In South Africa, the advancement of women is part of the democratisation of the country and gender equity is a significant force for directing attention to socioeconomic policies designed to meet human needs.

Yet even as the nation is involved annually with the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence to raise awareness about all forms of violence against women, the energy and attention given to Women’s Month each August and festivities associated with International Women’s Day on March 8, the struggle for gender equity is a worldwide effort highlighted month after month. These celebrations and milestones continuously draw attention to the claims of women for economic independence and political equality.

It is a pity that beyond the high-profile activities to advance gender equity, progress in bringing women into leadership and decision-making positions around the world remains far too slow. And when women do make it, there often remains an undercurrent sneering of hostility and a hint of sexism that somehow public leadership is still best left to men.

In South Africa, women make up 52 percent of the population, 41 percent of the working population yet only 14.7 percent of all executive managers and 7.1 percent of all directors in the country.

We remain a patriarchal society that still values clear-cut gender role differences. Men are the dominant sex and are expected to control the home with the husband culturally accepted as the ruler of family and regarded as the formal authority to which the wife and children must ultimately respond. These roles are extended to the work environment.

In many instances, the husband’s role is authoritarian and he assumes responsibility for maintaining the family structure by whatever means he feels are justified. The wife’s role is taking care of the family and remaining dependent on her husband to protect the family structure. This culture can be found in legislative structures, boardrooms and workplace floors. In short, we still value and respect patriarchy.

Nevertheless, in 18 years of democracy our country has made significant progress to advance women towards the achievement of legislated gender equality. So far, less than a third of MPs are women. Also women comprise 40 percent of national government ministers and deputy ministers.

As we celebrate gender equality and women empowerment as one of the cornerstones of democracy in South Africa, it is gratifying that our society is aware that without gender equality our maturing democracy could not achieve the desired results. As long as women remain side-lined in the economic and political mainstreaming, our country will struggle to achieve true economic and social freedom.

It is also gratifying when considering the fact that the UN has set a target of 30 percent of female legislators, that 20 countries including South Africa, have reached or exceeded that goal.

According to a UN study, countries that have achieved above 35 percent threshold of women legislators include Rwanda with 48.8 percent followed by Sweden at 45.3 percent, South Africa at 40 percent, Norway at 37.9 percent, Finland at 37.5 percent and Cuba and Spain at 36 percent each, while Costa Rica, Austria and Germany among others have 30 percent to 35 percent.

The UN study shows that the number of women presidents and prime ministers has increased during the past decade.

Several countries, including Liberia and Malawi, now have women as heads of state. Let us not forget New Zealand, Germany and several others.

The UN concludes that it would take women until 2040 to reach the quota of 30 percent in legislatures across the world.

So why is it that despite the progress we have made, women are considered less legitimate as leaders? Is it that we assume leadership is for men, and only exceptional women can compare with ordinary men in such roles? As I said earlier, the history of male domination is centuries old. Patriarchal and male power has shaped the construction of leadership, its culture, discourse, image and practice for centuries.

Deterrents to women’s advancement are many. They include perceptions of lack of general management and line experience, less exposure to assignments that involve risk and high visibility, difficulty in adapting to the corporate culture and lack of a clear career strategy. These are perceptions, not reality.

Gender stereotypes play an active role in prejudice and discrimination against women. According to traditional gender roles, men are seen as dominant, independent, competitive, capable of leadership and interested in business. On the other hand, women are seen as submissive, dependent, caring, good at domestic tasks and child rearing, less competent than men and unsuited for authority or leadership.

Other chauvinists believe the reasons why women do not move into the higher echelons of executive positions may also be related to pressures inherent in the job situation, including the pressures of the job itself such as long work hours, a frantic work pace, responsibilities, demands, and the burden of making important decisions, not forgetting the pressure of family obligations such as managing demands in life outside work, work-family dual roles, and work non-work role conflict.

But we all know that stereotypes die hard and that the economic, political and social empowerment of women offers the surest way to broader prosperity and social stability. Our continent, and indeed the whole world, cannot hope to escape its troubles until such time as women assume their proper role in society.

There are examples that women are capable leaders. Liberia has re-elected the first woman president in Africa, the Nobel Prize-winning, Harvard-educated and former UN executive Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She has now been joined by President Joyce Banda of Malawi, who has proved to be a strong and decisive leader.

Here at home there are capable women leaders. Who will forget the hard-fought election of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to the powerful role of the chairperson of the African Union Commission.

Women have great potential in the business and corporate environment as they possess natural soft skills such as emotional intelligence, multi-tasking, organisational proficiency and communication skills that are invaluable in the business world.

Unfortunately, there is not enough effort being exerted to fully develop the leadership potential of women, which is one of the reasons why there are very few women holding high-level positions in the corporate and political world.

Women leaders should raise the awareness on unequal distribution of opportunities and subsequently encourage business community and governments to offer appropriate training for the skills development and career advancement of women.

We must address the prevailing imbalance in terms of opportunities available to women to cultivate dynamism and generate greater activity in the investment sector. There is a need to implement various corporate initiatives such as change management, culture transformation, strategy execution through cross-functional teams, organisational design and organisational vision and mission.

Common attributes found in successful women development programmes include:

- Senior management engages in and is committed to planned women leadership development.

- Organisations invest time and money in developing and rewarding high-potential women talent.

- Women with leadership potential are identified and told they are chosen.

- High-potential individuals are offered challenging developmental job experiences, including job rotations, lateral moves, special projects, task forces or committee assignments that stretch their experiences.

- Mentors and coaches from the ranks of senior executives provide support.

- The process is systematic, offers rewards and becomes part of the organisational culture.

All sorts of discriminations being faced by women in every sphere of life must come to an end to pave the way for the smooth flourishing of women leadership at all levels. As the struggle for women advancement continues, women should remain united and create relations among themselves, improve their leadership quality, and acquire more knowledge and experience for ensuring women rights and their greater access to every sphere of the national life.

Liza van Wyk is the chief executive of AstroTech Training, a provider of leadership development training.