Opinionista Mzukisi Qobo 12 August 2019

The slow business of attaining gender equality in SA

Twenty-five years into democracy the top echelons of South Africa’s corporate sector are still predominantly white, middle-aged and male.

The glass ceiling in corporate South Africa is intractable. There is only one female CEO at the top 40 JSE listed companies, Phuti Mahanyele-Dabengwa, recently appointed to lead Naspers South Africa.

Women make up only 22% of the board of directors in listed companies in South Africa and under 10% of executive directors. Even in my sector, higher education, there are no more than four vice-chancellors across the 26 universities in South Africa. Interestingly, there was more courage in appointing 11 women in the non-executive, ceremonial role of chancellors. The irony, of course, is that this is a sector that should be more enlightened and offers thought leadership on gender equality and advancement of women in leadership.

Transformation has always been a slow grind for corporate South Africa in particular. In the past, the retort was that South Africa is a young democracy. We are now a quarter of a century past 1994, yet the pace of change in corporate South Africa has been tortuously slow. Companies embrace diversity grudgingly, viewing it as an inconvenience to be adhered to, to satisfy regulatory requirements. It is an indictment that 25 years since democracy, the top echelons of South Africa’s corporate sector are still predominantly white, middle-aged and male.

On a positive note, there is an emergent global movement aimed at shattering the glass ceiling. Initiatives such as the Bloomberg Index on Gender Equality and the positive evangelical role of figures such as Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and the former CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, are slowly changing the mindsets and slaying backward norms in the corporate US. If endeavours to achieve diversity in the workplace are to be effective, men should be at the coalface of the battle. It is easier to drown out calls for diversity if they are only made by women; and it is also burdensome – and can be embarrassing – to always have to make your own case for something that should be as obvious as equity.

As Barbara Annis and Richard Nesbit point out in their book Results at the Top, “For decades, the burden of achieving parity in leadership whether in business, education, or government, has been placed squarely, and wrongly, on the shoulders of women alone”.

Much of the literature encouraging women to rise to the top, including Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, has been directed at women, focusing on strategies for career advancement, how they could be more assertive, negotiate their salary increase and adopt a certain posture to make their voice heard in the boardroom. There is not much in the marketplace of ideas that challenges men to take responsibility.

In the few positive examples that are emerging elsewhere in the world, business leaders driven by enlightened self-interest have used their social capital and voice to champion women leadership in the corporate sector. One such example is Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg and former mayor of New York. His media company, Bloomberg, has created an index to help companies monitor their performance on gender equality. We need more of such enlightened leaders. The 2019 Bloomberg index comprises 230 companies headquartered in 36 countries and regions of the world, including North America, Europe, and Asia. This index is aimed at shifting the mindset within companies and nudge them to demonstrate a high level of transparency in their commitment to gender equality.

The rationale that underpins Bloomberg’s index is based on moral utility – that having diverse teams in the workplace helps to generate better quality decisions, which in turn leads to better outcomes for investors. Gender diversity also helps to broaden the creative flair in organisations. In another expression of this utility approach to gender equality, business leaders such as Polman have underlined the point that the majority of consumers of their products are women, and it makes sense to have women in decision-making positions as they are likely to be better acquainted with the needs of the target markets.

There is an established body of research that demonstrates that diversity in the workplace leads to higher corporate performance. A study by Harvard University Professor Letian Zhang, that surveyed 1,069 leading firms across 35 countries and 24 industries, found that gender diversity is correlated to more productive companies, as measured by market value and revenue. This is realised in contexts where gender diversity is seen as normatively accepted. Zhang distinguishes between normative legitimacy – broad acceptance of diversity within an organisation – and regulatory legitimacy, which refers to institutional processes based on monitoring, rule-setting, and sanctioning. The latter usually goes by the name “tick-box approach” and betrays a lack of serious commitment to the success of women leadership.

Failure to promote diversity in middle and senior management should be seen as self-harm. In 2016, the Peterson Institute of International Economics published a study that showed a positive association between diversity in C-suite positions and increase in profitability. This study drew on surveys of 21,980 companies across 91 countries. There are other studies that demonstrate how Fortune 500 companies with fewer females at the top underperform compared to those that have diverse leadership teams.

It is possible for companies to employ more women in senior roles as part of meeting regulatory requirements, but fail to generate additional positive gains if such an exercise is done grudgingly. When diversity is an integral part of organisational culture, it has a better chance of success.

Billionaire Warren Buffett also emphasised the importance of gender equality during an interactive session with investors in his company Berkshire Hathaway. He used a personal anecdote to drive the point home. He noted that he had two sisters who were as intelligent as he was, and as driven, but were denied the opportunities that made him a wealthy man. It is possible too that they may have been more intelligent than he, but were cut off from social privileges enjoyed by males in the business world.

Buffett further pointed out:

If I had been a female, my life would have been entirely different.”

He calls this an ovarian lottery since one never knows whether they will be born white or black, male or female. Buffett has since been sending a message that encourages men in the workplace to use their relative advantage to promote the advancement of women, in particular at the executive layer. That may also mean stepping aside voluntarily for a talented woman.

South Africa is often celebrated for its liberal constitution. The Bill of Rights places a high premium on promoting equality. Organisations have tools they use to monitor diversity and may have also developed politically correct language, but these fall flat for lack of genuine commitment. On the 2018 World Economic Forum Gender-Equality Index which measures 144 countries, with No 1 being a great performer (Iceland) and 144 a laggard (Yemen), South Africa lies at a deceptively enviable 19. On the most crucial dimension of economic opportunity and participation, South Africa is at a dismal 91.

The private sector should realise that it is unsustainable to exclude women from the top. Efforts to create room for women to flourish as captains of industry and participate as owners in the economy have been half-hearted. Gender equality at the top echelons of the economy should be regarded as an expression of positive ethics and worth striving for.

Finally, it is when social and cultural norms are reoriented that there can be progress in the direction of gender equality. Advancement of women in the workplace will continue to be frustrated if in the private spaces, including in households and communities, women are denied their individuality and worth. Male decision-makers may advocate for gender equality in rhetorical flourish during the day, while in their private spaces they may work to stifle women from excelling by invoking tradition and refusing to bear their fair share of responsibility for childcare and domestic work. Positive gender norms that are inculcated in the private spaces play a powerful role in shaping organisational culture, and how women’s worth is perceived. When men are at the forefront of the battle for gender equality, the ground may begin to shift somewhat. DM

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