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Home  »  Celebrating Women Magazine   »   The Feminine Agenda

The Feminine Agenda

From the suffragettes of the 20th century and the bra-burning activists of the 1970s, to the third wave of feminists trying to crack the corporate glass ceiling, women have been fighting for equal rights for centuries. The question is: are we there yet? Gaye Crossley looks at the business case for gender equality in the workplace.
Women's March to Union Buildings, Pretoria Women's March to Union Buildings, Pretoria

Gender equality is going nowhere. It’s stagnating; that’s the best way I can describe it. There is no real impetus and that is showing up in the stats” says Lee-Anne Bac, director: Advisory Services at professional services firm Grant Thornton.

Indeed, the stats aren’t good, not for South Africa and not for the world. Grant Thornton’s study, Women in Business: The Path to Leadership, shows that gender equality in leadership is nowhere near equal. “Globally, 22% of senior roles are held by women, slightly up from 2004 (19%), but down from 24% last year, highlighting broad stagnation. Japan remains at the bottom of the list, with just 8% of senor roles held by women, followed by Germany (14%) and India (15%). There have been pockets of improvement, however, with 26% of senior roles in the European Union now occupied by women – an all-time high. This has been driven by France (33%), Sweden (28%) and Greece (27%). At the same time, though, the number in Latin America has fallen to 18% – an all-time low.”

Russia comes out tops with 40% of leadership positions occupied by women. South Africa comes 10th, with 27%. Astonishingly, 32% of companies around the world have no female leaders. The former communist bloc countries, through their drive for equality in the 1960s and 1970s, are seeing the greatest advancements 50 years on, whereas leading developed countries such as America, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Germany all either lag or teeter on the edge of the global average.

Although South Africa ranks 10th, the country’s private sector is letting the side down. The Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s (BWASA) Women in Leadership Census 2015 bemoans the fact that while women comprise 51.2% of the total South African population, they make up 45.8% of the employed population and comprise only 29.3% of executive managers, 21.8% of directorships, 9.2% of board chairmanships and 2.4% of CEO positions.

South Africa’s public sector, however, is succeeding very well in terms of workplace equality. Women, as a percentage of public service senior managers, stand at 38.2%, and top management in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) is at 40.5%, according to the BWASA.

But not everyone is buying into these stats. Colleen Larsen, CEO of gender mainstreaming consultancy Business Engage, says: “The minute you start talking about the decline of women on the boards of JSE-listed companies and the decline of women, you don’t tell the stories of the impact they are still making on the economy.”

Larsen uses the example of Wendy Lucas-Bull. Lucas-Bull may no longer be a CEO, but she made a significant impact through her co-founding of Peotona Group Holdings, an investment company with a keen interest in supporting and transforming previously disadvantaged communities. Larsen says Lucas-Bull’s influence is far greater now in her new role (as a non-executive director of Anglo and Afrika Tikkun, and founding chairman of Business Against Crime), even though she is no longer counted in the CEO stats.

Larsen says women need to change their stories. “It’s one thing to talk about how few women we have in senior positions, but there aren’t mechanisms to really get women into those positions.”

Within government, however, strides are being made. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, South Africa is seventh in the world in terms of the number of women in parliament, with 166 out of the 396 (41.9%) seats.

Dr Vuyo Mahlati, outgoing president of the International Women’s Forum South Africa, notes: “We’ve seen a nice push in terms of public leadership; the numbers have increased to around 40%, and that includes parliament, ministers and leaders at executive level.” But even more important is the quality of the portfolios being assigned, says Mahlati. “Women in the public office are being given serious portfolios. In other countries we are still seeing women
as ministers of gender equality or ministers of welfare. In South Africa it has gone further; women are getting defence, foreign affairs and public enterprise portfolios.”

Bac also credits government, saying that because the state has made gender equality a focus area, this has ensured that women are being placed in top jobs. “Years ago the government put their own informal quotas in place for parliament and they are sticking to them, and it is obviously working, because they have a high representation of women in leadership positions.” Mahlati adds: “Within government there are gender focal points; women are supposed to be in each and every department.” She warns, however, that implementation needs to be institutionalised and monitored appropriately to ensure that results are sustainable.

In South Africa, it’s the private sector which is falling short in terms of gender equality, a term Larsen eschews. “What is gender equality? There needs to be a better reason behind it. There is a bigger movement to increase gender mainstreaming because there is a business reason to do it.” Indeed, there is a business case for having more women in senior positions. PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) 18th Annual Global CEO Survey notes: “Having such leaders has an impact on corporate success; one study of global companies [Credit Suisse Research Institute, 2012] shows, for example, that those with at least one women on the board delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing, better average growth and higher price/book value multiples.”

Leanne Parsons, Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) director: Equity Market, agrees. “Diversity makes sense, from a pure business perspective. We
[the JSE] would really like organisations to actually put women into senior leadership positions so that they can make a difference. We’re seeing a number of companies go the non-executive director route, but we don’t think that is building the right type of leadership in the organisation to influence and make significant strategic decisions.”

And the JSE is not paying lip-service to gender mainstreaming either; eight out of the 11 JSE executive committee members are women.

It is important to note that, among these women, the consensus was that gender inequality in the workplace was not a malicious conspiracy by men to keep women down. Rather, there were a number of reasons why women were not getting promoted into leadership positions.

