Gender parity in business

Johannesburg, 08 Mar 2023
Nanda Scott, Group Chief Human Capital Officer, inq.
Nanda Scott, Group Chief Human Capital Officer, inq.

The time has come to re-examine how we define and evaluate leadership, says Nanda Scott, Group Chief Human Capital Officer at technology company inq.

Scott points out that while significant progress has been made in the advancement of women in business over the past few decades, the fact remains that women are still largely underrepresented in leadership positions.

Should this matter?

“Absolutely,” she says. “Women bring unique perspectives, experiences and skills to leadership positions that are essential for driving success and progress in any organisation or society.”

Yet according to PwC South Africa's 2022 executive directors’ report, only 15% (84 women) of the JSE executive population – including CEOs and CFOs – is female.

The good news, however, is that Africa is leading the way in the female leadership stakes. Grant Thornton’s “Women in Business 2021” reports that the percentage of female leadership in Africa increased from 29% in 2017 to 39% in 2021.

The question, though, is why women continue to lag behind their male counterparts in the business leadership arena at all. One reason that is often touted is education. There is a widespread belief that girls don’t have the same educational opportunities as boys and that girls don’t excel in the subjects that prepare them for leadership roles.

But the Department of Higher Education and Training’s May 2022 Gender Fact Sheet for the Post School Education and Training (PSET) Opportunities disproves this. Between 2016 and 2020, significantly more women than men were enrolled in higher education institutions, and more women graduated. This included traditionally “male” fields of study such as business/commerce, while for engineering, the same number of men and women completed their degrees.

In all fields of study, the gap between the sexes is widening, with women moving further ahead – so much so that South Africa’s Gender Parity Index (GPI) for tertiary enrolment in 2019 was the highest in the world.

Developed by UNESCO, the GPI is a measurement used to evaluate disparities between males and females. In education, a GPI of one indicates parity between females and males; a value less than one indicates a disparity in favour of males; and a value greater than one indicates a disparity in favour of girls.

In 2019, South Africa’s GPI was 1.33, higher than second-placed Brazil (1.28). The UK was third (1.27), followed by other high-income countries (1.20), OECD members (1.16) and sub-Saharan Africa (0.78).

Scott attributes South Africa’s leading performance to the significant cultural shift in the country towards recognising the value of women's education.

“Women and girls are encouraged and supported to pursue education as this is seen as the best way to improve their employment prospects and boost the contribution they can make to the development and the economy of the country. The statistics show that the concerted effort made to drive improved access to higher education for women in South Africa in recent years has worked.”

Why then are the strides made by women in the educational arena not reflected in the workplace?

Scott believes this is probably because men are generally given more opportunities in leadership positions. Some of this has to do with the way leadership is viewed: Men generally portray more “masculine” traits such as assertiveness, confidence, decisiveness and competitiveness, which are often seen as valuable in leaders.

“Although such traits are not gender specific. Women also possess these qualities but are very often criticised for exhibiting them as they do not conform to traditional gender stereotypes. At the same time, so-called ‘feminine’ leadership traits such as empathy, collaboration and emotional intelligence are often seen as less important and valuable for leadership roles,” Scott says.

“However, these ‘feminine’ traits bring a different dimension to leadership – one that is more collaborative, empathetic and focused on relationship-building. This is essential for creating a culture of trust and respect within an organisation. By prioritising empathy, collaboration and trust, women in leadership positions can create a positive work environment that encourages innovation, creativity and problem-solving.”

Scott acknowledges that achieving gender parity in business will require a multifaceted approach that addresses gender bias, promotes diversity and inclusion, provides support for work-life balance (women are often the sole or primary carer of others in the family, especially children), encourages mentorship and sponsorship, implements data-driven targets, educates and trains, and is accepting of women displaying assertiveness, boldness and other behaviours deemed to be “less feminine”.

And men, she says, have a vital role to play in all this by promoting and encouraging women to take on leadership roles and positions, by, among others, creating a supportive work culture, recognising and respecting the different skills and attributes women bring to the table and being an ally and supporting the efforts of their female colleagues to achieve leadership roles.

“Women in leadership is not only an issue that women must resolve – it’s a challenge for everyone. Focusing on women in leadership is important for promoting diversity and inclusion, achieving gender equality, providing role models and improving organisational performance,” Scott concludes.