Too many women stuck in the middle

by Lesley Stones
Companies that want to outperform their rivals on the stock market or achieve better sales can do so quite easily — by putting more women on the board. Those with more balanced boards consistently outperform those with fewer women thanks to the leadership behaviour women bring, including participative decision-making, role-modelling and people development, according to research by Grant Thornton.

Stronger stock-market growth is more likely with higher proportions of women in senior management, while companies with a greater proportion of women on their boards outperformed rivals with 66% better returns on invested capital, 53% better returns on equity and 42% better sales, says Grant Thornton’s International Business Report. In other words, "imbalance in the boardroom can be detrimental to business growth prospects".

"Such studies are always contentious but I think it’s correct," says Portia Moyo, a principal consultant at executive recruitment company Mindcor. "In terms of companies being successful, it’s all about diversity and women bring certain competencies and ways of thinking that can only enrich a board."

Yet, despite women making up 45% of the workforce in South Africa, they hold only 28% of senior positions. "In SA, at senior board level, the figures are actually shrinking," Moyo says. "A lot of transformation is happening at the front line, with black women leaders or women of colour, but at board level it’s shrinking, which is troubling and needs to be interrogated."

Moyo believes the root of the problem is a lack of focused career development for women in companies. A clear career path should be defined for those recognised as being able to hold very senior positions. Since that’s not happening, female professionals move on, gaining a reputation for job-hopping. "But it’s not about money, it’s about the frustration they are feeling in terms of career progress. The key is developing female leaders to enable them to operate at the highest level."

Moyo hails the example of Tryphosa Ramano, the chief financial officer of PPC, who set up a "women’s forum". Its goal is to help transform PPC: females held only 18% of leadership positions in 2011 but now hold 24% and the short-term target is 30%.

Achieving workplace parity depends enormously on how committed the leaders are to actually making a change: "We as women should be the ones advocating for change. We shouldn’t expect anyone else to fight the battle for us. At PPC they formed a forum and if more women leaders did that, we’d start to see tangible changes. A very important part of what they do is developing women and their leadership capabilities. They talk about the challenges and look at policies that aren’t women-friendly. It’s important for women to know they have that support mechanism."

Moyo was born in Zimbabwe and came to South Africa with her late husband. Her degree in French has seen her work in several African countries teaching leadership development. Later, she studied for an MBA to gain the additional credibility of a business qualification.

Moyo knows all about the hurdles, as a single mother trying to be a good role model at the same time as travelling for work and studying to improve her qualifications. "It was difficult sometimes. I had to turn down some opportunities that would have been brilliant for my career but I had a daughter to look after. I had to give her a good start in life and send her to the best schools. She’s now 18 and at university. I’m so proud of her. At least I’m doing something right."

Her job at Mindcor is to find the best candidates for executive positions, which involves understanding not only the job but also the culture of the company so she can find a good fit personality-wise who will be accepted and feel at home.

Then she approaches suitable candidates to headhunt them. "Whether they are interested in the opportunity or not depends on where they are in their career, so it’s important for companies to get their talent retention right because then people won’t be interested if another company calls them."

The number of women she can identify for top jobs in the financial, information technology (IT) and actuarial sectors is small. "Suitable women are few and far between and highly in demand. When we are looking for human resources directors, we have lots of women, and for marketing directors the number of men and women is about equal. For CEOs, it’s still male-dominated although it depends on the industry."

In building and construction, it is very rare to find a woman who can be placed as a CEO, and female chief information officers are equally scarce.

So what is stopping women percolating to the top?

Moyo believes it starts right at the bottom, with fewer female graduates in sectors such as IT, science and accounting. "Then, women tend not to reach the highest levels. You can find women engineers but physically they are not able to handle certain heavy machinery or work late at night because they feel vulnerable, so that hampers their growth."

In the building industry, it is hard enough for women to walk past a construction site without being heckled, let alone go on site and try to exert authority. As a result, there are only about 30 registered female civil engineers in South Africa.

More women are now graduating in these professions, so the interest is definitely there, yet when they enter the workplace, some aspects are difficult for them. "But women who are willing to get their hands dirty are able to rise through the ranks."

Apart from some jobs being discriminatory, South Africa is still a very patriarchal society. "The woman is still the one expected to do the majority of household chores, so if you have to balance having children and building your career, something has to give." A lot of women who have made it to the top could afford full time child-minders, but many get stuck in the middle because they can’t afford domestic help or are unable to work the necessary hours.

Norway has managed to achieve workplace parity by stipulating that household duties should be shared and by legislating for both maternity and paternity leave. "It has to start with government policies like increasing paid maternity leave and introducing paternity leave, so it’s not just the women who are going to disappear."

That is unlikely to happen with our patriarchal presidency, I suggest, but Moyo declines to be drawn. Instead, we debate whether longer mandatory periods of paid maternity leave would make companies even more reluctant to employ women. She says not; if anything, companies would win the increased loyalty of their women.

Another reason women do not go as far they could is the lack of mentorship, she believes. Moyo is part of the Dreamgirls Foundation, which recruits up-and-coming female managers to mentor high-school pupils. Moyo mentors the mentors, giving the insight that only an outsider can give, and introducing them to her personal network: "You can’t get to the top on your own."

Useful resources:
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