Fairer Work For The Fairer Sex

Puseletso Mompei takes a long, hard look at the state of gender parity in the workplace, particularly at executive level.

Minister of Women in the Presidency, Susan Shabangu, stated earlier this year that our success as a country, around gender mainstreaming, should be measured by “how we translate achievements (made) in government to the private sector.

Busi Mavuso, the Black Management Forum (BMF) managing director, says that despite gender being a talking point during the past two decades, women are still far from achieving the access to positions of leadership and impact for which they strive.

“As long as being white and masculine are the gold standard for leadership and C-suite positions in South Africa, then the pace of change will be slow.” Mavuso says at the macro level, the constructs of patriarchy need to be dismantled, and at the micro level, limiting beliefs and attitudes about the abilities of women need to
be overturned.

Nonkululeko Gobodo, chief executive of Nkululeko Leadership Consulting and a founding member of SizweNtsalubaGobodo, was the first black woman to qualify as a chartered accountant in South Africa. She points out that, as a country, South Africa should be commended for putting gender on the agenda in terms of policies and public discourse, but one of the biggest hurdles black women face is that they are expected to operate in an environment that was designed by men and therefore is rigged in their favour.

Nonkululeko Gobodo
Nonkululeko Gobodo

Gobodo says in order to succeed, women must be willing to challenge dominant standards in broader society as well as the norms within corporate South Africa.

Gobodo and Mavuso both insist that until a critical mass of women is seen in leadership positions, advancement will continue to be a tenuous process. “The presence of women changes the tone and nature of conversations in the boardroom,” says Mavuso, “and in their numbers, women’s influence can be felt more deeply at every touch point in an organisation.”

Mavuso adds that the mere presence of women, however, is not enough. “Those who have a voice must use their influence to ensure that uncomfortable conversations are had, that more supportive policies are implemented and that application of professional development opportunities takes centre stage,” she says. The fact that diverse teams are more profitable is no longer up for debate, yet the fact that business is slow to move shows that the issue goes beyond figures on spreadsheets.

A recent study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics that examined almost 22 000 firms globally found that when women comprise a third of executives, companies are more profitable.

Companies that increased the number of women on boards reported significant increases in profitability, typically by around 15%. Companies with a more diverse board composition also tend to be more innovative and make better decisions.

A balancing act

Gobodo says that as a leader, she has always been a strong proponent of giving women opportunities, but says there is a caveat to that: “They have to show potential and the ambition to succeed.” Godobo says striking the balance between a demanding career and one’s familial obligations is a struggle that many women have to contend with, which can slow down or even see them exiting promising career tracks. “When I left SizweNtsalubaGobodo, only 18% of the partners were female – not because they were not given opportunities, but because many had to choose a different path due to family pressures.”

The findings of a new study of women in the workplace conducted by global management consulting firm Bain & Company show that South African women seem to be “disappearing” on the path to senior leadership, despite beginning their careers with the same level of aspiration and confidence as men. South Africa has more female graduates than males, but despite the strong foundational elements, fewer women are reaching the top. Commonly cited factors are that most women rein in their careers to spend more time caring for family, or that they are inherently less ambitious than men.

The research gathered data on the current perceptions of gender equality and the deterrents to success that most women confront on a daily basis. According to Bain & Company, the statistics do not paint a pretty picture. “As we’ve had more discussions with chief executives about gender, the conversation is becoming stronger,” says Catalina Fajardo, a Bain partner based in Johannesburg and co-author of the report. “There is a lot of focus on transformation and, although progress is still slow, people are realising that we are just not moving the needle.”

How fair are the figures?

Last year the JSE declared that from January 2017, all listed entities would need to have a formalised policy on the promotion of gender diversity at board level, as well as need to disclose how they were performing against this policy. Coming from the oldest existing and largest stock exchange in Africa, this determination should have massive impact.

Gobodo says that the full impact of this is yet to show but that, while time will tell how successful the reporting will be, this requirement is a major victory for women. “Companies take JSE requirements seriously and this obligation will make it more compelling for them to take racial and gender transformation more seriously.”

This comes at a time when there has been a decrease in gender diversity at board level in the private sector. The latest Grant Thornton report into women in business shows that women hold only 23% of senior positions in SA, down from 27% last year. More worrying, the survey reveals that 39% of local businesses do not have any women at all in leadership positions.

The latest Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa census on women in leadership suggests that 22% of board directors are women, but only 7% are executive directors.

Meanwhile, according to the latest Jack Hammer Executive Report, Finding the Facts: South Africa’s Future Leaders, of the 334 executives in the JSE’s top 40 companies, only 17% are female, compared to 21% who are black South Africans. Furthermore, the percentage of female CEOs decreased from 5% in 2012 to only 2.5% in 2015, when the research for the third Executive Report was conducted. However, South Africa’s percentage of female CEOs is on par with the rest of the African continent, where women hold 29% of senior leadership roles.

The report also says women in South Africa are increasingly being appointed to senior positions, yet too many of these appointments remain in support of “corporate services” roles that do not lead to the top jobs. Godobo says boards have to take the responsibility to ensure that there is a solid pipeline of talent leading to the top. This includes nurturing a steady stream of talent, having a substantial number of women in positions of gravitas and exposing young professionals to strong female leadership so that younger women have role models to look up to. She points to women such Sindiswa Zilwa, CEO of Nkonki, and Lindani Dhlamini, CEO of SekelaXabiso, as women in her industry who, along with her, have been trailblazers and a source of inspiration for younger, up-and-coming professionals.

A path towards growth

Even though men and women work side by side on a daily basis, both genders have different experiences regarding their workplaces. Both Gobodo and Mavuso agree that personal agency is an important factor in reaching the top. Mavuso says women who have their eye on top positions consistently have to prepare themselves for future opportunities. That way, when doors open they have the technical expertise and mental fortitude to succeed. “Due to the struggles we face as black women, one of our biggest strengths is that we are extremely resilient,” says Mavuso. “We need to use this as an asset to grow and compete at the highest level.”

Gobodo believes that a winning attitude has served her well in her career and business pursuits. “I have never been one to accept the status quo and have gone into challenges with the determination to succeed,” she says. “I am a natural entrepreneur and with that has come a resolve that fear will not stop me.”

According to research on gender transformation conducted by McKinsey & Company, women continue to face greater barriers to advancement and a steeper path to senior leadership. Yet despite female leadership being an imperative for organisations that want to perform at the highest levels, the current slow rate of progress means that it will take 25 years for gender parity to be reached at senior executive levels, and more than 100 years to reach equality in the C-suite.

Mavuso contends that conversations and initiatives around shifting the power balance away from being white and male should not be isolated to corporate boardrooms; engagement needs to happen across all spheres of society, from domestic and social settings to schools and universities.

While the pace is slow, Gobodo insists that there is still hope, pointing to the recent appointment of Priscillah Mabelane as CEO of BP South Africa and the long tenure of Maria Ramos as the head of Absa as evidence that there is still light at the end of the tunnel.

Image: ©Shutterstock - 58300276
Image: ©Shutterstock - 58300276

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