The buddy system
Parsons says: “People tend to go the routes they know; if you are more familiar with a male working environment and how to work with males, then your natural tendency as a human is to follow that safe route.” Mahlati agrees: “Societal structures are very critical – for instance, the fostering of leadership and finding the ‘right’ people within the private sector generally comes from ‘chommies’ clubs. There is a tendency for people to choose the people they are comfortable with.”

Gender bias
Grant Thornton found that gender bias played a big role in determining the roles women occupied. The report says: “The gender bias is subtle at the beginning of a career, but it causes a clear separation of career paths between men and women.” Bac elaborates: “Gender bias comes in where women can’t be seen as leaders in construction or engineering companies.”

The report backs this up with stats. “Women are most likely to lead education and social services and healthcare businesses (41%). Close to half of business leaders in education and social services across Asia-Pacific are women (48%). In Europe, more than half of healthcare senior managers are female (53%). Both hospitality (33%) and food and beverage (27%) also sit well above the global average. For hospitality, this rises to 39% in North America and 37% in Europe, and for food and beverage to 45% in Eastern Europe.”

The report then notes: “At the other end of the spectrum sit a group of industries that tend to involve men selling to other men. Mining and quarrying (12% women in leadership) is a prime example, but construction and real estate (18%), manufacturing and transport (both 19%) also sit below average. ”Grant Thornton found the incidence of gender bias was higher in Africa than the rest of the world, where 44% of women cited it as a barrier to their reaching leadership positions, compared with the 19% global average.

Personal brand
Women are not putting themselves forward for leadership positions, consciously or unconsciously. Larsen says: “Women generally just don’t know how to brand themselves properly. They are from the old school, where you just get on and do what you have to do, make a success, and don’t talk about what you’re doing. Women are always quick to take a back seat and put someone else forward.” Parson agrees: “Women tend to be rather quiet. Rather than saying ‘I can do that job, this is what I think I can do and this where I can add value’, they tend to be more risk-averse and shy about their capabilities.” Bac adds: “Males tend to have higher self-regard. They believe they can achieve so much more than women can.”

Working the room
Looking beyond the issue of confidence and competence, Mahlati feels some women are marginalised for having unprofitable networks. She gives an example of a woman with a poor, rural background, employed in a top law firm, getting there with the help of family, community and good academic results, but not advancing. She says: “Those in the company who have influential networks get good assignments and cases.”

Grant Thornton also highlights another issue around networking: “Formal business meetings are still overwhelmingly the principle means by which senior leaders, both men (51%) and women (49%), achieve their current role. However, while 42% of men used networking events or conferences, only 30% of women did.” The report says these networking events can often favour men; in Malaysia, for example, a top networking event is golf, a sport dominated by men.

Networking then leads onto another block that women inadvertently face, that of family. Maravic Espano, CEO and chair of P&A Grant Thornton (Philippines), who prefers “more professional business networking events” says: “As a married CEO, when my day is done, I prefer to go home and be with my kids. Perhaps it is easier for men to stay out and have cocktails.”

Family ties
Using child-rearing and family obligations as an excuse for career advancement is often called clichéd, but 24% of women respondents to the Grant Thornton survey said it was indeed a barrier. This idea could also be backed up by the findings in the Old Mutual annual survey, which found that 50% of working women claim single-parent status. Within the family structure there is also the problem of whose career takes precedence. A Harvard Business School Alumni study found that men’s careers overwhelmingly took precedence. Bac refers to the study when she says: “Less than a quarter of women expected their partner’s career to take precedence, but in reality this happened 40% of the time. By contrast, men in the study found that their career expectations were, in fact, exceeded. I think this has to do with the fact that women were doing more work when it comes to parenting – women held back on their careers in favour of their families so the husbands could go forward and achieve.”

Gender equality in the workplace is a tricky business. Getting women elevated into leadership positions requires changing a society’s mindset, pushing government to implement supportive policies and businesses to put the issue at the forefront of their own strategies. Most of all, it requires women to start taking an active role in driving their own career advancement.

The PwC report says: “Creating an environment for success means having strategies to tackle such issues as unconsciously held biases, as well as having decision-making processes to encourage divergent thinking, and concrete indicators of progress. Here again, formal diversity and inclusiveness strategies play a role.”

Grant Thornton has come up with a 12 recommendations to address gender diversity in the workplace, assigning responsibilities four ways:

• Stop holding female leaders to a higher standard.
• End the stigmatisation of men who share childcare.
• Update the outdated leadership stereotype. Government:
• Facilitate shared parental leave.
• Consider mandating quotas on boards.
• Build the necessary infrastructure and legislation.

• Make a top-level commitment to support women leadership.
• Design leadership positions to be more attractive.
• Invest in mentoring.

• Put your hand up for stretch assignments
• Push yourself out of your comfort zone.
• Challenge your organisation to remove gender bias.

One of the quickest ways to ensure transformation is through quotas. Europe has successfully seen the increase in women in leadership positions through the introduction of mandatory quotas on the number of women on boards. But quotas are not a popular option in South Africa. Last July the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill was withdrawn for further consultation. The Bill proposed that 50% of all decision-making positions go to women in both the public and private sector.L arsen says: “Personally, I don’t like quotas.

I think it needs to be a natural progression, where the business value gets recognised and it is something people want to do rather than get forced to do. I believe it will be more sustainable.” Bac agrees, but feels quotas may have to be implemented. “I think we are actually going to have to think about quotas, but I don’t like quotas, the reason being because people then feel women are promoted purely because they are female, and the merit component is taken out of the whole analysis.”

And that, feel many women in the know, will do little to effect that much-needed mindset shift across society.

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