More women C-suite ICT execs, but still room for improvement

Read time 8min 30sec
Women who rise to the top have to prove themselves significantly more than what is required of men.
Women who rise to the top have to prove themselves significantly more than what is required of men.

While there are now more women taking the reins of South African ICT companies than ever before, transformation is taking place slowly, with female C-suite executives representing a significantly lower proportion than their male counterparts.    

This is the sentiment shared by analysts and female C-level executives who work in the local ICT sector.

Only 20% of the overall number of employees working across all levels of the ICT sector are women, according the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA).    

While gender transformation in the sector is well under way, women remain woefully underrepresented.

Among the reasons cited by analysts are societal influences and biases; the low number of women taking up careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields; and workplace systems premised on unconscious biases.

Arthur Goldstuck, ICT analyst and MD of World Wide Worx, believes the increasing awareness of gender equality in the ICT sector, especially among multinational firms, is bringing an emergence of the “new dawn”, defying the status quo in a male-dominated industry.    

“There is definitely a sense that women are taking the reins of ICT companies in SA at a rate never seen before. Males are perceived as being better leaders primarily by other males.

“But there is probably far greater awareness among multinational ICT companies than in any other sector, of the value of diversity in companies and the power of female leadership.”

Within the various companies in the sector, Goldstuck says the business-to-business firms see more diversity than their consumer-focused counterparts.

“If one deals with consumer-facing companies, it may be mere perception. But in the business-to-business space, gender diversity is a remarkable trend,” he adds.

Adrian Schofield, production consultant at IITPSA, explains there are no statistics to support the perception that more women are entering C-level executive positions; however, current existence is visible.

“There are a significant number of successful C-suite female executives in the local ICT sector, but the overall numbers are relatively small so it is difficult to make meaningful comparisons.

“SA is not focused on gender transformation but on ‘black gender transformation’. Again, firm statistics are hard to find but the 2019 B-BBEE ICT Sector Council’s Annual Monitoring Report suggests the sector is achieving less than half of the targets for having black females in the boardroom, or at executive level,” he explains.

Cathy Smith, SAP’s first female MD for Africa.
Cathy Smith, SAP’s first female MD for Africa.

More woman power need

In SA, there is only one female CEO in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) Top 40 companies – the newly appointed CEO of Naspers, Phuti Mahanyele-Dabengwa.

Women also only make up 20% of directors who serve on the boards of JSE-listed companies.

A new report released by Africa-based recruitment firm Jack Hammer, titled “The Jack Hammer Executive Report Volume III”, shows only 17% of top-level executives across all sectors in SA are female.

The study, which interviewed 259 senior executives in cross-industry firms, notes female leadership representation in the two top roles (CEO and CFO) within the companies surveyed was found to be much better than expected, with 14% of CEOs being women, and men making up 86%.

South African ICT companies that have women serving as CEOs/MDs include Microsoft, Software AG, SAP, Suse, Naspers, UiPath, Project Isizwe and Siemens, among others.

Cathy Smith, ICT services company SAP’s first female MD for Africa, explains that gender transformation is taking place at a slow pace because it is not being driven as a strategic imperative in many organisations.

With middle-management still primarily male-dominated, this is where the majority of hiring decisions are being made, resulting in the cycle being further perpetuated, Smith points out.

“Change is definitely happening within SA, especially within multinational ICT companies. Butprogress is slower than we would like, and is happening at the most senior levels, but the pace of change in middle-management is not as fast. This is restricting the overall pace of change in having proper gender representation across all levels of a business and building strong succession talent plans.”

Men, to some extent, are seen as better leaders, with the perceived notion that “driving hard on business is the comfort leadership style”. However, the shift in company culture within some organisations is bringing a new change in leadership style, she continues.

“Companies admire leaders who have a high level of emotional quotient, that are able to genuinely motivate their teams to achieve a greater vision and purpose for their organisation and individuals. This shift is happening, requiring different skills to the autocratic leadership styles of the past. Women tend to naturally possess a lot of these qualities and bring a fresh perspective; I believe that culture has never been more important in the workplace than now.”

Moira de Roche,non-executive director of the IITPSA, says the ICT sector is definitely witnessing an increase in women C-level executives, mostly in smaller organisations and start-ups, which are founded by women.

“What I have also noticed is that several government departments have female CIOs, which is a pleasing trend. Although there is some transformation, there are not enough women in high levels of IT in organisations, and I suspect the ‘glass ceiling’ prevails because there are sufficient women in mid-management positions, but they don’t seem to make it to the top.”

Christelle van de Merwe, director of customer operations at security firm Mimecast, points out that while there is a gradual increase in the appointment of female leaders in ICT companies, this does not immediately translate to more C-level executives.

“I don’t think we are there yet, but this is a logical progression as women build their careers in the organisations for which they work. This speaks to the fact that gender transformation – just like with any transformation policy – is not something that can be achieved over a short period of time.

“This is a long game that requires a lot of commitment and opportunity for us to reach the goals that were set out when transformation was first recognised as a need. What it does say, is that it’s working.”

In terms of challenges experienced by women in the sector, De Roche believes gender disparity still plagues many ICT firms.

“Certainly the break in careers when they go on maternity leave, or take a longer break while their children are small, slows the climb up the career ladder. Also, given that responsibility for children still rests mainly with the mother, women aren’t always able to work long hours at the office, which is often the culture in IT.”

Smith adds that companies often unconsciously create an environment that excludes women: “In many cases, doing business on the golf course, in bars, etc, still seems to be the norm. The network within the ICT sector is still predominately male and this also makes it difficult to navigate for women.

“Another great obstacle women face is staying in the C-suite. By default, if they can get there they need to stay there, and then reach back and inspire other women to follow suit. Surprisingly, one of the key challenges I have seen over the years is in the lack of support between women, and I find that very sad.”

Christelle van de Merwe, director of customer operations at security firm Mimecast.
Christelle van de Merwe, director of customer operations at security firm Mimecast.

ICT education needs a jack-up

Globally, women represent a minority in the ICT arena largely due to the low number of girls who take up STEM-related subjects at school, which hinders them taking up ICT-related courses at tertiary level institutions.

Goldstuck points out that ICT was generally a male-dominated sector, with the main issue being that schools for generations discouraged women from entering the STEM fields, aided and abetted by short-sighted and ignorant parents who imagined that girls were only intended for certain roles.

“Even today, in many traditional, patriarchal and insulated communities, girls are discouraged from pursuing scientific or technical careers. No such obstacles exist for men. So we should not pretend we are shocked that men outnumber women in leadership roles in ICT. The odds are stacked against the women, and those who rise to the top have had to prove themselves significantly more than what has been required of men.”

As government and corporates increasingly support initiatives aimed at encouraging young girls to enter STEM fields, this is slowly changing.

Schofield explains: “As is so often repeated, ad nauseam, jack-up the education system to give all young people the requisite skills to enter the digital world. If we want to change that in SA, we must spend significantly more in time, effort and money on encouraging girls to be interested in using digital skills to support their futures.”

Van de Merwe says the only solution to female under representation and inequality is to invest in more programmes that grow leadership and IT capabilities within the female demographic.

“This begins as early as investing in graduate programmes that encourage young women to enter the corporate world and feel they have the tools to be successful. Structured coaching and mentoring programmes are also a way in which successful women can give back and grow the demographics. Real success doesn’t lie in only being good at the ‘hard’ skills in a job – it is very much in becoming skilled at ‘soft’ skills, and this can’t be learnt in a book.”

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