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South African CEO's 'Bitch-Switch' Comment Prompts Firestorm

The radio interview began on a positive, empowering note.

Jose dos Santos, CEO of Cell C, South Africa’s third-largest telecom company, spoke about the growing number of female staffers in his organization and said he hoped to one day be succeeded by a woman.

Some of the company’s top engineers were female, he said.

“We no longer live in a society where the woman stays at home and she’s got to look after the chores,” Dos Santos told CliffCentral. “Today, a lot of women are independent. They bring up the kids by themselves, they are financially stable. But somehow we’ve failed as a nation to empower them.”

Within seconds of this statement, however, the interview took a turn.

In discussing the “different way” that women work, Dos Santos said, “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 also highlighted the effect of having attractive women in the workplace, such as the finalists of the Miss South Africa pageant, who were offered internship programs at Cell C.

“It brought a whole different atmosphere... I mean, can you imagine, you’ve got 12 gorgeous women and say four, five of them walk into your company. Do you know what it does to the atmosphere in that company, the men dress better, they shave every morning,” Dos Santos said.

The CEO’s comments ignited a firestorm of criticism on social media, with many netizens skewering Dos Santos for perpetuating sexist stereotypes.

The phrase “Cell C CEO” began trending on Twitter in South Africa on Tuesday.

Dos Santos later apologized for his comments.

“I really want to say that I absolutely apologize if I have offended anyone; clearly a lot of people have been offended, and it’s a situation that I regret very much. It’s one of those things where this kind of language cannot be tolerated in society,” Dos Santos said, according South African news site Eyewitness News. “I am not a sexist, and … if you look at what we have achieved in Cell C over the last three years, it’s really about women empowerment.”

The company’s top women executives came out in support of the CEO this week.

“There have been moments in all our lives when we have said or done something we regret,” the executives said in a statement. “As the top female management team of Cell C, we agree that [Dos Santos’] choice of words on a specific matter was not appropriate. However, what we know is that the public outrage he is facing for that regrettable choice of words has far outweighed what he has done for every employee in this company, particularly women.“

As Quartz noted, the issue may be far greater and more entrenched than one CEO's comments.

This week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released a study that showed South Africa had the highest number of skilled women professionals leaving the country compared with the rest of the continent. Almost 500,000 South African women left for the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom between 2010 and 2013, the study found. 

Janice Hicks of the Commission for Gender Equality said women were likely seeking opportunities abroad because their representation in managerial positions was still "disproportionately low."

"If you ask about a push factor, it’s that we are out there but we are not getting access to senior positions. Gender transformation groups have put out figures that point to poor gender transformation," Hicks told Business Day. 

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