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Masters In Their Fields


Higher education is the fulcrum around which career success turns, so obstacles facing women in our tertiary institutions need to be tackled. Lucinda Jordaan speaks to two women who’ve succeeded in the education and corporate spheres.
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Women occupy only about 28% of leadership positions in South Africa, according to Grant Thornton’s 2017 Women in Business survey, yet it’s not for lack of skills or education in particular. Indeed, South African business schools report a dramatically increased percentage of women MBA students over the past five years. A Times Media survey on further education last year (2016) found that of a total 7 730 MBA students enrolled,  4 363 were men, and 3 367 were women (43%). The reason for the discrepancy is complex, but can partly be found within the education institutions themselves.

“Recent data from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business reveals that female faculty staff at business schools are compensated less compared to male faculty staff. In addition, they are less likely to  advance,” notes Sharmla Chetty, global head of Europe and Africa for Duke Corporate Education (CE). “This  shows the systemic barriers that face women looking to lead, regardless of the industry they’re in.”

Sharmla Chetty, global head of Europe and Africa for Duke Corporate Education – growing the next generation of African leaders

As the driving force behind Duke CE’s entry and growth into Africa, Chetty, who opened the South African office in 2007, is particularly passionate about the development of female leaders.  A fellow of the eighth class of the Africa Leadership Initiative South Africa, Chetty is also a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, where she implemented the Women Leading Africa Board Leadership – Voices of  the Future initiative.

“In order to excel and reach board-level positions, women need exposure to key topics, as well as practical insight for developing the skills and capabilities required,” she explains. “Instead of simply expecting women to develop this acumen in a classroom, we instead approach the challenge by giving them practical hands-on experience. For example, we link up with a head-hunting company to give participants an idea of the kind of companies on whose boards they might sit.”

Chetty – who was expelled from school and university for her political activism and is now completing her third master’s degree – credits her grandmother, a fresh produce vendor, for shaping her goals and ambitions.

“She taught me principles that make for effective leadership in business today. Key to this was humility. She also demonstrated the importance of working towards goals that are part of a bigger purpose and serve a larger ecosystem.”

For her, higher education is the ultimate tool that can not only help meet individual goals and pursuits,  but also bring about the desired gender parity in business.

“Women face significant barriers on the journey to reaching the board level. Only 14% of board members among Africa’s top 307 listed companies are women,” says Chetty. “This is not only a social issue, but also a business one. Women don’t always negotiate for themselves in the optimal way. Education, among other means, can play a role in addressing this.”

With technological advances placing information at our fingertips, there has never been a better time for women to achieve their aspirations  – especially when it comes to furthering their education, she adds.

“Education is one of many industries that exemplify the complex and volatile nature of our world. Nothing  is static anymore; disruption is happening. This is particularly the case in executive education. Content can be accessed anywhere – massive  open online courses (MOOCs) have been playing a big role. If you think about virtual reality, learners can experience another part of the world without ever stepping onto a plane and leaving the home office. There are more nontraditional players in our space than ever before. “For women intent on making a difference in a world that is slow to recognise our resilience and the massive contributions we can make to society, this kind of educational disruption might just be the answer,”  she concludes.

Professor Shirley Zinn, board member Monash University and president of the Harvard Alumni Association South Africa – coach and mentor to women across multiple industries

Much needs to be done to improve gender mainstreaming in education, especially at professional levels, says Professor Shirley Zinn. “The education sector needs a new vision and purpose. It needs to better understand how it impacts the lives of our children and their future,” she says.

Professor Zinn, who has garnered several business awards throughout her career – including Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government for 2016 in the small and medium enterprises sector by CEO Global – is perhaps better known for her bestselling autobiography, Swimming Upstream. In the book, she details her personal and professional journey and credits her teachers for propelling her from the Cape Flats to the boardroom of top multinational firms, and a position on various education boards.

“Teachers and educators generally are not recognised as key contributors to society. If my teachers had not told me I had the potential to attend university, I might never have [achieved] a Doctorate of Education from Harvard,” she points out.

Given that various studies assessing the extent of gender transformation and empowerment of women in the higher education sector show that past structural inequality is still largely at play in academic institutions, affecting educational mobility, Zinn’s achievements are extraordinary.

Aside from her board commitments (she also sits on the board of ADvTECH, among others), Zinn is actively engaged in passing on her acumen to other prospective leaders, and provides consulting and advisory services in human resources, transformation, leadership and education, and acts as coach and mentor to women across multiple industries.

“Women generally want a trusted advisor that they can confide in, given that leadership as a woman can be a lonely journey,” she says. “We discuss everything from the deeply personal to professional … how to manage living congruent lives – not only a work/life balance that is rich and bold, but also career development and aspirations – and especially dealing with gender-insensitive bosses and bullies, and how to best overcome barriers and break the glass ceiling.”

We discuss everything from the deeply personal to professional… how to manage living congruent lives… and how to best overcome barriers and break the glass ceiling.” – Professor Shirley Zinn

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