Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 13 August 2012

Enduring values cannot be legislated

President Zuma believes legislation will be needed to achieve a 50-50 gender balance in top appointments in public service and boardrooms. It’s a good idea, but a terrible policy. 

Speaking at the Women’s Day event at the Union Buildings last Thursday, President Zuma said, “Experience has shown that voluntary mechanisms of gender equality are inadequate.” He slammed the slow increase in the number of women being appointed to top positions in the private sector, concluding that legislation is needed to change this.

He also said, “We have directed the Ministry of Women, Children and People with Disabilities to fast-track the Gender Equality Bill so that we can enforce gender parity measures across all society.”

There is no question that gender equality must be an established value in our society, but what the President clearly does not realize is that his pronouncements could have the opposite of the intended effect. Women will lose credibility as valuable members of boards if their membership is forced and if companies are made to adhere to the 50-50 rule. 

Cynics among us may ask what Mr Zuma was trying to do. Was he seeking the favour of women—half of his pre-Mangaung electorate—by thumping the table, proving his macho credentials and threatening big bad business? To be seen as a strong and purposeful leader?

In the past few years there have been substantial strides in the appointment of women to listed company boards and into significant positions of leadership. Mr Zuma acknowledged this, but said the process was too slow. It is a pity that he is trying to accelerate the pace by resorting to this threatening attitude. Women who were short-changed for so long are now increasingly proving their worth on boards of directors. Having lagged behind, because of prejudice and male chauvinism, there are now more women, and especially young women, on boards and in positions of leadership than ever before. To disturb their natural evolution of business judgment and leadership skill by clumsy legislation would be disastrous.  

While the vitality and energy of youth are vital ingredients in the mix, leaders have always agreed there is no substitute for experience, and experience cannot be force-fed. It needs time.

Rather than beating maturity into the process with a stick, what is more important and what will work better in the long-run would be the purposeful building of values to establish gender equality and not to insist on this wholly impractical 50-50 ruling. Why must boards and the numbers in leadership reflect the gender balance of the population? Is the next move that banks will be required to give only equal loans to men and women, or that universities will be obliged to admit exactly equal numbers of male and female students? Or business schools award equal MBAs? Or that the Bar will be required to admit male and female advocates in strict gender parity? Or face the legal consequences?                 What nonsense! And what damage to the cause of women will be the inevitably result!

This flawed thinking is reminiscent of the demographic representivity argument we have talked about before. The ANC’s ideology of absolute racial representivity will increase in intensity if the latest amendments to the Employment Equity Act are enacted. According to Dirk Hermann, deputy general secretary of trade union Solidarity, “the new proposed amendments will increase the Minister of Labour’s powers to impose absolute representivity on employers in the state and private sectors”.  Again this would be ham-fisted legislation to achieve some notion of fairness in society and to honour our values as a functioning democracy.

By refusing to acknowledge that all people do not have the same talent, ability, interest in a particular sport or career motivation, the ANC has made much noise about representivity in cricket, rugby and everything in between. 

Getting back to women on boards and in top jobs, is there any thought given to the fact that men and women don’t have equal levels of interest in business, or in public sector leadership or in anything else for that matter? Of the 50% of women in the population referred to by Mr Zuma, is there even remotely a significant percentage of them who might want something different? 

Building enduring values in our society could be hampered by trying to legislate them. And isn’t it a pity that pursuing a worthwhile value like gender equality could be impeded by such suspect advocacy. I think if our president had a better track-record of honouring women, we would have listened more willingly. DM

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