Building a pipeline of women who qualify to be on company boards is a challenge many developed and developing countries, including South Africa face.

It’s often the case that the same women are recycled to sit on the various boards of blue-chip companies or those listed on the securities exchange. This is a trend that  Business & Professional Women South Africa (BPWSA) hopes to change. A subsidiary of international non-profit organisation The International Federation of Business & Professional Women, BPWSA has been operating in SA since 2011.

“I realised there were services for women who were very senior in their organisations, and there was something for women owning SMMEs. But, when it came to mid- to senior-level there was a gap and we wanted to do something about that,” says BPWSA president, Toni Gomes.

She and her team designed the Women on Boards programme to specifically assist women who are at top management level, but below CEO and directorship levels within their organisations. In order to apply, women must be aged 35 and above, have a degree that is in demand in the market and at least five years of management experience.

Beyond teaching corporate governance, the sessions in the programme that costs R60 000, include company legislation, corporate governance of publicly or JSE-listed companies, understanding finances, fraud detection, media training and presentation skills.

BPWSA’s first programme, in partnership with the Department of Trade and Industry (dti), was launched with only six women in July 2012. This year’s intake was 19 women, with each graduate receiving a certificate from the the dti.

BPWSA President Toni Gomes (Toni Gomes)
BPWSA President Toni Gomes   (Picture supplied)

“There are challenges that women who want to be on boards must face because the glass-ceiling is still there. But also because companies look for high-fliers – well-known women to put on their boards. That’s quite a barrier.”

There are challenges that women who want to be on boards must face because the glass-ceiling is still there.

And while the programme hopes to break down those barriers, the graduates still need a little help beyond the classroom in order to be completely ready to sit on a board.

“As the name of the programme suggests, these are board-potential women, meaning they have the potential to sit on boards, but don’t have the experience yet,” says Gomes.

“They still need to be mentored by someone who sits on a board. They need to shadow the person and see how what they were taught on the course is put into practice.”

Gomes says the women who successfully complete the nine-month programme are listed on the Board-Potential database.

CEOs of various companies are also invited to attend the graduation breakfast. A booklet containing each graduate’s profile is given to the CEOs, so they know where to look should they need a woman with specific qualifications to sit on their board.

The value of having a BPWSA graduate on a board is that they know exactly what the job entails. They can make a valuable contribution and are not there purely to balance out the female quota. These women also understand the risks involved and the implications that come with having their signature on the dotted lines of decisions made by a board.

For example, says Gomes, people are not aware that a non-executive director carries the same risks as an executive director. She says if a board makes a decision, even if as a board member you kept quiet, the fact that you as a board member signed those documents means you agree with what was decided and so will also be held liable for the decision made.