Female Leaders who run our Mother City: Mariette du Toit-Helmbold

In light of Women’s Day on 9 August 2012, Future Cape Town considers the wealth of female leadership in Cape Town. Here Mariette du Toit-Helmbold, former CEO of Cape Town Tourism and now CEO of Destinate , answers five questions from our MD Rashiq Fataar:

Rashiq FataarWhat do you think is the significance of female leaders being at the helm of the City of Cape Town, the Western Cape Government, Cape Town Tourism and the Cape Town Partnership?

Mariette du Toit-Helmbold: With only 6, 6% of CEO positions in South Africa occupied by women I am passionate about inspiring and empowering more women to be leaders. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a woman must be a CEO before she can lead and inspire – so many women contribute to shaping and building our country’s future every day. Women’s Day is a celebration of these women, who despite hardship, abuse and discrimination, stand up and make a difference and inspire others to do the same.

In a world where gender, age and race still influence success, I have discovered the power of embracing and celebrating my gender (and more recently motherhood). But, it has been and remains a tough journey…

Leadership is determined by character not age or gender. But still women often have to work twice as hard as our male colleagues to be taken serious, whilst balancing our roles of leaders, women, wives and mothers with care and sensitivity.

It’s a bit like being a City at the tip of an African continent with the odds stacked against it – long-hall, the legacy of Apartheid and oppression still weighing heavily on her shoulders, a lack of infrastructure and a reputation as a slightly dangerous place to visit, whether true or not…The fact that she is beautiful, unique, bold, free spirited, complex, imaginative, incredibly creative, innovative, warm, friendly, sophisticated and unlike no other on earth, are often overlooked.

Women’s Day reminds me that first and foremost I am a woman and a mother and that it is ok. It grounds me and allows me personally to be a better leader.

I have learned that for tourism to be successful, it has to be operated from sound, practical and common sense business principles. But for business to be successful a dash of creativity, lots of passion, a bit of warmth and some fairly wild, off the cuff ideas are necessary. For women, these characteristics come naturally.

I love what Michael Schrage says in his book, Serious Play: “Those who are willing to invest in and test unproven ideas, based on a hunch or a gut reaction, are likely to find their noses bloodied, routinely. But, by the act, they increase the odds, dramatically, of joining the small set of true world beaters who shape tomorrow’s extraordinary contours”.

RF: Do you think the challenges that female leaders in our city and country face today, differ vastly from those 10 or 20 years ago? What are some of the challenges you face daily?

MdTH: Women need meaningful and practical interventions, we need recognition, we need access to opportunities, we need protection and we need the freedom to be mothers, leaders and employees who want to contribute to positive change and create a better future for our children.

RFIn a world dealing with challenges like urbanization and a volatile economies, women remain one of the most vulnerable groups. What do you think good leadership can bring to promote and enhance the freedoms of women in cities and urban areas? What are some of the examples of projects or actions, that you have championed, which enable these freedoms?

MdTH: I am a great fan of Tom Peters and not only because he calls women “woefully untapped sources of effective leaders.” He also says: “I do not believe in initiatives, however good they are. I believe in full-scale assaults on enormous opportunities.” Those privileged and entrusted to lead have a great responsibility to bring about positive change.

Here is a reminder of just how much must change in our world:

  • Of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty around the world, 70% are women
  • Women do about 66% of the world’s work in return for less than 5% of its income
  • Two thirds of the world illiterates and 80% of refugees are women
  • 50% of the world’s food is produced by women
  • Women own less than 1% of the world’s property

Societies where women are not afforded equal rights can never achieve development in a sustainable manner. Although South Africa has a fairly good institutional framework with a liberal constitution and women have a fair sense of freedom to do business, excel and have access to opportunities and education, discrimination is rife and many glass ceilings remain.  Of greater concern is the persistence of violence and abuse (often by those closest to women) against women.

One of the most sensitive issues that the tourism industry faces refers to the phenomenon of commercial sexual exploitation of women and children mainly in developing countries, by tourists coming often from developed countries. In partnership with the UN World Tourism Organisation, ECPAT (End Child Pornography and Trafficking) had developed The Code (www.thecode.org), an international code of conduct intended to prevent child sex tourism by making the tourism and hospitality industry vigilant and aware.

I have been part of an international task team looking at the protection of women and children through tourism, and initiated the implementation of the Code against Human Trafficking in partnership with Fair Trade in Tourism SA (FTTSA) in Cape Town in the run up to the World Cup in 2010.

The message must be clear: Whilst we welcome visitors from all over the world with open hearts, visitors who exploit women and children are not welcome in Cape Town.

I am a member of, among others, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) International Women in Tourism Task Team; the UNWTO Destination Council; the UNWTO Business Council, and the UNWTO Protection of Children Through Tourism Council. Cape Town Tourism has been recognised by the UN World Tourism Organisation as a leading tourism organisational model, linking the private and public sectors.

The time has come for women who have been blessed with education, health and freedom to lead the way in opening doors, to speak out against discrimination and abuse, remove barriers, recognise and empower other women of worth.

While leading Cape Town Tourism I have never lost sight of the fact that it is people, rather than facts and figures, that constitute the most important tourism ingredient of all. Cape Town Tourism employs more than 70% female staff. Women account for 60% of all senior management posts, and 40% of the organisation’s Board of Directors are female.

RF: Which other female leaders have inspired you throughout your life and why?

MdTH: Dr Mamphela Ramphele and Cheryl Carolus, who both overcome great obstacles and rose to positions of leadership against so many odds. I have had the privilege to meet both and can testify that even though they are respected and high-powered leaders, they remain humble, approachable and generous women with a great sense of humour and warmth.

RF: What do you think is the single most important urban issue or challenge currently facing Cape Town, and what ideas from Cape Town, and from other cities, have inspired you to find a solution?

MdTH: Cape Town’s inclusivity must still be addressed so that we are a less segregated city and a better place to live and ultimately also a better city to visit. Winning the World Design Capital status for 2014 is an incredible opportunity for Cape Town to use our creativity and innovation to turn the tide. We must be brave and break the mould of bureaucracy, embrace what might appear to be maverick ideas and allow inspiration to fuel a new way of thinking about our future. Cities like Barcelona, New York, Singapore and others have done so and so can we. We face many obstacles and our social problems are staggering, but we are blessed with an abundance of creative thinkers, passionate people, strong leaders and a beautiful backdrop.  I am so excited to be living and working in Cape Town during these exciting times and am committed to be part of the change needed to take Cape Town into the future.