Challenges faced by women in business

Johannesburg, 21 Aug 2023
Unpacking the role of women as leaders.
Unpacking the role of women as leaders.

The City Press reports that in March 2022, South Africa rose two spots on the benchmark for women business owners to land in position 44, with 21.9% of all enterprises owned by women compared to 21.1% in 2020. CTU Corporate Training Unlimited, a division of CTU Training Solutions, hosted a webinar in mid-August to unpack the role of women as leaders. Moderator Karlien Rust, National Marketing Manager Corporate at CTU Training Solutions, initiated the conversation by quoting 2019 Miss Universe winner Zozibini Tunzi, who said: "I think the most important thing we should be teaching young girls today is leadership."

Biases in business

Rust points out that access to financial aid is one of the most significant barriers to women starting their businesses. She asks the panellists: "Why are women perceived to be a higher risk when it comes to getting loans?"

Ryan Noach, CEO of Discovery Health, was the first to reply, saying that according to the World Bank, only 37% of women in sub-Saharan Africa have a bank account. "There's strong data-driven evidence that women don't have the same bank account penetration as men." He attributes this to women needing more self-confidence and believing they will qualify for credit. "However, when tested, women are equally creditworthy as men."

Rust asks: "When it comes to gender biases in business and entrepreneurship, do women still face nuanced challenges when starting their own business, compared to men?"

Sithembile Ngobese, Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainable Business at Unilever, believes that women are still in the minority when running a business. "According to the IMF, half of the world's population is women, yet we make up 9.4% of business owners. Cultural and social limitations play a role, while the labour market favours men in private and informal sectors. We need to address these issues and advocate for women to ensure they're given positions they qualify for."

Kimberley Taylor, CEO and founder of LOOP, adds that we need to talk about biases and stereotypes because being aware of them helps dismantle them. "Often, a trait admired in a man is not always applauded in women. Yet these traits can be vital when building a business. So we need to be aware of these prejudices, which exist in both men and women, and we also need to address our biases."

Rust agrees that women are haunted by the role they have historically played and that there's a need to chip away at those perceptions and replace them with new ones.

Lydia Roux, representing several businesses, including Future Africa Services and Human Capital Collective, says: "You can be feminine and still ask tough questions. Sometimes women have the best solutions, but fear of rejection prevents them from stepping forward."

Finding a role model

Rust says: "Men still largely dominate the corporate space in SA; how does this influence women when finding role models or mentors?

Noach responds: "You must consider the data when considering solutions. Stats SA's data for Q2 of 2021 says women accounted for 43% of total employment in SA, while 66% of managerial positions went to men.

"When you consider sector by sector, more women are employed in specific sectors, such as healthcare and education industries. However, it also comes down to business leaders' messages. Women will feel more comfortable being employed there and achieving senior positions if an environment requires human characteristics. This is especially true where a business understands some of the responsibilities that women typically (not always) have in addition to their job.

"Employers need to understand that women can achieve the same as men in the workplace, but may sometimes require more flexibility. COVID-19 underlined the importance of human qualities such as empathy, flexible work needs, understanding and dealing with tragedy while functioning in the workplace."

He believes that mentorship is vital to the leadership journey, but most women in the workplace have never had a formal mentor. "Businesses need to establish formalised mentorship programmes with deliverables and guidelines."

Are most mentors men, and is this changing?

Roux agrees with Noach that an absence of coaching and mentoring in the workplace can be felt deeply. "There's nothing wrong with having a male coach or mentor, yet having a female mentor brings a new dimension. Imposter syndrome is a common experience, especially for women, so it's important to emphasise the value of authenticity. Being authentic is crucial to your success as a woman.

"If a seat is created at the table for women, they sometimes adopt characteristics of their male counterparts that aren't authentic. Not only is the coaching and mentorship of women crucial, but we also need to network and help one another. A work-life balance is crucial too. One good thing about COVID-19 is that it made working remotely acceptable, so women can be at home, conduct meetings and still parent their children. Women must also ask for a business coach or mentor."

