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Where are our women?

May 28 2017 06:01
Gayle Edmunds

‘Inclusion is a problem – the numbers show it. Diversity is not thriving,” said Catalina Fajardo, who is the co-author of Gender (dis)Parity in South Africa: Addressing the Heart of the Matter.

The report delves into why women are “disappearing” from the path to senior leadership despite having the same levels of aspiration and confidence as men when beginning their careers.

Women make up 51% of the South African population and 53% of tertiary educated South Africans, but the numbers don’t add up when it comes to counting women in senior leadership roles – with only 28% of them being women.

Once researchers start adding up the number of women CEOs at JSE-listed companies, the percentages fall into the abyss – with less than 3% being women.

Gender (dis)Parity in South Africa’s authors surveyed more than 1 000 women and men in the private sector across all sectors and industries, and conducted more than 50 one-on-one interviews with people who work in corporations.

At non-management levels, 58% of women aspire to reach the C-suite, compared with 48% of men; yet, once these women reach middle management, their confidence levels drop significantly.

This is because they start to experience the day-to-day realities of gender inequality, the report concluded.

At work, these inequalities manifest as negative experiences encountered at least four times a year, such as sexual overtures or harassment, as well as inappropriate conversations, being excluded from company networking events, and feeling a lack of acknowledgment and respect.

However, men also experience all of these, though to a lesser extent.

The significant missing links for women in the workplace are the resources and initiatives to promote gender equality.

Perceptions matter and only 39% of women (against 58% of men) believe that gender equity is a visible priority at work.

Fajardo said that the research aimed not only to show what people experience, but also to understand how societal, organisational and personal factors interconnect to make sense of their experiences, and to then design solutions for organisations that will result in all-important change.

This change needs to be that the female experience, and particularly the black female experience, gets better over time.

But, warned Fajardo, “there is no silver bullet”. What is imperative, rather, is that we have to “convince men and women that there is a financial benefit to companies and this will change the black female experience”.

Despite 70% of both men and women believing in the benefits of gender equality, this conviction drops when the same people are asked if the main reason behind their support for gender equality is improved performance.

This lack of belief in the bottom-line benefits of gender equity flies in the face of numerous global studies that have found that increased gender parity grows a country’s productivity and competitiveness.

McKinsey’s 2011 report, Unlocking the Full Potential of Women in the US Economy, found that greater participation of women in the workforce since 1970 accounted for a quarter of the country’s GDP.

Conversely, the report Women and Labour Markets in Asia – Rebalancing for Gender Equality, released by the International Labour Organisation and ADV in 2011, found that Asia and the Pacific sacrificed $42 billion (R541 billion) to $47 billion annually because of women’s limited access to employment opportunities.

Bonang Mohale, vice-president of Upstream and chairperson of Shell SA, writes in the foreword: “The focus must shift from seeing only the ‘other’ to instead recognising the fresh skills and perspectives that different people bring to organisations. Instead of expecting new entrants to assimilate into the existing corporate culture, we must make the culture more inclusive.”

In addition, companies that have high employee engagement experience two-and-half times greater revenue growth than those with low engagement. This makes the research findings on employee engagement staggering.

Men, white ones, are most likely to recommend their companies to others, while black women are by far the least likely to do so. This shows directly how negative experiences in the workplace that women – and primarily black women – have, reduce a company’s effectiveness and attractiveness.

Only 58% of women believe their families and communities subscribe to equal opportunities for women and men.

The research concludes that “deeply embedded societal norms continue to actively discourage women who aspire to ascend to senior management positions from reaching their full potential”.

“It is crucial that we continue to tackle gender biases and redefine gender roles at formal places of education, within our own households and within our broader communities.”

The conclusion is that in all three spheres – societal, organisational and personal – the solution begins with all of us.

Mohale puts it perfectly: “In exactly the same way that white people matter in black emancipation, men matter in the cause of gender equity. This is not and never has been a woman-only issue. In your capacity as an individual, as a member of your community and as a leader in an organisation, you must use your influence to make a real impact – and make it soon.

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