The state of women leadership in South Africa today


The case for gender equality in leadership is now a matter of urgency. Globalisation has made the world of business more complex and interconnected, making it impossible for one executive to single-handedly resolve a multi-dimensional corporate challenge. Today, the key word to solving complex business issues and leading effectively is ‘collaboration’, a quality that promotes openness and inclusion, and facilitates change. A quality that is found in women’s natural leadership style. A McKinsey (2013) report shows that companies with top quartile representation of women in executive committees (EXCOs) perform significantly better than companies with no women at all. These companies reported increases of 47% in average return on equity and 55% average earnings before interest and tax. Attaining gender balance in organisations is also the agenda of The 30% Club, which aims to have at least a 30% women representation in board and top management levels of big companies, by the end of 2015.

The South African government is also pushing for the advancement of women and the acceleration of their entry into top management structures. This is evident in policies such the B-BBEE (Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment) Act (53/2003) and its amendments and the new Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Act (WEGE), which calls for the progressive realisation of at least 50% representation of women in all decision-making structures, including top management.

But, the question is: has enough been done to advance gender equality in leadership positions? Have we made any strides? Well. It depends. To really gain a better understanding of whether we have made any strides on not, we need to look at things with a historical lens. If we are talking about the period between the 1956 march and the era prior to the turn of the new millennium, it is safe to say that a lot of progress has happened. However, from the 2000’s onwards, progress slowed down.

The concrete wall—1950s, 1960 and early 1970s

The concrete wall was an era when overt and absolute barriers were used to block women from accessing opportunities. It was an era when women were denied even the basic human rights, such as voting as well as the right to get an education in top universities. Women were even passed for interviews for entry-level jobs in management, law, accounting, academia, or jobs that were perceived to be only suitable for men. The concrete wall had its basis in the division of labour, where men were expected to be the breadwinners and women to be at home, doing house chores and raising children. It was during this era, on 9 August 1956, that scores of women bravely marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to demand that their voices be heard and their treatment as second-class citizens be stopped.

The glass-ceiling—late 1970’s to 1990’s

In the late 1970's, a new era dawned for women equality. An era that marked a significant improvement from the concrete wall era, but not quite the breakthrough that woman had hoped for. Women managed to enter the workplace in entry level positions and slowly progressed to middle management. By this time, barriers had shifted to not affecting all women in the workplace, but only those in senior management. Those who rose steadily through the ranks, eventually crashed into an invisible barrier—‘the glass ceiling’.

Women in senior management with ambitions to get into top management could see the top positions that they wanted to be in but were somehow blocked by a transparent obstruction. The executive suite seemed within their grasp, but they just could not break into it. One of the challenges that women faced in this era was to be overlooked for executive positions because of their reproductive capacity. It was feared that they would leave work to go on maternity leave and perhaps never return. Those who already had young children or disclosed their intentions to have them were penalised severely.

Since the term 'glass-ceiling' was first coined, particularly at the turn of the century and through the 2000’s, women have made great progress. They have, to a certain extent, managed to navigate their way from middle management to top management, occupying important executive and board level positions. This signifies that the effects of the glass-ceiling have either become minimal or have been eradicated completely, in some instances. Therefore, it can no longer be used to explain the scarcity of women in top management. Carli Fiorina (former CEO of Hewlett-Packard) said, in the beginning of her tenure at HP in 1999, that her appointment proved that “we are at a point were everyone has figured out that there is not a glass ceiling”.

The current scenario: South Africa vs. the rest of the world

Government’s positive contribution to the advancement of gender equality is reflected in the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap report. This report measures gender equality across health, education, economy and politics; and has placed South Africa at position 18 out of 144 countries.