Taylor says women shouldn't shy away from male mentors as they can provide a balanced view.

Geniene Jacobs, Executive: Head of People and Culture PPB SA at Standard Bank, advises women to consider the value of mentorship versus coaching versus career sponsorship and decide which season in their career requires which. They should also embrace the diversity that each brings.

Erik Kruger, founder of Modern Breed, points out that 63% of women in the workplace have never had a formal mentor and asks whether that is owing to a lack of self-belief. "Are men more inclined to ask for mentorship because they know they need it to succeed?"

Work from home – friend or foe?

Jacobs believes working from home holds many benefits. "There's less commuting, more autonomy, flexibility, work-life integration, higher productivity and increased motivation. However, we must recognise the complexities of WFH for women. Women often carry the majority of household responsibilities. This means that women have less time to grow businesses or commit to showing up in the working environment.

"In corporate spaces, we still see women who are parents being passed over for an opportunity to get ahead. It's also possible that employees, primarily WFH, are given fewer opportunities for advancement. It's important for women to strategically plan and invest in a support system that creates more capacity to grow their business or career."

Noach refers to research published in The Economist that indicates that WFH is becoming viewed with less favour by businesses. "There's an erosion of culture when people WFH compared to the office. People who aren't in the office may miss out on developmental opportunities. However, I do believe in adaptability and flexibility in the workplace."

Women's role in high-performance teams

Kruger says he looks at three aspects of high-performance teams: the team environment, co-ordination and communication. "Of those three, the most important is the team environment. Ideally, we want an environment that provides psychological safety, where members feel heard, seen and part of a unit. Women will create more of that in the team as they're better at creating and maintaining interpersonal relationships with high social sensitivity. This brings a higher level of cohesion to the team."

Roux agrees that women bring emotional intelligence to the table, and integrating that into building a solid team is crucial. "Women are naturally collaborative."

Jacobs believes a high-performing team needs a foundation of trust through mutual vulnerability to collaborate effectively, as well as the ability to deal with conflict."

Noach adds that diversity in any team brings a valuable perspective. "If we all think the same, we'll gravitate around the same answer. The hallmark of a successful executive conversation is one with differing views, but that can ultimately reach a consensus position."

The impact of AI on women in the workforce

Noach says that generative AI is expected to affect women more than men. "Roles such as bank tellers, in healthcare and education tend to be occupied by women, and all of these sectors are being affected by AI."

He believes there's an obligation on employers to reskill and have plans in place to create new roles for individuals who may be affected. "It has to be embraced responsibly in which women's needs are put at the forefront."

Kruger points out that AI has an abundance of use cases. "It's moving very quickly, and on the one hand, we're seeing fear about jobs being lost to it, but on the other hand, we have people asking how they can use it in their business.

"This creates a fog around AI, where people don't know what to do or where to go. Employees need to become great at learning and adapting to what's happening around them. They need to stop fearing AI will take their jobs, and rather look at how they can use it to do their job better and free up time to do other things."

Roux agrees, saying that businesses need to identify the gaps AI is creating and upskill for that.

Jacobs says: "We're already seeing this play out in workplaces, with jobs being repurposed into other, future jobs. Whether women work in corporate or are entrepreneurs, they need to be clear on what the future world looks like and the skills that will be required."

The one word that comes up repeatedly in the discussion is flexibility. This quality will be crucial to achieving greater gender equality in business – both by the company and the people within it. To further expound on the potential impact of AI in the workplace, CTU Corporate Training Unlimited, a division of CTU Training Solutions, is hosting a free virtual masterclass on AI in Human Resources. 'Leveraging AI in Human Resources for Organizational Success' will be held online on 5 October 2023 facilitated by Prof Johan Steyn, the founder of To register for free, please click on the link below:

For more information and to explore the event's potential impact, visit