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Why corporate SA must woo women leaders

In the post-pandemic world, companies are losing female leaders at unprecedented rates as women take up better job opportunities or search for work-life balance.

Female CEOs are still so rare that they make headlines when one resigns. In February 2023, Natascha Viljoen announced she was leaving her position as chief executive of Anglo Platinum and saying goodbye to South Africa. She is set to become COO of the world's largest gold miner, Newmont, in the US. Viljoen – who oversees about 25 000 employees at Amplats – has been called a 'breaker of glass ceilings' in the male-dominated mining industry. Incidentally, it's one industry with a mechanism to drive female participation, with the Mining Charter setting industry-specific targets for women ownership and management.

While losing a capable leader is always disappointing, it's even worse when the leader is female, because of the repercussions on gender transformation. According to PwC's Executive Directors Report 2022, only seven of the top 100 JSE-listed companies have female CEOs (still including Amplats). Across all companies on the JSE, only 8% of CEOs and 22% of CFOs are female, while most executives (85%) are male.

"By not sufficiently representing all voices and genders in top management, organisations are missing out on talent, contributions and skills that could add to the growth of businesses," says Dr Michele Ruiters, lead faculty for the GIBS' Leading Women programme. "Impact only emerges when the organisational culture accepts differences, or diversity as it is commonly referred to, and harnesses those differences to be innovative, inclusive and representative."

Genuine diversity also needs to reflect the national demographics and company stakeholders. The JSE listings requirements and King IV require boards to set gender targets and report on progress, but this progress is painfully slow.

Surprise resignations

Viljoen's exit in 2023 came equally unexpectedly as the resignation of African Bank CEO Basani Maluleke in 2021. The first black female CEO of a South African bank successfully led the bank to profitability when she announced her departure "to pursue other career opportunities". Maluleke's sudden move was much debated, with the ANC Women's League calling it "a loss for all women".

"When women advance to top leadership and then step away, it's sometimes seen as an abandonment of all the women below them or giving up a cause that women have been fighting for generations," says Ruiters. "But we need to ask why women do this: are they 'sell-outs' or is the environment not ready for strong women? Or is it an exercise of women's true agency?"

Around Viljoen's announcement, Bloomberg reported on high-profile female executives in Silicon Valley resigning from tech giants such as YouTube and Meta. This echoes what McKinsey & Company call 'The Great Breakup', which sees women leaders switching jobs at unprecedented rates - and at higher rates than men in leadership. "Women leaders are just as ambitious as men, but at many companies, they face headwinds that signal it will be harder to advance," says the consultancy in its Women in the Workplace 2022 report. "They're more likely to experience belittling microaggressions, such as having their judgment questioned or being mistaken for someone more junior. And finally, it's increasingly important to women leaders that they work for companies that prioritise flexibility, employee wellbeing, and diversity, equity, and inclusion."

Shared identity, different experience

In South Africa and globally, women continue to experience a bottleneck (or 'broken rung') that keeps middle managers from moving up the career ladder. McKinsey finds that for every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level roles to middle management, only 87 women are promoted. Because it takes women longer to rise through the ranks, they typically reach a plateau where they can no longer catch up to men.

"Women often have to work harder than men to prove their worth," says Ruiters. "We see in research that women's careers are about five years behind their male peers, even with the same qualifications and experience." But not all women are equally affected. An Australian study recently found that women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds spend eight years longer in middle management roles – and are paid less – than women from a European background.

"The point here is intersectionality: not all women are the same and neither are all men, because we have identities that make our experiences different," says Ruiters. "That's why storytelling is important in leadership education. In our Leading Women programme, we have deep discussions about where delegates are in their lives and careers. While there might be a common experience based on a dominant identity, it will not be exactly the same as for the next woman or man."

Making choices

While the GIBS course is tailored for women who want to become better leaders through a process of understanding themselves within the context of society and business, it's open to others too. "Men lead women in organisations and work with women as peers; therefore, it's important for them to understand how organisational culture impacts women differently and how policies and procedures could inadvertently disadvantage women," says Ruiters. "Gender is not a binary concept in the 21st century. We have not really begun to explore how organisations could meaningfully include genders that are currently invisible and voiceless. We try to bring those perspectives into our discussions in class too."

These are underpinned by intensive coaching sessions where delegates can share openly with peers and learn collaboratively. One lesson focuses, for example, on choices. Women do proportionally more unpaid work than men – at home and at the office, where they support employees and take on other admin and support chores that mostly go unrewarded. It's important to understand that you always have a choice.

"Achieving a work-life balance is a myth, as we usually have to choose between either work or family, not both," says Ruiters. "You need to recognise that if today you're choosing work, your personal life will suffer. But tomorrow you might choose your family and your work will take a backseat. Life doesn't happen, it's what you make happen."

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern became a case in point when she announced her resignation, because she "no longer had enough in the tank" to lead the country. "I am human," she said. "Politicians are human. We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it's time."

While some may regard this as letting women down, there is a sense that Ardern has changed the face of world politics by being true to herself. She embodies a younger generation of leaders who - like Viljoen and Maluleke – know her value and are not afraid to leave a high-powered job for new opportunities. If companies want to stay relevant and competitive in future, they need to increase their efforts to retain this type of leader and develop younger female talent. Ultimately, women CEOs should become so normalised in South Africa that they no longer create news headlines when moving to greener pastures.

Useful resources:
Gordon Institute of Business Science
Making an impact to significantly improve the competitive performance of individuals and organisation through business education to build our national competitiveness. GIBS is a leading business school in the heart of Sandton’s business hub, offering a wide range of executive and academic programmes.
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