In addition, the Department of Labour (2014)’s Commission for Gender Equity Report shows that the percentage of women in top management is 20,6%. This number remains stuck at around 15% in many countries, ranging from a high of 17% in Sweden to just 2% in India. At 20.6%, South Africa rates better on gender diversity in top management than some first world countries, including Australia and Canada. Right. So far, so good. In comparison to the rest of the world, South Africa seems to be the right place to be for the woman species.

But is it, really? Not quite. Being ahead of prominent and developed countries does not mean that the grass is greener for women in South Africa. Yes, we may be ranked in the top 20 by WEF and have more women in top management, but that does not necessarily mean that we are doing well. Firstly, the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranking is largely influenced by the high scores in political participation (12th position). The country was ranked 83rd in economic participation and 85th in educational attainment. Secondly, the 2014 CEE report shows that the number of women entering top management positions in South Africa has only grown by 6% in the ten years between 2003 and 2013. This growth is painfully slow and concerning. It indicates that there are clearly obstacles that stand in the way of women’s advancement in the workplace.

But what are these obstacles? As part of my MBA research, I went out to interview women executives in corporate South Africa, with the aim of finding out what obstacles they came across in their career trajectories and how they navigated through them. I then packaged my findings into a book, which I titled: This is how we Do: How Women work through obstacles to get into executive and Board positions. These are my top five findings:

Women’s leadership styles

There are various factors hindering women’s advancement into top management but of particular importance, is the perception that their leadership styles do not ‘fit in’ the prevailing leadership styles. Stereotypically, men are associated with individualism, confidence, assertion, control, aggression and competition, whilw women are associated with communal qualities, which convey a concern for the compassionate treatment of others. These qualities include being especially affectionate, helpful, friendly, kind, and sympathetic, as well as interpersonally sensitive, gentle, and soft-spoken. In short, women’s leadership style is participative and men’s is authoritative

Women’s communal style enables them to be effective leaders, because effective leadership is often defined in terms of one’s ability to influence a group of people towards a common goal. In today’s globalised business environment, these qualities are desirable. However, women’s ability to fully engage in influencing behaviour is limited by the dilemma of being caught up between being feminine and masculine in their leadership style. If they are highly compassionate and sympathetic, they may be criticised for not being assertive, effective leaders. They may also not be heard in meetings because in companies that are male-led, women’s inputs and voices are often stifled.

On the other hand, if women are highly aggressive, they may be criticised for lacking compassion. Either way, women cannot win. Current approaches towards getting women in top management focus on ‘fixing’ them and helping them to blend in and adapt to the way men lead, rather than speak out and find their own voice. Women are being coached and trained to act and think like men. Instead of being encouraged to speak in a way that depicts their actual values, they are being made to believe that it would be a career-limiting move to remain authentic in how we lead. It would take some time for corporate culture to acknowledge that the ways women lead are different, but not less valuable.

Gender stereotypes

Stereotypes about the relative strengths of men and women still exist. This includes the 'Think Manager, Think Male' concept, which associates management with being male. One explanation for this way of thinking is The Confidence Gap, which holds that while men and women are equally ambitious about getting to the top, women are less confident that they will ever get there. As they are perceived to be more confident, men are therefore preferred candidates for promotions, because confidence is associated with risk-taking and hunger for success.

Another significant cultural factor affecting women’s ability to reach top management is the limited engagement and support of men. A Mckinsey (2014) report found that generally men are less likely than women to see value in diversity initiatives and more likely to believe that too many measures supporting women are unfair to men. These perceptions explain why there is little commitment from male executives, who often make promises to support women, but lack the commitment to follow through. The report concluded that when senior leaders commit themselves to gender diversity, they really mean it—but in the heat of the moment, deeply entrenched beliefs cause old forms of behaviour to resurface.

Lack of line role responsibilities

The ability to access and succeed in line role assignments is crucial to advancement to top management positions, because they give a person control over both the revenue and cost functions of a business unit while exposing them to greater opportunities to create visibility for themselves. Lack of access to developmentally relevant role experiences can seriously retard female career progress. Unfortunately for women, exposure to line roles is limited. One of the reasons so few women have been promoted to senior management positions is that during their careers they experience fewer developmental job opportunities than men. Most women get more assignments in support roles, while men experience some greater task-related developmental challenges.

