Harnessing the gender dividend

By on August 27, 2014

Despite the body of evidence that shows that diverse organisations are healthier and more profitable, women in corporate South Africa remain chronically under-represented. According to a new international survey, private-sector initiatives are vital to driving the advancement of women in the workplace.

Even though women form 43% of the economically active population in South Africa, they remain a minority when it comes to the upper echelons of management. “Local research indicates that relative to the percentage of women in South Africa’s labour force, very few women serve as directors on the boards of JSE-listed companies or hold the position of CEO. It is somewhat unfortunate that decades after we started the process of creating equal opportunities for women, we still today need to make the business case for gender diversity at senior levels,” says Anthea Scholtz, Partner at financial services firm Deloitte and national chairperson of Deloitte Women in Leadership (DWIL).

Scholtz however also highlights that a new global survey which was performed by the Business and Industry Advisory Committee (BIAC) to the OECD in collaboration with Deloitte Global, shows that since 2010, steady progress has been made in advancing women in the work place, albeit at a very slow rate.

The efforts of companies that actively promote women are therefore bearing fruit. Released in June, the “Putting All Our Minds To Work: An Assessment” report reveals that over 66% of companies surveyed reported an increase in the percentage of women in executive leadership positions since 2010. In addition, 44% of companies noted that they introduced specific policies and practices to promote women into executive leadership positions. 47% noted that they have done so for women at managerial level.

Recognising potential

The report highlights some of the practices used to promote women, such as high-potential development plans, workplace flexibility policies, diversity and inclusive leadership development, mentorship and the provision of parental leave. Yet despite the progress reported, more than half of the respondents had not recently introduced new plans to encourage the advancement of women in their workplaces.

Commenting on the report, Scholtz says that globally there is a growing body of evidence that shows that there is an explicit link between a company’s bottom line and the return an empowered and diverse talent pool can offer. Given this, she asserts that the relatively slow rate at which women are being advanced into top positions in the work place is concerning.

CEOs leading the charge

Change starts from the top, according to the report, with CEOs, senior managers and the company board proving to be the biggest catalysts for driving female corporate empowerment. The role of the law, political leadership and corporate governance cannot be ignored, especially in markets without quotas, while the media and academia promoted women’s cause more in markets with quotas.

The survey found that 22% of companies responding had lost women from leadership positions through voluntary resignations, either due to better opportunities elsewhere, a lack of promotion or career development challenges. “Most South African organisations do nurture and support gender diversity and yet they still struggle to retain women and advance women to senior levels. The reasons why women leave the work place are complex and vary widely. It is however clear from the report that more effort is required across the board to achieve greater economic empowerment of women,” says Scholtz.

The report concludes by encouraging business leaders to prioritise gender diversity and proactively engage with the issue, providing coaches and mentors to help women achieve their true potential.

“Gender equity challenges, though complex, can be overcome. Rather than lamenting the continued low gender statistics, male and female business leaders should refuse to accept this status quo and should embrace the challenge of closing the gender gap at leadership levels. This can be achieved by creating alternative roads for women to leadership positions and alternative work models which are better suited to the life rhythms of women”, affirms Scholtz

She adds that tackling this successfully will require a healthy dose of courage and nimbleness from CEOs, boards and senior management.

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