had that this wasn’t seen as a sign of weakness. Darren used to tell me, “Cry as much as you need to, as long as we can talk.” As a woman, it’s easy to get judged for expressing emotions. Unfortunately in a corporate environment, anything that can be interpreted as weakness or irrationality can be a blow to future success. “[Women] are judged on appearance and behavior in such a way that only a very narrow range of characteristics (be they aesthetic or personality driven) are acceptable if we want to get ahead,” writes Forbes. They continue, “If the price of entry for women into the higher echelons of government and Fortune 500 boardrooms is that we need to excel almost to the point of being superhuman, it is no wonder it takes a quarter of century for each one of us to break through.”

One challenge I’ve faced as a manager is to separate work and friendship. Ann Friedman describes this challenge well in Lonely at the Top, a piece she wrote for the New York Magazine: “I worked such long hours that the people I managed became some of my best friends — which was less lonely, but tricky in its own right. It’s tough to talk about deadlines or budgets or push back against an inconveniently scheduled vacation when you’re managing your friends.” Sometimes, it can be hard to separate a glass of wine from a conversation about not meeting a sales target.


My advice for young women on the path to an executive role: breathe. Don’t beat yourself up! It’s not a race; you have to fall down and break a leg to get stronger. Keep learning and take any criticism as an opportunity to make changes and challenge yourself. I’ve faced a lot of self-doubt and I probably always will; but I know every step that’s taken me here has been worth the trouble.


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