AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

JOHANNESBURG - It’s twenty-three years into our democracy yet gender inequality and a lack of diversity continue to plague corporate South Africa, particularly in senior management.

Eye-opening statistics from Grant Thornton’s Women in Business report, released in March this year, showed that only 28% of senior management roles in South Africa are held by women - just two percent more than in 2004. The report also reveals that 31% of South African companies have no women in senior management positions at all. In a country that is so focused on transformation, these statistics are rather disturbing. 

 While we have very good legislation around employment equity, B-BBEE and gender equality, current penalties for non-compliance are just a slap on the wrist for many corporates. Could government be doing more from a monitoring point of view to hold corporate South Africa to account? Would using instruments such as restraint of trade, higher taxation and an increase in penalties nudge those who are reluctant to comply, to greater compliance? 

It is incumbent on corporate South Africa’s decision makers to ensure gender equality and diversity at leadership level. 

One company that is taking gender equality and diversity very seriously and is reaping the benefits thereof is Mondelez South Africa. It is one of the few companies in South Africa whose executive leadership team has 50% women representation, with five of the six women on the 12-member leadership team being black.
What has made all the difference at Mondelez South Africa is Managing Director Joost Vlaanderen’s leadership and genuine commitment to gender equality and diversity. Gender equality is a personal core value of Vlaanderen’s and because of this, it is felt and lived throughout the organisation. As a result, female employees at every level at Mondelez feel genuinely supported. They know that it’s okay to take care of business and family because that’s the message from the MD’s office. Women are encouraged to be their best and do their best at all times, without feeling like they have to compromise time spent with their families. 

South Africa needs more MDs like Vlaanderen. When selecting a new MD, companies should take into account their candidates’ core values, and ensure they appoint someone who is not just capable of improving the bottom line, but who also genuinely believes in gender equality and diversity. If leaders don’t see women as equals, there is little chance that they are going to transform their organisations. 

One often hears of women that have been overlooked for MD positions in South Africa, despite having the qualifications and the leadership qualities necessary. The same arguments are repeatedly heard around boardroom tables - that women lack experience, are not hard-enough negotiators and don’t take risks. But women do take risks.  Calculated risks.  Women generally invest time in exploring ways to deliver financial results with minimal effect to the livelihoods of their employees. They prefer human-centred approaches to leadership that result in employees feeling supported and engaged, rather than command/control leadership styles that often have the opposite effect. 

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange. File picture: Siphiwe Sibeko

Many companies in the fast-moving consumer goods industry are doing fantastic work around women in leadership, offering mentorship programmes and coaching specifically for women. Mondelez is one of them. In 2018 the company will be introducing a leadership development programme for talented individuals in the organisation, with a particular focus on women. And through the Mondelez International University, employees can enrol in online personal and professional development courses to further themselves. If women want to succeed in the corporate world, they must take the initiative and invest in their own development and their futures.  

Their success also depend very much on support from their partners and families. Executive work is extremely demanding, and where women don’t have good support structures at home like a supportive partner, family or even friends, their careers tend to suffer. Sadly many women have given up promising careers in corporate to take care of the family.  While there is nothing wrong with such choices, South Africa misses out on an opportunity to tap into the talents of women to build a stronger economy.

The role of men as breadwinners and women as homemakers and caregivers remains clearly defined in our society. If we want things to change we are going to have to consider relaxing gender roles and creating a society where it is socially acceptable for women to have careers and men to share the responsibility of taking care of the children while the woman works. 

For this to happen, we also need to start consciously raising boys differently for them to grow up knowing that both parties are equal partners in a home.
And to really level the playing field for women, more needs to be invested in education, particularly in the education of the girl child. Many young girls don’t have access to the same educational opportunities as boy children, particularly in rural areas. 

 We need to ensure that young girls take maths and science as subjects and finish school and have the opportunity to go to university to study towards careers in medicine, science, engineering, and technology. And young girls must be given an equal opportunity to become the future leaders of corporate South Africa and of our great nation. Our country will be better for it.   

In my journey through corporate South Africa, I have seen many women swallowing their voices in order to be accepted by the men they work with.  I do believe that all it takes to change the status quo is for women to find their collective voice and speak out against injustice and inequality.  

Some of my proudest achievements came to fruition when women came together and made things happen for the greater benefit of the organisation and the people who work for it.  Nothing sustainable was achieved when women were not part of the conversation and the decision-making.  This, in my view, is the competitive advantage of organisations that embrace gender equality and diversity in general, but particularly where decisions are made – at the top.

Cebile Xulu is Mondelez South Africa’s HR Director: South, Central and East Africa.

- BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE