While higher than that of last year, the percentage of women business leaders has not changed significantly since the start of Grant Thornton’s research 13 years ago, when this figure was at 26%.
“We have made no progress, and the small change is probably only due to sampling variations,” says Lee-Anne Bac, director: Advisory Services at Grant Thornton Johannesburg. “Unfortunately, we have a very patriarchal culture in Africa, including South Africa. Until we make a concerted effort to change our mindset to the role of women in the workplace, at home and society at large we’re going to continue to battle with inequality in the workplace. Change starts with how we treat children - we should be striving to raise boys and girls equally in a gender neutral environment.”
The annual report, Women in business: New perspectives on risk and reward, based on Grant Thornton’s International Business Report which surveys 5,500 businesses in 36 economies, also shows that almost a third (31%) of SA companies have no women at all in senior management positions.
Globally, too, the pace of change towards gender equity remains glacial. South Africa is slightly ahead of the global average of 25% of senior roles held by women (SA : 28%) and better than the global average of 34% of businesses with no women in senior management (SA: 31%).
“We shouldn’t, however, be comparing ourselves against the global situation,” points out Bac. “Instead, we should strive to match those countries that are performing at above average rates.”
Globally, Grant Thornton’s data shows developing regions continue to lead the charge on diversity while developed economies lag behind. Eastern Europe performs best, with 38% of senior roles held by women in 2017 and just 9% of businesses with no women in senior management.
“We should set our sights on emulating Eastern Europe, and not benchmarking ourselves against the USA and Europe, particularly at this time,” says Bac.
The MINT economies (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) saw the most improvement, with the proportion of senior roles held by women rising from 24% in 2016 to 28% in 2017 and the percentage of businesses with no women in senior management falling from 36% in 2016 to 27% in 2017.
This is in significant contrast to the major developed economies of the G7, which have remained static compared to 2016 with 22% of senior roles held by women and 39% of businesses with no women in senior management.
Common senior roles for women
The report reveals it is still most common for senior women to be in supporting roles, particularly as human resources directors or chief financial officers. However, there has been a slow rise in the number of women in chief executive officer roles in South Africa, from 7% in 2015 to 9% in 2016 and 10% in 2017.
“Again, however, the rise is not very significant,” says Bac, who believes we have reached a point of complacency in this country. “Businesses have put some women in management positions, ticked that box, and now they are not doing anything further.
“Instead, companies should constantly be working to improve gender diversity in the workplace. We have too few women in management positions, and until we tilt that balance it will remain difficult for women to influence the change. Women are fighting from a position of lack of power.”
B-BBEE targets work against gender diversity
Pushing the importance of gender diversity further down the list of priorities are the number of other pressing issues currently facing South Africa. Companies are focused on B-BBEE targets, which are legislated, rather than on diversity targets, which are not.
“In addition, the latest Women in Business IBR survey showed some men are resisting competition from women,” says Bac. “Both are competing for the same senior positions, and it is far easier for men if they only have to compete with 50% of the population.
“But it’s the fault of women as well,” she notes. “We’re not fighting back.”
Focus shifting away from gender equality
The worrying sense that the issue of gender diversity is beginning to lose its bite was also noted in this year’s Grant Thornton Women in Business IBR report.
“We simply cannot let this happen while progress is still marginal,” points out Global leader for tax services and sponsor of women in leadership at Grant Thornton, Francesca Lagerberg. “Companies today need to be more productive, more innovative and in many ways more open if they are to thrive.”
The report looked at the issue of risk and reward, finding that men and women see risk and opportunity in different ways, and that they act differently as a result.
Companies should therefore recognise, celebrate and seize upon these differences. If they fail to create diverse teams, companies become susceptible to ‘groupthink’ – the phenomenon whereby engaging only with those who share a similar view of the world, they muffle other perspectives and do not see change coming.
Diversity even more vital today
Diversity is key to business success. With a mixture of men and women at the helm, companies are better prepared for all eventualities. And yet, in 2017 progress has been minimal.
Today, uncertainty has become pervasive and is the ‘new norm’.
“It is even more important to embrace diversity in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world,” says Bac. Businesses need effective leaderships teams equipped to assess the risks and opportunities associated with change, and then develop and implement inclusive strategies in response.
Finally, Bac points out that, to many women, leadership doesn’t look particularly attractive.
“They see this assertive, dominant behaviour, the hard attitude to decision-making, the long hours, and the sacrifices leaders appear to make, and it is not something to strive towards. Businesses need to embrace new leadership styles that allow women to bring their own flair to the workplace.”