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It’s long past time to push back against C-suite gender inequality


Bonang Mohale is the President of Business Unity South Africa (Busa), Chancellor of the University of the Free State, Professor of Practice in the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) College of Business and Economics, and Chairman of both The Bidvest Group Limited and SBV Services. He is the author of the best-selling book, ‘Lift As You Rise’.

Why is gender equality in business leadership doggedly elusive when women constitute 51% of the 59.3 million South Africans?

When she became the Bidvest Group Limited CEO on October 1, Nompumelelo Madisa became only the third woman in South Africa to head a mid-to-large-market cap JSE-listed company. The other two are Anglo Platinum CEO, Natascha Viljoen and Phuti Mahanyele-Dabengwa of Naspers South Africa.

Twenty-six years into our democracy, this dearth of female leaders in business is shameful. Why is gender equality in business leadership doggedly elusive when women constitute 51% of the 59.3 million South Africans? 

Inequalities associated with the class system are founded on two interlocking, but conceptually distinct, social processes. One is the allocation of rewards attached to different positions in the social system. The other is the process of recruitment to these positions. Modern societies do, of course, exhibit both forms of inequality – and gender inequality and pay parity are the crudest manifestation. 

On what grounds is it morally legitimate to give greater economic and social benefits to men than to women when both sexes, in their own way, contribute to the social good? 

We must all be seriously concerned about social justice as it pertains to the rewards accruing to different genders as well as the process of recruitment to the C-suite. 

Although the processes of rewarding and recruitment are analytically separable, they are closely intertwined in practice. This is, to a large extent, due to the prominent part played by men in “placing” other men at the pinnacle of the corporate ladder. There is a marked tendency for those who already occupy relatively privileged positions to ensure that their own progeny is recruited into similar positions. 

The ability of men to confer advantages on other men encourages a fairly high degree of social self-recruitment within privilege from one generation to the next. Partly because of this, there often develops a pattern of social and cultural differentiation, which, in turn, reinforces the system of occupational recruitment and so crystallises the masculine structure through time. 

Women still suffer many disadvantages in various areas of social life including employment opportunities, income, property ownership and so forth. This is because, for most women, the allocation of social and economic rewards is still predominantly determined by men.

For gender equality and pay parity to take hold in South Africa and globally, men must be at the forefront because they are beneficiaries of centuries of patriarchy. It is easier for men to be accepted as leaders in the C-suite – as managing directors, presidents and CEOs – because the system both expects and accommodates them. When men ascend the corporate ladder, the corporate environment is friendly, forgiving and understanding. 

If we are to increase the numbers of women leaders in established companies, men must knock down the entrenched barriers and the proverbial glass ceiling hindering the progress of women. 

Gender equality will not happen by accident. Whenever they have been given opportunities, women have proven that they are as capable as men, if not more so because they have the requisite skills of the 21st century. Today, we still pay women about 75% of what we pay men for work of equal value. 

Covid-19 is everywhere, but countries with women as heads of state like Denmark, New Zealand, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Iceland and others seem to be managing the crisis better. 

So, why are women not progressing as fast and in large numbers?

They are not accessing positions of power and authority because men are uncomfortable with having women as their equals, let alone as their leaders. This is partially due to the way many of us were brought up and socialised. South Africa is still steeped in patriarchy and suffers from toxic masculinity. 

Do most men really appreciate the seriousness of gender transformation? If men were in the forefront of driving gender equality and pay parity, the figures would tell. But the statistics show that, even though women account for more than half of the population, their representation in positions of leadership is not more than 24%. African women are less than 4%, according to the Employment Equity Commission report. 

The old boys’ network mentality remains intact. Yet the skills required in the modern world, such as empathy, ability to connect and focusing on people are found naturally in women. The ability to communicate comes naturally to women. But when it comes to trusting them with the stewardship of our entities, men are still reluctant. By blocking their path to the C-Suite, companies are losing out on important insights and perspectives. 

Gender inequality is not unique to South Africa. The global picture is similar, if not worse. In the US, about 35% of Fortune 500 companies do not have a single woman on their boards.

Clear targets

Similar to other business activities, if you don’t set the tax rate at 28%, companies are not going to voluntarily pay you 32%. They will comply with the bare minimum of the law. When you want to increase sales for 2021, companies ordinarily aim for a 10% increase on this year’s sales. You set an unambiguous target. Gender and pay parity should not be different. 

If we want to achieve gender equality, we must be purposeful about it. It is not going to happen on its own. It is time for decisive steps to address the gender imbalances. There must be clear and measurable targets. This includes making gender diversity one of the metrics to measure performance. 

Business leaders must answer the question: How are you making it possible for women in your team to progress? 

We must also highlight, celebrate, as well as name and shame those companies on the JSE that are making serious headway and those that do not have a single woman on their boards, as well as those that still prefer to exclusively appoint white males to CEO positions. Most importantly, we must have punitive sanctions against those companies that put together annual employment equity plans and yet fail to meet them. Non-performance should be consistently punished. That is the only way to drive desired behaviour.

Pyramid of discrimination and oppression

One cannot talk about gender diversity and equality without singling out the plight of black women. At work and in life, black women must deal with systemic discrimination and oppression. They are caught in the intersectionality among race, gender and class. 

Most menial jobs in South Africa are still done by black women. The least amount of pay in this country is still reserved for black women. This is neither acceptable nor sustainable. How do we become internationally competitive when we leave more than half of the population behind?

Women in most households are the biggest consumers and buyers of goods and services. They are the ones responsible for bringing up the next generation of future leaders. Yet we do not take their role in society more seriously. History shows us that a poor woman brings up poor children. Therefore, the best way to reduce the self-perpetuating vicious cycle of abject poverty is to make sure that women are both financially independent and secure.


Without coaching on the job and mentorship about leadership, the progress of women will be slow. Mentors and coaches fulfil an important role by counselling, coaching and holding by the hand the next crop of leaders. Women also need “sponsorship”. This is about finding someone who can speak factually and passionately about women accomplishments in their absence. This is someone who will be heavily invested in women progress, ascension, personal growth and development. 

Most of us are raised by women. Precisely because of that seminal task, we must make sure that we trust our own mothers, sisters, aunts and nieces with positions of responsibility to ensure that the next generation of women leaders have a bigger pool from which to choose their next mentors, coaches and sponsors. DM


*Bonang Mohale is independent non-executive chairman of The Bidvest Group Limited, Chancellor of the University of the Free State, Professor of Practice in the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) College of Business and Economics and past President of the BMF. He is the author of the best-selling book, “Lift As You Rise”


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  • To search your question asking why women ( or any group) earn less money than men obfuscates the underlying simple truth. No one person in a business institution has any other interest but to maximise profit, and where people can be hired for less to perform the same job, so shall it be. Money is the bottom line in a capitalist economy. No one sits and ponders how they can subjugate others for the sake of it. If you want to change gender inequality,or any inequality, begin in the classroom from grade 00 and make people feel equally worthy.

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