The lack of line role responsibilities is also responsible for the Gender Pay Gap, where women earn less than men. The average global gender pay gap is between 27% to 34%. This is explained by school subject choice and subsequent job choice by girls. Due to their nurturing and caring nature, girls tend to choose subjects that lend themselves to jobs such as teaching and nursing, which pay less than jobs that tend to attract boys, such as engineering and construction. However, according to the 2015 Women’s Report, commissioned by the SA Board For People Practices (SABPP), even when men and women do the same job, have the same experience, qualification and skills; the pay gap still exists.

The demands of family life

Women, particularly mothers, have a greater responsibility than men in taking care of the family. This robs them of the benefits of being noticed by decision makers. Even when they do form support structures to assist with their family responsibilities, they are still not perceived as suitable candidates for promotion into top management because decision makers often assume that mothers have domestic responsibilities that make it inappropriate to promote them to demanding positions. What is important to remember is that a work-life balance does not exist. What exist is work-life choices. Women need to realise that having children and a demanding executive job is possible, but both cannot be successfully pursued simultaneously. A choice needs to be made about which to pursue first.

Motherhood is another explanation for the Gender Pay Gap, which is as low as 15% for women under 25, 19% for women between 25 and 34, 25% for women between 35 and 50 and 27% for women over 50. This signifies that differences in earnings between men and women begin to be significant around 30 years, which is the average age for women to start having kids.

Career gaps

One’s ability to maintain continuous service in one organisation is crucial for promotions. Therefore, taking a career break could be a career-limiting move. Often, after maternity leave, women change their role or seek a new position in a new firm, usually outside the industry in which they worked prior to having a child. This greatly affects their chances of advancing to top management.

A US study on unemployment found that managers prefer to hire a less qualified candidate over one who has been out of work for more than six months. They assume that a career gap has resulted in the deterioration of skills and has made one become 'stale’ and ‘irrelevant’. Those who seek work after being out of corporate for over 10 years are considered to be more out of tune, as their skills are perceived to have reached their ‘sell-by’ date.

They are confronted with the unconscious bias of gender, age and lack of recent experience. Despite their enviable qualifications and great track records, they are often discriminated against in favour of younger candidates and assumed to be unambitious, low in self-confidence and inflexible.

Looking ahead

Despite these challenges, the business environment is now kinder for young women with ambitions to get into top management. If you are a woman in middle to senior management, wanting to enter the C-Suite, you should be smiling, as you should have figured by now that:

Women do matter in top management, and companies and governments have noticed this.
The South African government is serious about the agenda of getting more women there. Pro-women legislation proves this.
Only 20.6% of women in top management in South Africa are in top management, and the ideal is 30% to 35%. This means that you still have a great chance of fulfilling your dream
The ‘glass-ceiling’ has faded or had disappeared completely, in some instances.
South Africa has more opportunities for women executives, now more than ever before.
Therefore, to the young women out there, I say: South Africa is alive with opportunities for you. The world is your oyster. Your chances of making it to executive positions are greater now, more than ever. All that you need to do is to develop enough self-confidence to take up risky assignments with line role responsibilities, make informed choices about how you balance your work and family life, find your own voice and optimise your God-given leadership traits as a woman, think hard before taking long career breaks, and at the end of it all, remember to BREATHE. Take a moment to love and care for yourself. 

Let women lead!

Liz Dutshego is an MBA graduate from Wits Business School (SA) and Warwick Business School (UK). She the CEO of a leadership development and coaching consultancy, The Leadership Brewery. She is also a sessional lecturer at Wits Business School on the Women in Leadership programme and the author of: This is How we Do: How Women work through obstacles to get into executive and board position.

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