There has been progress over the past few years, but the advancement of women into top jobs remains slow. South Africa follows the global pattern where the number of women declines as they rise through the corporate ranks.
“We need a high proportion of women at the professional and skilled levels to boost the pipeline at senior and top management levels,” says Sandra Burmeister, CEO of Amrop Landelahni. “The dearth of women graduates in information technology, engineering and other technical skills is one of the reasons gender transformation is moving so slowly.
“However, as more women move into these professions, so the gender balance of the graduate profile is changing. In fact, in South Africa, as well as in many other African countries, the proportion of female university graduates now exceeds that of men.”
According to the 2014 Employment Equity Report, the number of women in top management increased from 14% in 2003 to 21% in 2013. Women in senior management increased from 22% to 30% over the same period, while professionals increased from 36% to 43%, and skilled workers from 44% to 47%.
“These increases show that more women are now represented at every level in the organisation,” says Burmeister. “We should be celebrating this increase – regardless of race. It is possible to achieve diversity if top management uses the same approach to gender empowerment as it would to any other organisational change initiative.
“However, we must not confuse the need for employment equity with the need for gender equity. Let’s leave broad-based black economic empowerment to do its job, and let gender equity initiatives get on with their job. Correlating employment equity with gender equity simply carves up the workforce pool into ever tinier segments so as to meet targets.
“If we want gender empowerment to succeed, we must take into account the pipeline of young women coming into the workplace and set targets appropriate to this.
“The UK government is currently considering legislation that all new board appointment should have an all-female shortlist. This suggestion has run into opposition on the basis that it implies women need a helping hand and may in the end achieve only token representation.
“Women themselves have argued that it would also devalue the achievements of those who reached their positions based on their competency in open competition with male applicants.”
South Africa’s Gender Equality Bill asserts the right sentiments but, we need to align quotas with the availability of suitably qualified women, Burmeister contends. “Setting realistic targets depends on the pipeline of candidates entering the workforce in a particular discipline.
“The first step is to focus on gender equality in education, since this builds the foundation for increasing the number of skilled, professional women entering the workplace. We have evidence from the Nordic countries’ that putting effort into equal education paves the way for the successful introduction of quotas at work.
“Favouring women for technical jobs makes sense only if such people are available. The objective is to empower and increase the number of women in gainful employment. That means hiring skilled people for the job.
“In South Africa, a blanket target of 50% women will pose difficulties for sectors where two-thirds of workers are technical – such as in construction, infrastructure and information technology. A fixed 50% target is not realistic since there simply may not be enough women to fill half the positions in all types of jobs.
“Globally, there are significantly fewer women working in technical and engineering disciplines. Nowhere in the world do women represent 50% of engineers or artisans.
“It is however encouraging that, according to a recent PwC survey, women are better represented in executive management and board committees in the top South African mining companies than in any other country.”
PwC states that, largely as a result of diversity measures such as the Mining Charter, women make up 24%, of executive management among South African mining companies in the world’s top 100, compared with the next-highest country, Canada at 15%. The representativeness of women on JSE-listed mining companies’ boards of directors has also improved over the past year.
Global research by the Credit Suisse Research Institute shows that companies with one or more women on the board have delivered higher average return on equity, lower gearing and better average growth. It found that: “Net income growth for companies with women on the board has averaged 14% over the past six years, compared to 10% for those with no female board representation.”
“It is clear,” says Burmeister, “that companies who are proactive in providing formal mentoring and development opportunities to enable women to progress through the ranks reap the rewards.”