25/05/2017 09:34 SAST | Updated 25/05/2017 10:19 SAST

Change Your Attitude And Make Gender Equity A Visible Priority, Recommends New Report

This will ensure less women ‘disappear’ on the path to senior leadership.

A sign is seen pointing to a gender neutral restroom in New York City, U.S., April 19, 2017.
Mike Segar / Reuters
A sign is seen pointing to a gender neutral restroom in New York City, U.S., April 19, 2017.

According to the World Economic Forum's 2016 Global Gender Gap Index, South Africa ranks 15th out of 145 countries in terms of closing the pay gap between women and men. And by developing country standards, this is not bad at all. But while this is progress, the disparities are still glaringly high:

  • 31 percent of South African companies have no female representation in senior leadership roles;
  • 22 percent of board directors are women, but only 7 percent are executive directors, according to the latest Businesswomen's Association of South Africa census; and
  • Only 10 percent of South African CEOs are women, and if we look at Johannesburg Stock Exchange companies, this number drops to 2.2 percent.

How, after the implementation of the Employment Equity are the leadership numbers still, arguably, so low? And what will it take to improve these numbers?

  • Four Myths About SA Women's Aspirations At Work -- And The Actual Truths

The persistent challenge: attitudes and a lack of structural change in the workplace

According to Bain & Company's recent report on gender equity, it's the everyday realities of gender inequality experienced by women in the workplace that hinder their career advancement.

One female respondent said: "When I started, I felt like I was on an equal footing with my contemporaries, but ... as I climbed the ladder, it became trickier, and I came to realise that there are political imbalances that I, as a black woman, need to navigate to progress that men around me do not face."

These challenges, respondents noted, were mainly organisational, societal and to a lesser extent personal. Female respondents in particular, felt that processes in the workplace favoured their male colleagues, with senior level support and mentoring readily available for men as compared to women. Women also reported negative experiences such as sexual harassment and a lack of respect from their usually male superiors.

The women also faced challenges outside the workspace, in their families and communities. Female respondents who said they do not aspire to senior leadership positions were found to be three times as likely to say their families do not believe in equal career opportunities.

Co-author of the report, Catalina Fajardo, says this is a significant problem. "Deeply embedded societal norms ... continue to dictate that women should be the primary caregivers in the home. As a result, many women feel they are 'going against the grain' when they opt for a career," she says.

According to the research, these problems manifest especially in middle management.

Fajardo said: "Often, women, particularly in middle-management feel marginalized, ignored or simply worn down by trying to get their efforts recognised."

Some women then, as a result, would rather settle where they are, than fight.

The solution: change the attitude, then make structural changes

There is no easy solution, admits Fajardo. Because of the intersectionality of gender inequality, patriarchy, sexism and racism, particularly in the South African context, issues that women face in the workplace cannot be approached or solved in isolation.

Change needs to come at individual, company and societal levels. And this needs to start at home, by challenging traditional gender roles and misconceptions around women and career aspirations.

The intention, however, of employers to set women up for success plays a crucial role. Having company leadership that understands and supports gender equity in the workplace, that has a zero-tolerance for negative experiences against women is important because unless this happens, women will continue "getting lost" somewhere on the way to senior leadership.