Women leaders still dismally underrepresented at JSE companies: Bwasa

A newly released census on South African women in leadership has revealed that just 2% of women hold CEO positions on JSE-listed companies

The Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa (Bwasa) 2015 Women in Leadership Census reveals alarming statistics that point toward the urgent need for South African corporates to rethink their approach to women leadership empowerment if gender parity is to be achieved.

Of the 293 JSE-listed companies surveyed, just seven have female CEOs.

Furthermore, only 34 companies attained Top Performing Companies status, meaning they had more than 25% of women in director or executive managerial positions.

In terms of representation at the board level, the census found that most women are appointed to non-executive directorship positions.

Women account for 11,6% of directorships and chairperson positions, of which 9,2% hold chairperson positions and 2,4% are CEOs.

The companies surveyed have made significant strides in improving the number of women holding directorship positions over the past five years, jumping from 7,1% in 2010 to 29,3% presently.

On the executive manager level, women hold 29,3% or 1 493 of the total 5 091 positions.

Although the average gender parity figure among the companies surveyed is slightly higher than the national average, the research shows that there is still much room for improvement.

If we are unable to retain and develop our top female talent, South Africa will not be able to compete in a global business landscape. We need bold solutions and workplaces where the best talent can flourish

“There are still significant opportunities for the promotion of women to senior levels, but it begs the question whether there is sufficient women talent at this level to meet gender parity,” the report noted.

Most female executive managers work in the consumer services sector, while just 14,6% work in the industrial sector.

The corporate world could learn a few things from the public sector as state-owned enterprises (SOE) are leading by example with 50% of the 20 biggest SOEs surveyed achieving Top Performing Companies status.

“While we commend the Top Performing Companies for their increased representation of women, it is very concerning that only 8,79% of JSE-listed companies have 25% or more women directors. People are our greatest asset. In a highly interconnected and rapidly changing world, organisations and countries must adapt strategies and innovate in order to remain relevant and competitive,” said BWASA president Farzanah Mall.

“If we are unable to retain and develop our top female talent, South Africa will not be able to compete in a global business landscape. We need bold solutions and workplaces where the best talent can flourish.”

The census also highlights how “thinly spread” female directors are, as 70 of the 500 women sit on three or more boards simultaneously, which means that top organisations are opting to “recycle” talent rather than grooming up-and-coming talent. It also raises concerns over the impact that sitting on multiple boards could have on their overall effectiveness and efficiency.

“Fewer women are being more thinly spread across director positions. This impacts on work-life balance of an already limited talent pool, increasing stress and pressure levels of women, which may lead to burnout. From an organisational perspective, this may lead to a decrease in overall effectiveness and efficiency,” the report states.

Absa Private Bank Regional Head Mphume Langa said the problem isn’t about women sitting on multiple boards, but rather the problem lies in the fact that so few women are trained and board-ready.

“I think it’s good that women hold more than one board position, I sit on three myself. I’m doing it because I can add value to those organisations and I can see how I’m adding value.”

“I think where the challenge remains, is that we don’t have enough women who are coming in to hold new board roles. Currently I’m finding that there are many women sitting on boards – especially in the public sector space – who aren’t qualified or even trained to become effective board members,” she said.

Langa said the key to closing the gap is simple – upskill more women to create a pool of board-savvy women that’s large enough for organisations to draw from in the future.

I’m finding that there are many women sitting on boards – especially in the public sector space – who aren’t qualified or even trained to become effective board members

Overall, the census reveals that organisations need to turn their gender parity strategies on their heads to find different ways to empower women in leadership roles.

Discovery Foundation chairman Vincent Maphai believes that the starting point should focus on changing the male mindset towards women in business and leadership by acknowledging that gender parity “isn’t a women’s issue, but it’s a human rights issue”.

For Antoinette Irvine, vice president for human resources at Unilever, the responsibility to get more women in leadership roles effectively lies with those already sitting at the table to put on a show and demonstrate the value that women bring to the organisation and more importantly, to the bottom line.

“You need to talk about the business benefits (of having a woman in key leadership positions). You need to give an opportunity for those male colleagues – who haven’t worked with very successful women who are good at what they do – to work with teams like that so that they can experience it. It’s about making sure you can get a great woman into your organisation and showcase the work that they do and show the value it has on the bottom line,” said Irvine.