Winning Women: Breaking barriers

May 14 2017 07:19
Sue Grant-Marshall

‘The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.”

So wrote author Malcolm Gladwell in his phenomenal bestseller on the topic.

In 2010, a group of British women decided to take 30% as the figure, “which is widely agreed to mark the stage at which a minority group stop representing it.

"They then start to be judged on their own merit,” says Colleen Larsen.

“In other words, that is when critical mass is reached and the views of that percentage have an impact on the board.”

Larsen is president of the 30% Club Southern Africa, which was launched here in 2014.

Since then membership of the club has increased from 10 to 28 companies, with another 40 expressing interest in it.


Business tip: Collaboration is key. You cannot do it on your own.

Mentor: All the chairmen and CEOs who support the 30% Club.

Inspiration: My mother, who never allowed any hardships to bring her or us children down.

Book: Biographies, particularly the ones on Ariana Huffington and Cherie Blair.

Wow! moment: When I realised that, in spite of my many obstacles, I was in the right place, doing the right thing.

Life lesson: We were not put on earth to fail. Find the necessary answers.

“The founders of the club realised that men play a critical role in driving change. They are often company CEOs and chairmen, so play a critical role in getting across the message of gender parity.”

In less than seven years the concept has swept the world, with countries ranging from the US to Australia, Canada, Malaysia and Ireland forming their own clubs.

One of the main activities of the 30% Club Southern Africa is The Board Walk – a networking breakfast of senior leaders within corporates, held every second month in Joburg and Cape Town.

People are selected to host a table and delegates move twice during an event, from one table to another, “learning practical tips from experienced board members”.

“Boards are always on the lookout for new, livewire candidates and this is where they can meet them,” says Larsen.

It was decided early on not to aim at making 30% a legal requirement, “nor to aim for 50% female representation on boards, because 50% could be a daunting target”.

She talks about research showing that women on boards improve a business’s bottom line, “and also that diverse teams produce better overall results.

“Teams made up solely of men are too competitive and, conversely, those with predominantly women are too collaborative.”

Larsen mentions examples of huge clothing retailers “who sell mainly to women, yet they do not have a single woman on their boards. They are lacking essential insights.”

The club’s goals have become a lot more achievable with the new JSE regulations that require listed companies to have gender policies.

She says it is not a good thing that women’s empowerment has been addressed as a women’s issue “driven by CSI programmes, and not as a business issue”.

Larsen points out that women need to become more proactive in marketing and branding themselves.

They should have higher social media profiles and join sites such as LinkedIn.

Larsen originally trained in sales, marketing and advertising before going into insurance.

Eventually she was offered AIG Insurance’s position as head of their direct marketing budget in 1990.

She left to start her own financial services company in 1997.

She realised one of the major disadvantages for women, particularly entrepreneurs, was a lack of financial literacy and access to finance.

Larsen and her husband started to run financial workshops over weekends and evenings at no charge.

It was during this time that she became the first chairperson of the South African Women Entrepreneurs Network, an initiative of the Department of Trade and Industry.

She became a representative on the steering committee for the International Labour Organisation’s Programme on Gender.

She launched Business Engage, a nonprofit organisation “at the forefront of strategic thinking on gender mainstreaming in the private sector”, in 2005.

During this time Larsen developed a passion for helping women climb “up the slippery [career] ladder”.

The dynamo also headed 85 Boards Southern Africa which is an international network of 28 000 trailblazing women.

No wonder then that the engaging prolific networker, organiser and visionary now heads up the 30% Club. Her energy alone should ensure the magical tipping point is reached.

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