Women empowerment has been a priority in South Africa for the past two decades. For obvious reasons, this has coincided with efforts to reverse the general underrepresentation of black women in all industries.

Numbers indicate that progress has been made. But the rate at which change is happening suggests it will be many years before we see gender parity in the workplace.

In the private sector, studies by the Business Women’s Association (BWA) indicate that South Africa is still without adequate representation of women in JSE-listed companies. The organisation’s 2015 Women in Leadership Census shows that only 34 top companies had 25% or more of director and executive manager positions held by women out of a total of 293 organisations, including state-owned enterprises.

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Women are mostly appointed in non-executive directorship positions. But even then, the numbers are worrying. For instance, the BWA census indicates that only 9,2% of women are chairpersons of companies, and only 2,4% are CEOs.

The census also shows that companies are recycling the same talent. This is a major concern because it means the country and corporations are missing out on this window of opportunity to empower and develop a bigger pool of women for leadership positions.

Several reasons have been advanced to explain this disconcerting state of affairs. One of them is that decision makers in organisations are not doing enough to promote equity.

Another is that many organisations don’t have a systemic approach to empowerment. Things are often done on an ad hoc basis. And that explains why it often seems easy for a company to poach a talented and hard-working woman from a competitor instead of grooming its own.

But true empowerment lies in growing your own timber. Small steps like mentorship and coaching can go a long way in leadership development. I have seen this as Chairperson of the Phakama Women’s Academy, a mentorship programme VWV Group (a brand experience agency) set up in 2014 when I was CEO, as part of our contribution to women empowerment.

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The word “Phakama” means “Rise up” in isiZulu and isiXhosa. It was chosen to inspire women to rise up and take their positions in the corporate world.

Invariably, many of the young women we mentor arrive unsure about their goals in life, lacking in confidence or doubtful if they have what it takes to achieve their dreams. But once the programme is in motion, they just transform and glow. I have seen many of them flourish, overcome the fear of addressing crowds or learn to express themselves better in interviews. Many get inspired by their mentors and begin to dream of becoming CEOs themselves.

The single biggest transformative factor for these young girls seems to be the opportunity to work with women they have admired from a distance. From this experience, they begin to see that successful people are also ordinary folks. I personally have come to realise that sharing your own experience as a successful woman and all the pain that comes with it can transform a young and ambitious woman and inspire her to dream big.

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These are some of the low-hanging fruits that companies can tap into to speed up women empowerment. We need to empower, equip and enable women to grow and aspire to take up senior positions in companies and state organisations.

Being a wife, a mother and a career woman is not easy. You are constantly juggling and you don’t want to drop any balls. Sometimes your career takes the back seat and you focus on your family. But it doesn’t have to be like that. You can have it all with good support structures.

Koo Govender is Chairperson of Phakama Women’s Academy and CEO of media and digital communications firm Densu Aegis Network SA.