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Businesswomen raring to go but not much room in the c-suite

Aug 23 2017 06:01
Kumeshnee West

New research shows that South African women may in fact be more ambitious than their male counterparts when it comes to their careers. Why then, are so few of them making it into the top jobs, asks Kumeshnee West. 

THE recent Bain & Company Report – Gender Disparity in South Africa May 2017 makes for some interesting reading. It shows that women are more ambitious than men in the workplace, with 58% wanting to take up senior management roles, compared to only 48% of men wanting to do so. At this level, the level of confidence of men and women is also reportedly the same.

Yet something happens to prevent these aspirations from turning into reality. There is only one woman listed in the Top 40 of JSE companies – ABSA Group CEO Maria Ramos. And the 2017 Grant Thornton International Business Women in Business report reveals that just 28% of senior management roles in SA are held by women.

Christelle Grohmann, director of advisory services at Grant Thornton, says that although the numbers are up from last year, the percentage has not increased beyond the 29% high that was noted in 2007 when the study was started.

She attributes this to companies not really being committed to developing strong female leaders. Not enough organisations offer flexible working conditions and have childcare options, which have been identified as critical solutions for working women.

My own research on women juggling management studies and life, carried out as part of my MBA thesis a few years ago, backs this up. Most of the women I interviewed spoke of the detailed arrangements that had to be made in terms of household duties – from teaching children to cook and showing siblings how to help each other with homework, to organising childcare and lifts for children who have to be fetched from school and taken to extramural activities.

Then there were the weekend plans that had to be changed and family duties with aged or ill parents that had to be taken up by other siblings. This can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. In the research, all participants reported feeling varying levels of guilt or shame, mostly relating to their relationships and how they felt they had to sacrifice on quality time with their loved ones to be able to study and work.

Double whammy of conflicting expectations

This guilt, it seems, is partly because of prevailing social norms and expectations of the role of women. A survey earlier this year from the Global Network for Advanced Management (GNAM), a network of 29 business schools around the world, found that women face a “double whammy” of conflicting expectations in the workplace.

On the one hand, being assertive and available to work around the clock are seen as highly desirable characteristics that influence promotion decisions; on the other, women are expected to be congenial and non-competitive and to shoulder the burden of childcare, and working all hours is frowned upon.

In fact, many women feel – paradoxically – that their employers will dislike them if they do not appear family-orientated while at the same time expecting them to spend all night working to ensure they get a promotion. This push-pull factor of conflicting expectations can be exhausting.

Some researchers point out that women are more prone to feelings of shame than men. One article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology states that women have a greater level of self-focus as well as self-awareness.

This has been linked to feelings of shame – in one experiment, female participants who had to complete a task that focused their attention inward reported feeling higher levels of shame compared to women who did not have to focus on themselves.

Feelings of guilt have also been linked to those of empathy, an emotion that is seen as a strong female quality, associated with kindness and caring. Ironically, these are characteristics that some have attributed to making women better leaders.  

One study, led by a Norgwegian Professor Øyvind L. Martinson, evaluated the personality and characteristics of 3 000 managers. He and his team found that women were better managers than men in almost all areas. Women scored higher in four of the five areas: initiative and clear communication, openness and ability to innovate, sociability and supportiveness and methodical management and goal setting.

Considering that women are driven to succeed and also make better leaders – why then, is it so hard for them to get into boardrooms and to the top floor corner office?

Grohmann says this is not a uniquely South African phenomenon – companies around the world have the same problem. In fact, South Africa is slightly ahead of the curve; the Grant Thornton report shows that globally just 25% of women are in senior management positions.

As Grohmann points out, there needs to be more action and less lip service from companies when it comes to gender equality. Structures need to be put in place to more effectively support women and active steps need to be taken regarding engaging with women about their positions and how they are advancing at work.

The GNAM study also suggests practical solutions from rewarding productivity, not hours worked in the office, encouraging flexi-time working, explicitly rewarding non-assertive leadership styles, and also allowing fathers who want to assume a greater childcare role the freedom to do so.

In addition, enabling women to undertake management studies has benefits not only for the individual but also for the company. Women who participate in management studies report increased feelings of confidence as well as achievement. They bring their new skills to the workplace and also feel greater engagement towards their employer – which results in higher productivity.

The evidence is out there: women are willing and able to take up more senior roles at work; the question really is whether businesses are as open as they claim to be when it comes to promoting women to senior management roles.

  • Kumeshnee West is the director of executive education at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business. Views expressed are her own.



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