EDITORIAL: Business still ignores women

25 MAY 2017

Women remain under-represented and the picture has changed very little.

Management consulting group Bain & Company’s report on gender disparity released on Thursday comes at a poignant moment in SA. Several gruesome murders have once again highlighted gender-based violence, one of SA’s many persistent challenges.

The Bain report, however, concerns women in the workplace which likewise constitutes a continuing problem. Yet the report is granular enough to provide some findings that would probably surprise many.

The overall picture is easy to predict: women remain under-represented in business and the picture has changed very little in the recent past. The report cites the latest Businesswomen’s Association of SA census, which found only 10% of South African CEOs are women and only 2.2% of listed companies have CEOs that are women.

Overall, the percentage of women in senior leadership roles has seen only miniscule change over the past decade, with representation increasing slightly from 26% in 2004 to 28% in 2017. As shocking as this may be, it’s not out of kilter with some prominent developed countries — in fact, it is substantially higher than the UK (19%) and about the same as Australia (23%).

But being average should never be an aspiration — and this is where the report gets interesting. The majority of executives, male and female, interviewed by Bain support greater gender equality. But digging down a bit, Bain asked a simple but penetrating question: why? When asked to choose the primary reason for their belief in gender equality from three alternatives — moral imperative, government legislation and business performance — only 20% of men cited business performance. This figure jumped to 30% when women were asked the same question. Both numbers are extremely low and worrying.

“Until there is sincere recognition of how gender equality influences business performance, true progress in the workplace is unlikely. Businesses may achieve gender targets, but they will not have created the appropriate environment for women to thrive,” the report comments.

One of the big problems highlighted by the report is what it calls “middle-management permafrost”; women tend to rise as quickly as men to middle management but then get stuck there. Often women, particularly in middle management, feel marginalised, ignored or simply worn down by trying to get their efforts recognised. As a consequence, promotions generally take longer and the loss in confidence is reflected in the decline in advocacy scores by women a few years into their careers, the report says. 

The report reflects an extraordinary degree of sexual harassment, but the surprising thing is that the level of harassment of men is only very slightly lower than that of women. About 40% of women as well as men have negative experiences more than once a quarter, but based on the interviews, it appears these negative experiences have a more significant effect on women’s desire to stay in the organisation and likelihood they will move up the ranks.

So what should be done? One important aspect is to formally connect women with a mentor or sponsor and encourage more on-the-job coaching to increase senior advocate support.

Another is to ensure that checks and balances are in place to identify biases in reporting and processes. Another is to apply a zero-tolerance policy and increase awareness of negative experiences.

In many countries around the world, women now outnumber men at university and yet still lag in seniority within business. That differential is the new challenge and businesses would benefit by actively embracing it.