Breaking glass ceilings

Posted on August 14, 2020

Acting Head of Urology at UP Dr Kgomotso Mathabe chats about woman in leadership roles – and tells us why asking for help is actually a strength.

Not being accepted into medical school on her first attempt was a good experience for Dr Kgomotso Mathabe in hindsight, because it helped her to define what she really wanted to do.

Today, she is a specialist urologist and Acting Head of the Department of Urology UP, and is the first woman to have obtained this qualification at the University of the Witwatersrand.

She started off doing a Bachelor of Science at UP in her first year, and in her second, was admitted to medical school. “Magda Engelbrecht, who worked in UP’s admissions office, saw potential in me,” recalls Dr Mathabe. “She took me to the Dean’s office and convinced him that I have potential and that they should admit me. That was a significant moment.”

Dr Mathabe comes from a family who valued education. Her grandmother, who was born in 1910, had the equivalent of a Grade 8 education. She could read and write in Setswana and English, something that was unheard of at the time.

The specialist urologist spent her school years between the village of Mathibestad in North West, Alexandra Township and the suburb of Bryanston in Johannesburg. “When we were in school in Bryanston and living in Alexandra, we would sometimes have to hide our school uniforms under the car’s spare wheel until we got to school,” Dr Mathabe recalls. “At the height of apartheid, some believed that the struggle came first and that education would come later. I studied for my matric exams to the sound of gunfire in the township.”

Amazingly, she completed her medical degree in Afrikaans! While she laughs about that today, it was admittedly a battle. Once she had qualified, Dr Mathabe went to the UK for 18 months to earn money to pay off the massive student loans she was laden with.

Her interest in urology grew, and while in the UK she came across an article about Dr Evelyn Moshokoa, the first black woman to qualify as a urologist in South Africa. Dr Moshokoa became Head of the Department of Urology at UP and Dr Mathabe joined her from Wits as her Deputy in 2016. When Dr Moshokoa left UP at the end of 2019, she passed the reins on to Dr Mathabe.

Dr Mathabe also works at Steve Biko Academic Hospital. “I aspire to ascend – to become better at what I do and move onto the next rung of the ladder,” she says. “I was unexpectedly thrust into the position as Acting Head of the department when my boss left at the end of 2019. My first response to the possibility of stepping into her shoes, even temporarily, was to panic. I was unaware at the time that she had in fact been preparing me for this role all along. I have since had time to settle into the realisation that my entire time in urology has been preparing me for this new role.”

Managing her various duties is a balancing act – “balance between being a clinician serving sick patients, being a teacher to undergraduate and postgraduate students, and being a manager and leader within the hospital and the university”. But, she says, asking for help when she needs it has served her well. “This is not easy to do because it seems like a weakness, but that seeming vulnerability has been a strength. It's taken a lot for me to understand and embrace that, to trust everyone to bring their best to the table when given an opportunity.”

So what keeps her motivated? “The potential of our undergraduate students and the potential for game-changing Afrocentric research that our local health care environment provides, which will enable us to provide better care for our people.”

With women’s issues in the spotlight this Women’s Month, we asked Dr Mathabe why she thinks so few women are in leadership roles. She believes many are hampered from assuming leadership positions by a lack of role models and by comparing themselves to men. “The two genders do thing differently,” she says. “Women are different and that is okay. We don’t fully appreciate that the technical skills we work so hard to acquire only get us into the room. They do not get us a seat at the table – that is accomplished by a deliberate process of leadership training. Leadership is an iterative, lifelong process.”

Her advice to women is: “Surround yourself with good people, nurture the relationships with your family and friends, and make personal development a priority. Work consistently on yourself and the other things will fall into place. One of the fruits of a concerted effort to better yourself will be the seemingly inexplicable appearance of teachers and mentors who are waiting in the wings to help you with parts of your journey that they have been designated to walk with you. Believe in the magical experience of your life.”

- Author Primarashni Gower

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